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Morality not the issue, politics is

December 15, 2006


WE need a renaissance in our collective lives. No doubt about it. We need to change our condition, break our begging bowls, especially ours in Pakistan which is made of iron. We need to stand up in dignity and become masters of our fate and destiny instead of wagging our tails at the behest or command of others.

All this is self-evident but the clergy has always confused the issue, concentrating on the peripheral and the inconsequential, instead of trying to understand the conditions leading to the enslavement of the Muslim mind.

The conquest of the mind always ensures a more complete subjugation. The Muslim world lost the capacity to think for itself a long time ago. Its physical occupation was then a mere formality.

There have been exceptions of course, in our case notably Iqbal, who tried to shake the world of Islam out of its torpor, but too few and far between to change the pattern of Islamic history.

As for Iqbal, what impact did he leave behind? To judge by the texture of Pakistani society and the ruling classes of Pakistan, very little. Nothing of Iqbal’s philosophy, his call to cast off the garments of servitude and the habit of borrowed thinking, is reflected in Pakistani reality.

Indeed, he spoke not only to the Musalmans of the sub-continent but to all its people. For did he not sing, ‘Saray jahan sey achha Hindostan hamara’? His central exhortation: be like the ‘shaheen’(the eagle). Crows and kites are to be found in abundance in our skies. Alas, not many eagles.

What length should be my beard, how high the hem of my shalwar from my ankles, where should my hands rest when in prayer, what sayeth the scriptures about marriage, adultery, etc? Down the ages such questions have agitated our divines, leading to the exalting of ritual, the apotheosis of literalism (I have to choose my words carefully) at the expense of substance and meaning.

And to hear the clergy talk of womanhood is to come away with the feeling that this is the last frontier, the ultimate temptation, the conquest of which alone can lead to salvation. Divinity’s finest creation, in its capacity to give birth and thus reproduce life mirroring the divine, reduced to the level of carnal temptation.

French troops under Napoleon’s command represented the first non-Islamic power to occupy an Arab land after the Crusades. That occupation was not long-lasting (although modern Egyptology as we know it owes a lot to the antiquarians and scholars who accompanied Napoleon’s army).

The Suez Canal was opened in 1869. By 1882 the British occupation of Egypt had begun. (In one guise or another it was to last until after the Second World War.) With the defeat of the Ottoman Empire in the First World War, the whole of the Arab world came under western (principally Anglo-French) domination.

None of these colonialists were at all bothered about how Muslims practised their faith, how many times they said their prayers, how many times they performed the Hajj, how punctilious they were in observing Islam’s other commandments. Indeed, on setting foot in Egypt, Napoleon proclaimed himself a defender of Islam.

An Islam preoccupied with ritual and superficial aspects of morality was no threat to anyone. Indeed, it was something to be welcomed and encouraged if it kept Muslims away from thinking dangerous thoughts about war, peace, imperialism and politics, questions that mattered to the imperialist powers.

Why wasn’t the West scared of Islam 50 years ago? Because Islam was quiescent and docile, nothing stirring its placid waters. During the Cold War it was a force on the side of the western powers in their struggle against communism. Why is it a threat now? Because in parts of the Muslim world Islam has turned ‘radical’.

These are distinctions beloved of all imperialists, Christian, Muslim or Mongol. If you collaborate with a dominant power you are ‘responsible’ and ‘moderate’. (If you are a Pakistani acolyte of Washington, you are an ‘enlightened moderate’.) If you question its domination/imperialism you are a ‘radical’.

On the United States, the imperial power of our times, the irony is lost that Islamic ‘radicalism’ has not grown in a void. It has come in response, and a belated one at that, to a century of subjection, exploitation and humiliation.

The Bush administration has acted as a catalyst, its rush to unthinking war and attendant folly hastening a process which otherwise might have taken another fifty years to accomplish.

It took the miseries of unbridled capitalism to lead to the rise of communism: a thesis inviting its antithesis. It had to take the hubris of Republican neo-conservatism to give Islamic ‘radicalism’ the push it has received.

What is different and threatening about ‘radical’ Islam? Its politics, its resistance to aggression, its lack of docility. Not its insistence on prayer, fasting, Hajj, etc.

All Muslims pray to the same God, all bow in the direction of Makkah all are keen to observe the Hajj if they can afford it. They have been doing these things since the beginning of their faith and will keep doing so until the end of time.

There is no dispute about these things, never was, never will be. It has always been the clergy confusing and distracting the people by raising a storm over obscure questions of ritual, faith and surface morality while keeping well away from fundamental questions relating to war and peace.

Take that conglomeration of divines collected in the Muttahida Majlis-i-Amal (MMA) which has given the nation a lesson like no other in the politics of hypocrisy, saying one thing, indeed saying it with all the conviction in the world, and then doing something completely different.

After the fizzling out of their resignation-from-the-assemblies threat, they have announced a new protest campaign: sounding the call to prayer, the azan, from mosque loudspeakers as if there is something novel about the call to prayer and as if this will bring down the government of General Pervez Musharraf.

That our maulvis are well nigh incorrigible is pretty widely accepted. Hand it to them also for being unfazed by ridicule.

And they presume to give the nation lessons in morality, on what is right and what is wrong. This is one set of physicians who would do better if they were to heal themselves first.

Leaving the larger world of Islam aside, in Pakistan we need a clearer perspective about what our real problems are. We are Muslims and shall remain so until the hosts rise from the dead and gather in the plains of Jericho (is it not?).

But how do we discover the holy grail of stability? How do we get our soldiers to stick to their line of work instead of meddling in other business? How do we raise the standard of national education, producing better students and better teachers? How do we bring healthcare to the masses? How do we strengthen that concept most Pakistanis find so hard to understand: the rule of law? How do we learn to stand on our own feet and think for ourselves?

Are we a nation of sinners? Of course we are. Born of flesh, we are prey to the temptations of the flesh, like any other people on earth. As the late Maulana Kausar Niazi once told me, we are a nation of sinful Muslims, devout as regards our faith, but leaving the straight and narrow (deviationists as a Leninist might put it) when it comes to temporal matters.

There is nothing strange about this. Our poets have sung of love and its perils as well if not more eloquently than poets of other climes.

In Britain there are the fleshpots of Soho (rather tawdry, I must add) and the halls of Cambridge and Oxford. The gaming tables of Las Vegas do not stop scholars from carrying on their work, some of it mind-boggling, in Harvard or Yale.

We neither have the fleshpots nor the research schools. Yet we howl about piety and deliverance more wretchedly than any other nation on earth. God help us. Our politics needs fixing, not our morality.