Personality cults have mostly remained a significant characteristic of totalitarian regimes. Ideas attributed to individuals are propagated with the intention of bringing about radical transformation in society.
Gradually, the ideas become subordinate to the individual; while his own role in society becomes all-important. He is worshipped as a hero and regarded as someone playing a significant role in creating history.
In our society, which is plagued by religious extremism, terrorism, lawlessness and disorder, intellectual groups and politicians rely on ‘personalities’ rather than ideas, concepts and thoughts to counter these issues. For example, some intellectuals believe that reviving the teachings of the Sufi saints, and dissemination and preaching of Sufi thought and poetry, could be used to weaken or even wipe out religious extremism from our society. Since you cannot revive the past, nor implement traditions and values of the times of yore, the idea may prove futile.
In the subcontinent, the Sufis emerged during the medieval period to support the Muslim rule by preaching religious tolerance among the Hindus and the Muslims. Later, Sufi shrines became the centre point for disciples and common people to gather and pay homage to Sufi saints; as well as pray for fulfilment of their wishes and desires. Based on the assumption that they inherit spiritual powers from their ancestors; the successors or sajjada nashin of the Sufi saints assumed a position of authority, became spiritual leaders and earned themselves a high status in the society.
Becoming political leaders, winning elections from their constituencies and getting into the parliament is not difficult for them as they have a secure vote bank in their disciples who vote for them irrespective of their ability or merit. If Sufi culture was revived, these individuals would be at a further advantage. Considering the above, will the revival of Sufi teachings really eliminate religious extremism from our society?
An analysis of the negative impact of religious prejudice and the positive influence of religious tolerance shows that a society with sectarian and religious conflicts suffers politically and socially. On the other hand, religious harmony creates peace and prosperity and all people are treated equally irrespective of their religion or sect. Religious tolerance should be propagated as an idea by itself without attributing it to the Sufis.
In a similar manner, certain liberal and leftists groups rely on Muhammad Ali Jinnah’s Aug 11 speech to convince people about the separation of religion and politics. Instead of using Jinnah to propagate the idea of secularism, it would be far more effective to use examples from history of how society has suffered immensely, whenever religion and politics were integrated together.
Let’s take the example of the American constitution. After much debate and argument, the founding fathers of the United States decided to separate religion from politics. The constitution of the French revolution also maintained the principle of secularism, while religion was regarded a private matter of an individual. This principle was followed in most European countries and as a result, their constitutions accommodate followers of different religions; allowing them to freely perform religious rites and rituals.
Of late, it has become a practice to hold a peace festival with a reference to Faiz — without doubt, Faiz’s poetry is inspiring and he has a place among the greatest of Urdu poets ever born. But instead of attributing the reference of peace to Faiz, it should be analysed in the context of horrific wars and bloody conflicts and how war destroys civilisation. Historically, bloody conflicts have disintegrated social order and deprived millions of people of peaceful lives. During peace, there is not only law and order, but the society contributes towards creativity and culture.
History is a useful tool to understand the problems in a society. Once, you trace the root cause of the problem, it is often possible to find its solution. Personality cults create a slavish, herd mentality and hinder progress. Generally, textbooks describe the achievements of individuals in different aspects of their lives. The idea is to inspire younger generations to emulate heroes but in reality, it throttles free thinking and encourages the young generation to blindly follow in the footsteps of their ancestors. The result is a stagnating society with no innovation.