24 September, 2014 / Ziqa'ad 28, 1435

Between a rock and a hard place

Published Jul 16, 2005 12:00am

OUR path from one self-created crisis to another is littered with expressions of outrage and exasperation from well-meaning journalists, human rights activists and plain, decent citizens.

Take the uproar over the Hasba bill in the North-West Frontier Province (NWFP) Assembly as an example. Given the comfortable majority the ruling coalition of clerics enjoys, it was fairly certain that the bill would soon become law — which it did on Thursday. The prospect of having an all-powerful religious enforcer in the shape of a mohtasib backed by a phalanx of religious police fills most people with horror.

Editorial writers, columnists and TV commentators have condemned this bill for being in conflict with the rights enshrined in the Constitution. They fear, for instance (and quite rightly, too), that the province will soon have Saudi- and Taliban-style “police for the enforcement of virtue and curtailment of vice” to impose a certain version of Sharia law.

As readers are aware, the Saudi religious police routinely beat up or jail anybody seen on the streets at prayer times, and cane women who are showing an inch or two of ankle. In a recent demonstration of religious fervour, they pushed back girls fleeing a blazing hostel into the flames because they were not adequately covered. Several girls died as a result.

When in power in Afghanistan, the Taliban went a step further, and decreed that men whose beards were not of a certain length would be punished. Their treatment of women aroused the anger of the civilized world. Not content with brutalizing the living, they destroyed ancient statues for not conforming to their code.

So understandably, many ordinary Pakistanis are horrified at the prospect of similar controls imposed on a province in Pakistan.

And yet, a little reflection will show that what is happening in the NWFP has a certain implacable logic to it. After all, the majority of the people of the province voted the MMA into power. And our Islamic parties have never made a secret of their agenda.

Just as anybody who had read Hitler’s Mein Kampf could not later say he had no idea what he was going to get when he voted the Nazis into power, our brethren in the NWFP have no reason to complain. They are getting what they voted for, no more and no less. Even allowing for the normal amount of rigging, the MMA does seem to command a genuine majority.

Even before this latest manifestation of religious zeal, we had witnessed a series of Talibanesque decisions emanating from Peshawar. Women patients requiring X-rays could not be scanned by male technicians; advertizing posters with women were banned; and video shops were shut down. All these draconian measures were enforced with varying degrees of enthusiasm by civil servants and policemen. Now these (and far fiercer) edicts will be rammed down the populace’s throats by an authority whose decisions cannot be challenged in any court.

In Nathiagali, I recently met an old friend who has served as a senior government officer in the NWFP for many years. According to him, the rule of the mullahs has been an unmitigated disaster for his province. No development activities are going on, corruption is rampant, and ordinary people are miserable. And yet, he continued, the MMA will probably get re-elected in the next polls because the opposition parties are in such disarray.

This brings us to the question of why people elect politicians and parties clearly unsuited to the task of providing good government. In this particular case, our clerics, whatever their expertise in their chosen field, are hardly trained in economics and administration. Yes, you can argue that more secular politicians and soldiers have hardly been exemplars of brilliant government. Nevertheless, mullahs have not been successful as managers in other Muslim countries as well. In oil-rich Iran, for example, mismanagement and corruption have caused widespread unemployment and misery.

Early on in his destructive rule, General Zia declared that henceforth, Pakistan would be “a laboratory of Islam”. In case he has an Internet connection in his bit of the nether regions, I would like the dead dictator to know that his laboratory has spawned a Frankenstein monster that is now threatening to devour us all. Although for him the exploitation of religion was largely a political ploy, the legacy he has left behind has devastated the country, pitting one sect against another, and one Pakistani against another.

But can we honestly put all our troubles at Zia’s door? In truth, he only used the men and material that were already at hand.

The mullahs’ anti-modernism, anti-secularism agenda had long been in place, with successive rulers caving in to their irrational demands. Zia merely accelerated this process. In Islamic history, there has long been a nexus between the clergy and illegitimate rulers. This proud tradition has been in evidence in Pakistani politics virtually since the country came into being.

Modernists maintain that the interpretation of Islam being upheld and enforced by the religious parties is far too literal and removed from the modern world. Here, they are playing to the mullahs’ strength because they can quote chapter and verse to prove that the words of God as expressed in the Holy Book are immutable and timeless. This debate has been conducted over the years, and there is little left to add to the arguments from both sides.

Ultimately, unswerving followers of any faith that demands greater focus on the spiritual than the temporal will end up between a rock and a hard place. In this case, the rock is the insistence of the mullahs that we follow their narrow interpretation of the holy texts, while the hard place is the pitiless requirement of the modern world to change with the times.

As we are discovering to our cost, this is not a comfortable place to be.


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