IT was a pronouncement that left many stunned. The Council of Islamic Ideology reportedly declared on Tuesday that laws barring child marriage in Pakistan were ‘un-Islamic’. This shocking statement overtook the declaration made on Monday by the Council’s chairman, Maulana Mohammad Khan Sheerani, that the current law requiring a man to seek written permission from his wife before contracting a second marriage should be amended. These statements speak volumes for the kind of issues that are on the ulema’s list of priorities, and the medieval mindset that dominates religious discourse in this country. Let us be clear: child marriage is a curse that robs children — especially the girl child — of their innocence and childhood. Such statements from clerics, even if they are made in an advisory, non-binding capacity, only work to reverse the human rights gains that have been made in Pakistan, and to alienate Pakistan in the comity of nations.

As it is, Pakistan is a highly unfriendly place for children. This is a society that tolerates child labour and violence against children, where youngsters are traded like chattel to settle disputes as part of tradition. In such a backdrop, the CII’s pronouncement sends all the wrong signals. In fact, the Council’s priorities are extremely muddled. Instead of working to promote enlightenment, it has only solidified the role of the regressive mindset. Why do the members of the CII, in fact most ulema, shy away from what should be focused on? Many of Pakistan’s current problems are rooted in society’s drift towards extremism, which has been aided by ultra-conservative clergymen. Yet the ulema seem less concerned about existential issues that confront Pakistan and problems that threaten to tear apart the social fabric. For example, the menace of terrorism is condemned only passively. Efforts have been made to address the scourge of sectarianism, including by the CII, but little has been done to carry the message of sectarian harmony to the mosque and madressah, and to rein in communal rabble-rousers. And while they are quick to weigh in on issues such as child marriage and multiple wives, clerics seldom forcefully condemn the dreadful treatment meted out to women and children in Pakistan, often in the name of ‘religion’ and ‘culture’.

The ‘advice’ offered by the CII to the government is best left ignored. As we have argued before, with an elected parliament in place, containing numerous shades of political thought including religious parties, to legislate and civil society to vet the legislation, the Council has little utility. If this is the level of its ‘advice’, it is best that the CII is disbanded. Meanwhile, as those who stand for human rights face off against the defenders of regression, the politicians must stand up and openly side with the forces in society working to promote progressive thought.

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