IT must have been around 1980 when my son Shakir visited me in Paris with his mother. I was doing a course in public finance on a French government scholarship for civil servants, and he was all of five.

After a morning of sightseeing with Shakir dangling on my shoulders, he announced that he was hungry. I set him down outside an outdoor café at the edge of the Centre Pompidou and asked what he wanted. Looking around, he pointed at a ham sandwich: “That”, he said in a tone that brooked no argument.

Gently, his mother explained that the meat in the sandwich was forbidden to Muslims. “What?” he exclaimed with horror and incomprehension. “You mean there are different gods here and back in Pakistan?”

This is a question I still haven’t been able to answer over the last four decades. And now, the conundrum has returned to trouble me again. In media reports published in Dawn and all across the world, the UAE has relaxed many of the social constraints that prevented its Muslim population from falling prey to un-Islamic temptations.

Saudi Arabia, too, is on the same path, with its de facto ruler, the heir apparent Prince Mohammed bin Salman, permitting women to drive, opening cinemas and permitting the two genders to work together. As my old friend Moni Mohsin would have said in her Diary of a Social Butterfly, “What cheeks!”

But the UAE has gone even further by allowing unmarried couples to cohabit, letting Muslims drink, and taking so-called honour killing off the menu.

Mullahs have exploited our ignorance

Apparently, these changes have all been made in order to increase tourism and foreign investment.

So where does this leave Pakistan? Don’t we want to see our tourism and foreign investment grow? Or, as Shakir asked, do we have different gods? As we have seen during Imran Khan’s tenure thus far, neither tourists nor foreign investors have exactly broken down the door to come to Pakistan.

It is clear that we march to the beat of a different drummer. For us, the world can go to hell in a hand-basket as long as our mediaeval practices don’t change. We can consume as much dope as we want, beat our wives, starve our children, rob and kill as long as we observe our ignorant grasp of Islamic laws.

Never mind that in Islam women are protected; and as far as I know, there’s no ban on cinemas, music or sports. Mullahs have exploited our ignorance of Arabic to block all fun-loving activities. Finally, Arab rulers have decided that enough is enough, and it’s time to move on.

It’s clear that the leaders of the UAE and Saudi Arabia have been influenced by Trump and his son, as well as the prospects of enhanced trade and tourism exchanges with Israel. Israeli tourists are generally well off, and the country’s high-tech industries can transform economies. And of course, their arms technology is well known.

But these two countries aren’t the only ones to jump off the extremist bandwagon. Turkey has been a secular state for a century. In Morocco, Tunis, Egypt, Malaysia and Indonesia, you could get a drink without a fuss for decades. You still can.

Pakistan and Afghanistan remain the outliers. After Bhutto imposed prohibition in 1977 to counter the right-wing alliance, he regretted his decision in his brief death cell account If I Am Assassinated. Afghanistan was a happy destination for hippies until the coup in the mid-1970s and the following civil war that is still being fought.

So what drives these tribal practices? Obviously, tribalism has long dominated European, African and Asian societies, and their rules — evolved over the millennia — have come to play a major role in determining the direction of society and the economy. But with time, technology and the shifts in power from rural to urban centres have changed the status quo. Feudalism has given way to corporate clout. In backward countries like Pakistan, feudalism still rules the roost.

And yet, survey after survey shows us that Pakistanis, young and old, hold deep religious beliefs. But that’s not the point. Millions of Muslims around the world are extremely religious, but that doesn’t stop them from having a drink at weddings.

Now, I’m not advocating drinking at all. I’m just suggesting that people should be free to choose. This is what the UAE has just done.

There are many among the clergy who love to impose their will on the rest of us, and this is what I oppose. By the same token, women must be allowed the freedom to choose their life partners, and not be subjected to their parents’ will in the matter. Marriage ought to be a happy occasion, and not a time for fear and violence.

Occasionally, marriages don’t work out, and that’s just too bad. Why should parents take on the responsibility for divorce?

irfan.husain@gmail.com

Published in Dawn, November 14th, 2020

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