I, however, wonder when was Islam or Shariah against educating girls? When did Islam sanction murdering children for any crime? Why is my understanding and practice of Islam diametrically opposed from that of the Taliban? And why do I feel intimidated as I raise these questions?
The debate about Islam and Muslims has almost disappeared from Muslim societies out of the fear of being targeted by extremists. The secret police in Iran and Saudi Arabia, the armed thugs belonging to religious parties in Egypt and the rest of the Middle East, and the Taliban and their allies in Afghanistan and Pakistan have used violence and intimidation to stifle the discourse on how Muslims should interpret and practice their religion. Suddenly, the last word on Islam in Muslim societies belongs to the man carrying the biggest gun. This leaves no room for intellect to interject on matters of faith.
And while the Taliban may be singled out for holding the most extremist interpretations of Islam, the overwhelming majority of Muslims in Pakistan may not be far off in their understanding of the religion. The Pew Research Center data collected in 2010 revealed that over 85 per cent of those with Grade 13 or higher education in Pakistan favoured segregating men and women at the workplace. These views are often justified in the name of Islam and they predate the Taliban, who came to life only in the mid 90s.
The systematic perversion of Islam at the hands of semi-literate armed men has been going on in Pakistan and other places for decades. I recall attending a lecture by Asma Jahangir in the late 80s (it could be the early 90s) at Peshawar University in which she mentioned how even the Hadiths written on the boundary walls of mosques in Bannu were not spared edits by the ‘religious scholars’ who omitted ‘women’ from the Hadith that encouraged all Muslim men and women to seek knowledge.
But Bannu is not the only place where religion suffers at the hands of those who act as its ambassadors. Over the years, the middleman (the mullah) between the man and his faith has become stronger than the faith itself. From a very young age, we are taught to surrender not just to Allah, but to the authority of the stick-wielding middleman.
Naseeruddin Shah, the legendary Indian actor and director, a few weeks ago shared his struggles with religious beliefs in a conversation with an audience in Toronto. He remembered being five and having to learn the Quran from a stick-wielding ‘maulvi sahab’, the middleman! Even a young child’s introduction to the noble Quran is often at the hands of a man carrying a stick, which he uses at his discretion. Were we supposed to be beaten into learning Quran?
Irrespective of the academic and career choices we make or our outward appearances that may present us as “westernised”, religion remains buried deep in our psyche. A discretely delivered prayer while being seated on a hospital bench or one attended as part of a large congregation are manifestations of our religious beliefs and practices. We continue to wonder about us being mortals and are perturbed whenever tyranny and barbarism is justified in the name of Islam.
When Naseeruddin Shah was asked to pick the most memorable role of his career, he picked Khuda Kay Liye where he acted as a religious scholar explaining in a courtroom the tolerant side of Islam. He mentioned that playing the role helped him answer his own questions about faith and belief.
My former editor at The News in Islamabad had similar strives with faith. She once wondered why the religion she grew up with failed to grow with her? Why is it that religion appears to be at odds with other knowledge? Is it the religion that fails to keep up with our intellectual growth or is it the middleman between us and the faith who is unable to improve upon the message as we mature from being just five-years-old? Could it be true that those who have become the brand ambassadors of religion in Muslim countries, i.e., the militants and mullahs, do not have the intellectual capacity to appreciate religion beyond rituals.
The revenge of the Philistines
Religion in Pakistan is predominantly in the hands of semi-literate men who were unable to receive regular education mostly because of economic hardships. Some could not attend schools because of poverty and others left schools because they were ill-suited to study Chemistry, Physics, and Biology. They were shipped to madrassahs. Similarly, those who were unable to proceed beyond grade 12 in the regular school system were often sent to the military. The rank and file of the Taliban is even less exposed to the regular school system.
The mullahs, military and militants today control the streets and mosques of Pakistan. Their anger could very well be an outcome of the failed education system that does not value improving retention rates and hence made little, if any, attempt to have them last in the regular school systems. No wonder, a favourite pastime of the Pakistani Taliban involve blowing up schools. Had they attended schools, they’d have shown more compassion.