Falling in love is no crime. But those who do, often pay the price in Pakistan; some with their lives.
Yousuf, the protagonist in the TV soap Mera Naam Yousuf Hai, falls in love with Zulaikha and is tortured by the police at the behest of Zulaikha’s father. The account is fictional, but the story is real for many who have been thrashed by the police or others for the cardinal sin (not crime) of falling in love.
The TV soap identifies two fundamental wrongs in most Muslim-majority societies:
First, local customs are still the basis of many taboos in the society that are presented as sins. Falling in love is one example. Islam does not prohibit it, but the society treats it as sin.
Second, not all sins are crimes, and it is not up to the police to interpret sins as crimes.
Earlier this week, Hassan Rouhani, Iran’s President, had asked the police to confine their activities to their specified roles, and not assume the clergy’s role of interpreting Islam. President Rouhani is concerned that the arbitrary interpretation of Islam and its enforcement by the police would lead to chaos.
“If we tell them [the police] you are the seminary and you can also interpret Islam, there would be chaos,” he warned.
President Rouhani’s attempt to limit the role of the police and vigilantes in Iran is nothing short of a sea change.
The police and the members of the Basij (volunteer religious police) in Iran often transcend their designated roles. They try to interpret and enforce Islam as they see fit.
I witnessed this abuse of power firsthand, in 1992. Sitting in a park in Mashhad, I could hear the Basij using loudspeakers to publicly shame parents whose daughters’ hijab did not meet the Basij standards.
There is a Basij in every Muslim-majority country, albeit with a different name and scope.
Pakistan does not have an official Basij, but the Jamaat-e-Islami, its student wing, and other similar religious outfits act as moral police and brutally force their religious biases onto others.
In January 2014, for instance, members of the Islami Jamiat-e-Talaba (IJT) tortured a male student for sitting next to a female student outside of the vice chancellor’s office. The IJT affiliates beat the male student and humiliated him further by forcing him to march through the campus. This happened in front of the campus security who did not try to protect the life and property of students. The security personnel were perhaps concerned for their own safety, or maybe they shared the moral inclining of the IJT vigilantes.
The victim later explained to a reporter that the IJT activists beat him because they believed male and female students should remain segregated at the Punjab University.
Because the IJT believes such co-mingling of men and women is prohibited in Islam.
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Moral policing is partly a structural flaw
Such violent acts are common at most public-sector universities in Pakistan. However, it is not the same at private-sector universities, where male and female students study together. Why the difference between public and private sector universities, you may ask.
First, the private-sector universities, unlike the public-sector universities, do not have politically driven admission quotas that let academically undeserving students to enroll. This prevents the undeserving IJT sympathisers from enrolling in the private-sector universities.
Second, the private-sector universities expel students for violation of the student code of ethics. Public-sector universities failed to expel even those students who beat up professors.
Third, learning takes precedence over the public manifestation of one’s religious beliefs at the private sector universities.
If read carefully, it is obvious that the Iranian President is treading prudently on the path to add distance between organised religion and the nation state. He is highlighting the difference between explaining religious dictates and interpreting and enforcing them.
“All teachers in schools, universities and of course, in the seminaries whose mission is to understand better and express religion,” he explained but warned “you cannot just tell anyone … (to) interpret” Islam.
When the line that differentiates sin and crime disappears in a society, chaos ensues.
Examples of this are common in Pakistan. Mobs of believers attack with impunity those who did not fast during Ramazan. In fact, innocent people have been murdered by enraged mobs because some believed Ramazan to be over a day sooner than the rest.
Also see: Thou shalt not eat because I fast
Imagine if the same vigilante justice becomes the norm and people are beaten because they did not pray at a mosque or the mosque approved by the vigilantes. In fact, this is already taking place in the lands controlled by Muslim militias in Syria, Iraq, Yemen, and Afghanistan.
Pierre Trudeau, Canada’s former prime minister, articulated the need to distinguish crime and sin:
“What is considered sinful in one of the great religions to which citizens belong isn’t necessarily sinful in the others. [The] Criminal law therefore cannot be based on the notion of sin; it is crimes that it must define,” he eloquently argued.
Years later, similar voices are emerging from the Muslim world; we need to hear more of the same.