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The rule of the self-righteous

April 04, 2013

-Illustration by Faraz Aamer Khan/

There is only one name for what is currently happening in courtrooms across Pakistan: Inquisition. Call it a witch-hunt, if you wish to obfuscate and confound.  Even though ‘witch-hunt’, as a phrase and as a method of persecution and prosecution, has its origin in the Inquisition and the ensuing religious trials, centuries of historical dust has distanced it so much from its beginning that it now hardly ever evokes the developments that caused it in the first place a few centuries ago in parts of Europe and North America.

Going back to the Inquisition. That was one historical occasion when people were required to wear their religion on their sleeves – literally. Now is another. Imagine the trepidation of election candidates as they wait outside a courtroom before their candidature is to be scrutinised. They need to know religious texts by heart (possibly in the right accent and correct pronunciation); they should also hope that none among their constituents has any objection over their being truthful and trustworthy; and, as has proven to be the case with Pakistan’s internationally renowned columnist Ayaz Amir, nobody should have any complaints over what they have said or written in the past – forget about the constitutionally guaranteed right to freedom of expression. In the Inquisitions of the past, religious zealots branded women as witches and burnt them alive; in this current Inquisition, judges are publicly humiliating election candidates for not knowing their religion well and are subsequently disqualifying them left, right and centre. In the past, the clergy made the Jews wear clothes and badges to distinguish them from the rest of society; now, the media and the men in robes are singling out the wayward and the errant by forcing them to show their lack of religious information and declare their real or imagined sins in public.

While there are drastic practical implications – for candidates as well as voters – of this ‘merciless scrutiny’, as one election commission official put it recently,  the exercise also has a symbolic significance that goes far beyond one election and its results. For one, it is a continuation of the undying desire of dictators, judges, the media and religious reformers and puritans to clean the Augean stables of politics of criminals, scoundrels, liars, swindlers and the sinful liberal types. The dictators – from Ayub Khan to Ziaul Haq to Pervez Musharraf – are the original authors of such cleanliness drives. The first issued laws that banned a large number of people from taking part in politics for different, and often flimsy, reasons; the second introduced vague and subjective conditions for the qualification and disqualification of electoral candidates besides disbanding political parties and making an example out of many politicians and political workers for the great sin of being political rather than merely religious; the third used ‘accountability’ and made graduation mandatory, rendering more than 90 per cent of Pakistanis ineligible to contest an election. The great irony is that the same courts and judges which want politicians to start a trial of Musharraf are using his now legally extinct edict to beat down politicians – which does, however, explain how dictators and the courts share an unhealthy bias against politics and politicians.

On paper, scrutiny of candidates seems like a great exercise. After all, if you have a parliament comprising only of the faithful, the pious and the truthful, then the country is sure to steer down a path of piety and redemption. (Who said Pakistan was created to be prosperous and peaceful; the land of the pure, the citadel of religion is not meant to beat the rest of the world in material, worldly ways!) What is currently taking place is, essentially, a purge, in all senses of the word: get rid of a few bad eggs and the rest of the society will all be fine. But, in sheer practical and realistic terms, it tends to ignore one important point: In a society full of bad eggs, purges and cleanliness drives cannot, must not, start and stop with those who dare to contest elections. They need to go much beyond the legislature, to every tier and stratum of society, in order to be effective.

The consequences of selective purges, possibly a religiously correct term for the inquisition taking place in today’s Pakistan, are dire for Pakistan. Anyone questioning the role of religion and religion-inspired ideology as a cause for the problems of the country is a legitimate target for today’s Grand Inquisitors; and the barriers to entry into parliament and electoral politics have been raised so high in the name of rectitude and righteousness that a vast majority of Pakistanis are sure to remain outside the electoral field for fear of being subjected to moral and religious tests. With these purges, the Islamic republic – which already excludes and singles out its non-Muslim residents for negative treatment in many spheres of life – has definitely moved one step closer to becoming the republic of puritans and the self-righteous where being a member of the majority religious community alone will no longer be enough to enjoy the rights and privileges guaranteed by the Constitution. In such a restricted sense, the republic will degenerate into a religious autocracy where decisions about rights and responsibilities – or rights and wrongs – will be in the hands of a self-appointed minority.

Badar Alam is the editor of The Herald.