A protest by the transgender community in Karachi | AFP
A protest by the transgender community in Karachi | AFP

“Only free conduct is moral conduct. By negating freedom, and thus the possibility of choice, a dictatorship contains in its premises the negation of morality. To that extent, regardless of all historical apparitions, dictatorship and religion are mutually exclusive.” — Alija Izetbegović, former president of Bosnia and Herzegovina and Islamic philosopher

The Transgender Persons (Protection of Rights) Act, 2018 was passed in 2018. In 2022, it has been declared ‘unIslamic’ by a specific segment of the society. In response to malicious social media campaigns, the state authorities have sheepishly assured religious parties of prompt amendments to make the Act ‘Islamic’. It is, therefore, important to look at the reasons behind the seemingly widespread disapproval of the act.

Why did religious parties disapprove the Transgender Persons Act? Is it an entirely religious matter? Who benefits from the current debate over the act? The larger political context around the issue might help make sense of the complex interplay of politics and religion in contemporary Pakistan.

Although there has been a deliberate effort to link this act with the promotion and legalisation of homosexuality in Pakistan, the problem lies somewhere else. Religious parties have clarified that the entire act is not a bad law, but that a specific clause is quite problematic in their eyes.

One of the most effective political strategies employed by autocrats has been to keep large segments of society disempowered through religious means. What does the recent debate over the Transgender Persons Act tell us about the complex interplay of politics and religion in Pakistan?

The problematic clause reads as follows: “Every transgender person, being the citizen of Pakistan, who has attained the age of eighteen years shall have the right to get himself or herself registered according to self-perceived gender identity with the National Database and Registration Authority (NADRA) on the Computerised National Identity Card (CNIC), Child Registration Certificate (CRC), driving license and passport, in accordance with the provisions of the Nadra Ordinance, 2000 or any other relevant laws.”

In other words, the Jamaat-i-Islami and the Jamiat Ulema-i-Islam-F have made it clear that they have serious disagreements with the ‘self-perceived gender identity’ part of the act. Why do transgender persons have the right to determine their identity?

The opposition to this act should not be surprising. It is the continuation of religious orthodoxy by other means. Earlier, it was about who can and cannot be a Muslim, then women marchers were in trouble when they said ‘My body, my choice’, and now transgender persons are facing Islamists. Those who now oppose the act have, like their predecessors, the same points of contention: how come people can have the right to declare themselves Muslims? How dare women with their heads uncovered claim the right to their bodies? Who dares to give the right to self-determination of identity to transgender persons?

The popular opinion is that all these ‘important and sensitive’ questions are to be decided by the ulema, the self-proclaimed repository of infallible wisdom. Thus, any attempt to make laws to empower women, protect minorities from the misuse of blasphemy laws, or give rights to transgender persons without prior approval from the ulema will lead to chaos.

Amidst this chaos, there are campaigns on social media and in the streets of Pakistan to defend Islam. My American friends are always intrigued to ask how come Islam in the only Muslim nuclear state with more than 96 percent Muslim population can be threatened. For us, however, this is nothing surprising; Muslim vanguards have always defended an interpretation of Islam that best serves their interests.

Historical Examples

The practice of not giving agency to women, transgender persons or even other fellow Muslims has existed in Muslim history for a long time. Initially, there was a debate about whether humans are created with free will or whether their fates have been predestined.

The Umayyads were the first strong supporters of Compulsionism, who imposed it as a “state-sponsored orthodoxy”. Scholars like Ghaylan al-Dimashqi who dared challenge this orthodoxy were brutally executed. Turkish writer Mustafa Akyol explains in Reopening Muslim Minds: A Return to Reason, Freedom, and Tolerance why Umayyads needed to promote Compulsionism. As a result of their “corruption, nepotism, hubris and Arab supremacism, Umayyads made many enemies … [to counter it] they needed all the support they could enlist — and there was no better supporter than God.”

Akyol rightly argues that, “In contrast to predestination, belief in free will led to the questioning of political authority.” Later on, several Muslim rulers who opposed the fact that humans have free will and exercise it to question political authority found God as a powerful supporter to justify and defend their illegitimate rules. The history of Islam confirms that the debate between the champions of predestination and the defenders of free will is, and always has been, a political one.

One of the most effective political strategies employed by autocrats has been to keep large segments of society disempowered through religious means. For instance, it was a political decision, albeit grounded in theology, to oppose the printing press during the Ottoman rule.

Muslim societies delayed the establishment of the printing press for three centuries. By 1500, there were 10,000 to 15,000 books produced by European presses and an estimated 15 to 20 million copies of books. Muslim societies, meanwhile, were busy determining whether or not the printing press was Islamic.

Ahmet T. Kuru writes in his book Islam, Authoritarianism, and Underdevelopment: A Global and Historical Comparison, “The real reason for the Ottomans’ delay in establishing a printing press was the ulemas’ opposition, which was rooted in their desire to preserve their monopoly over education and scholarship.” In the same book, Kuru presents his ulema-state alliance theory, which explains the rise of authoritarianism and underdevelopment in Muslim-majority countries.

In Pakistan, recently, the Punjab Curriculum and Textbook Board (PCTB) formed a committee of the Muttahida Ulema Board (MUB) “to review every book, including those of science and mathematics.” The MUB members recommended the board to exclude words such as “interest” and “mark-up” from the mathematics textbooks. Some of them also issued directions that “diagrams or sketches in the biology textbooks showing human figures ‘sans clothes’ should not be printed which could otherwise exacerbate ‘immorality in the educational field’.”

Similarly, in 2016, the Council of Islamic Ideology (CII) proposed an esoteric ‘model’ women’s protection bill, which allowed a husband to “lightly” beat his wife “if needed” and prohibited the mixing of the genders in schools, hospitals and offices. What must concern us is not our ulemas’ mediaeval understanding of the world, but their monopoly over state institutions, ie, education.

The opposition to the Transgender Persons Act neither stems from hatred for transgender persons nor core Islamic principles, but from a political power standpoint. The idea of giving agency to individuals will make them question the authority of the state as well as the ulema.

For the religious class to seek unconditional support to maintain its supremacy, it is imperative to have a submissive community, completely devoid of agency, of ‘faithful’ believers. This is also a reason why traditional and some non-traditional modes of teaching in Muslim-majority countries place extra focus on respect to authority. The underlying objective is to obscure an expected and desired ‘Islamic Enlightenment’.

For instance, Kuru explains in his book that, in Europe, the role of the printing press was significant in the creation and dissemination of ideas which ultimately laid the foundation of a new world. He writes: “Printing presses also contributed to the Protestant Reformation by disseminating texts criticising the Catholic Church. The scientific revolution produced new knowledge and perspectives on the human body and nature, and challenged established Aristotelian and Catholic notions.”

Producing hollow men or zombies creates an unhealthy society by making it less developed and more violent. John Stuart Mill famously said: “A state which dwarfs its men, in order that they may be more docile instruments in its hands even for beneficial purposes — will find that with small men no great thing can really be accomplished.”

The Government of Pakistan has already announced an amendment to The Transgender Persons (Protection of Rights) Act, 2018, which means the said clause will probably be deleted from the act. However, this new law has provided us with some interesting takeaways.

First, it is not the law that can change our complex politics, which sometimes stem from religious orthodoxy. Second, the denial of agency to individuals is a bigger theological and political challenge than a legal one. A set of legal changes will not address the underlying cause behind the consistent opposition to individual rights.

To counter it effectively, the monopoly of ulema over education and scholarship has to be challenged by a vibrant civil society and public intellectuals. It implies that the revolution against religious orthodoxy has to begin from the universities of Pakistan, and not from the floor of the Parliament.

The writer is Presidential Graduate Research Fellow at San Diego State University in the US

Published in Dawn, EOS, October 9th, 2022

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