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IT would seem that regardless of the number of years that have elapsed since the dark shadow of Gen Ziaul Haq’s orthodox version of religion was first cast over the country, the legacy of the military dictator simply refuses to go away. Indeed, in many cases the mindset of religious obscurantism and self-righteousness was translated into hard and unfortunate policy which to this day continues to dominate many of our actions as a nation. What else are we to read into the reports that candidates hopeful of a seat in parliament are being subjected to cross-examination related to their knowledge of Islam? Leave aside for a moment the fact that questions based on religion are hardly an assessment of the decision-making abilities of the people’s future representatives. Focus instead on the distasteful exercise of judging a person’s piety — and it would seem that the underlying assumption is that only the overtly religious ought to run for office, and that the good character of a person is demonstrable not by his record of financial probity or integrity but by his knowledge of faith.

It is shocking that the Election Commission of Pakistan has unnecessarily cited constitutional requirements for such an exercise — requirements that apart from being debatable in themselves, should be invoked, if at all, only when a contender’s integrity is challenged by a rival. Even in this case, such requirements carry the risk of making a farce out of the electoral process by going into ever finer detail of who is or is not a practising Muslim. The controversial Article 62(e), which requires that a member of parliament have “adequate knowledge of Islamic teachings and practises obligatory duties”, has remained on the books. And the question to ask is, why despite the many constitutional amendments in the last five years, this clause has been retained, even if for reasons of political expediency. Has Pakistan given up even the pretence of aspiring to be a pluralistic society?

The upcoming elections are crucial to the country’s future in more ways than one. It is vital that all actors, from the ECP to the political parties to the caretaker set-ups and all other stakeholders cooperate with each other in the build-up to the polls. The thorough scrutiny of election candidates is an exercise that must be undertaken in an impartial manner if Pakistan is to have legislators with integrity. But questionable practices must not be injected  into the process.