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Moon sighters

May 23, 2017


WE are entering the annual season when it becomes a frenzied national aim to ensure that the whole nation of faithfuls from Khyber Pakhtunkhwa to Karachi observes Ramazan’s start and Eid on the same days. Pakistani ‘patriots’ lament the chaos around moon sightings and sigh wistfully that we should at least all observe Eid together, being one nation. This issue is fast becoming a litmus test of the strength of our nationhood.

But an obscure KP cleric by the most delightful name of Maulana Popalzai has been an impediment to national unity for years by having many in KP and Fata observe both events ahead of us and together with their Afghan cousins.

In fact, this is an ancient KP/Fata tradition. But these cross-border cultural links at the expense of national ones infuriate ‘patriots’. Afghanistan, of course, is that ‘pesky’ neighbour of ours, which despite being Muslim, had the gall to alone oppose Pakistan’s UN entry. It also rejects the Durand Line. We had also seen a Pakhtun rebellion decades ago. So, the thought of Pakhtuns sharing cultural events across the border give goose pimples to security freaks. We may soon even see tweets from the ISPR branding different Eids a national security breach. Exaggerated versions of the two-nation theory, which place our multi-cultural society at par with homogeneous ones like Japan, politicise cultural events too. So, misguided fears, patriotism, and the desire for order combine to politicise moon sightings annually.

Why is it so essential for our sense of nationhood for everyone to celebrate Eid together? It is as if the whole nation gathers in one large ground to do so, mixing freely across class, caste and ethnicity. Eid is celebrated with close ones. Why does the thought of faraway people celebrating it separately spoil Eid fun in Isloo and Lahore? We don’t give full rights to Fata people but still tell them when they can celebrate Eid.

The state must not dictate on harmless cultural variations.

Border Pakhtuns are not alone in bucking national ranks on cultural events. A small sect observes Eid together with its spiritual leader based in a very hostile neighbour. A large sect observes Eid Miladun Nabi on a different date, together with a mildly hostile neighbor. We are just not cohesive like Japan and creating cohesion artificially only backfires.

There is nothing wrong with encouraging common cultural events, but through ‘carrots’, not ‘sticks’. Making people feel unpatriotic for not joining the national bandwagon is wrong, as is bureaucratising and criminalising such issues. So, the religious affairs ministry is preparing a bill which will slap fines on anyone announcing moon sightings before the Ruet-i-Hilal Committee. The committee’s decision must be known early to those following it. But to criminalise alternative decisions is wrong. Doing so in the name of nationhood actually reflects our doubts about its strength. Eid is not about national ego but personal rights. The state must not dictate on harmless cultural variations.

But not just conservatives, many liberals have also joined the bandwagon. Some techno-liberals argue for abandoning moon sighting altogether as an outdated cultural norm since science can better predict moon paths well into the future. Where old cultural norms cause serious harm, I am all for replacing them with scientific norms, eg polio drops. But beyond that, I have my concerns. Humans are not Spock-like but emotional beings. Cultural norms often seem idiosyncratic viewed scientifically but there is also much harmless charm about many such norms. Chand raat is one such rich cultural festivity and in fact one of the few fun things left that have not been branded un-Islamic yet. But what has escaped religious sanction now faces scientific sanction.

At risk is much cultural edifice built around chand raat. Some of Ghalib’s best poetry involves comparing elusive sightings of his beloved with those of the Eid new moon. The cultural clothes, mehndi and bangles that appear and the last-minute frenzied buying that occurs after the new moon is out are vintage chand raat stuff. Deprived of other avenues by society, young men and women in congested localities often get to see each other, exchange shy, furtive glances and fall in love while spotting the new moon on rooftops. Fasting can be tough on observers, especially in the summer and on children, and they eagerly hope in suspense that the last fast is over. Fasting can also be tough on non-observers like me who anxiously wait for the reopening of eateries and of course Eid. Much of this suspense and fun will be lost slowly with scientific prediction.

I hope the whole nation celebrates Eid together this year. But if some decide differently, let others respect their decision and enjoy Eid without fretting about weak nationhood.

The writer heads INSPIRING Pakistan, a progressive policy unit and is a senior fellow with UC Berkeley.

Published in Dawn, May 23rd, 2017