I have been lucky to be a witness to a number of major events in the politics of Pakistan, first as the son of a journalist, then as a student activist and finally as a journalist myself.
Even though the memory of witnessing many of these events remains as fresh in my mind as ever, I must confess it is the recollection of certain minor episodes along the way which, I believe, has helped me understand the many turning points in the larger scheme of things in Pakistan.
I have never been a very religious person. But I’ve always been a firm believer. And ironically, over the decades as the intellectual credence and credibility of secularism has continued to grow in my eyes (now more than ever), so has my fascination with religion, especially with the way it is indulged in by my fellow countrymen and women, or for that matter, by me.
I was a child of the 1970s, an era in the sociology of Pakistan that began to seem rather alien when I entered my teens in the 1980s.
One of the major triggers in this respect was, of course, the mushrooming of exhibitionistic religiosity, preliminarily initiated by the state, and then eventually undertaken by large sections of the society as a whole.
I see this process as a kind of self-hypnosis, partaken to not only project religious exhibitionism as some sort of a reflection to define (or redefine) one’s identity as a Pakistani or Muslim, but also (on a more cynical level), understand it as something that attracts economic and political benefits.
_____________________Before the deluge
As I mentioned earlier, my childhood memories of a more tolerant Pakistan in the 1970s now seem squarely alien to the Pakistan I entered as a teen in the 1980s and to the Pakistan I live in today.
One such memory has me accompanying my father and grandfather for Eid prayers on Eidul Azha (‘Bakra Eid’) to a local mosque in our ancestral village in the Attock district in North Punjab.
I don’t remember the exact year (I think it was 1974), but I do remember it was a hot morning.
The mosque was small and just outside it was a dozen or so goats and sheep that were to be sacrificed after the prayers.
Usually, Eidul Azha prayers are of a short duration so that the men can go back home and make preparations for sacrificing their goats, sheep or camels in the way of God and distribute portions of the resultant meat among the poor.
But the molvie of this particular mosque just went on and on. My father later told me that the molvie was actually angry at the people of the village who kept cracking jokes about him.
Cracking jokes about molvies, especially about their figurative liking for sweetmeat and marrying more than once, were almost like a tradition in Pakistan.
Molvie jokes are still common, but in 1980 reactionary military dictator, General Ziaul Haq, actually tried to address this ‘serious and grave concern.’
His information ministry fired an ‘advise’ to the state media (PTV, Pakistan Radio) that molvies were not be made fun of anymore. Also, they were to be called ‘ulema’ (religious scholars) instead of mullahs.
Anyway, this molvie at that small mosque in Attock in 1974 just went on and on. A point came when the men began to sweat profusely and waited patiently for him to recite the words signaling that they could all bend and go down on their knees as prescribed by the sunnah.
But this just wasn’t happening … until one of the goats tied outside the mosque baa-ed. And lo and behold! At the sound of the baa, each and every man in the mosque, except the molvie, went straight down!
All I remember was seeing the men first blushing, then getting back up and eventually beginning to giggle like little children.
So what happened next? Nothing.
The molvie didn’t get the goat killed (it was to be scarified anyway), and nor was the goat’s owner admonished (or burned by a mob).
The men just laughed about it and went home. End of story.
_____________________Change changing places
To me, if one is to pick a year from where Pakistan’s political and cultural slide towards a curious faith-based neurosis (and ultimately a socio-political nervous breakdown) began, that year is bound to be 1979.
A number of some interesting political events of that year can be elaborated to back the claim, but here I shall relate another more minor and personal memory.
Like a majority of Pakistanis, till the early 1980s, much of the Paracha clan that I belong to were adherents of what is loosely called the ‘Barelvi school of Islam.’
It is an indigenous, 200-year-old strain of the faith exclusive to the Indian subcontinent.
It emerged sometime in the 19th century as a reaction against various Islamic reformist movements in the region after the fall of the Muslim empire in India and the arrival of British imperialism.