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The rule of the self-righteous


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-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. 

Comments (41) Closed

Capt C M Khan Apr 04, 2013 07:18pm
Badar Saheb, excellent wrteup, what you wrote makes sense. I was about to skip it but, it was good I read it. Thanks to Dawn as well.
khalidmurad1 Apr 04, 2013 07:48pm
In fact this whole system of democracy is a fraudulent system. All over the world, particularly in the East and categorically in Pakistan this Democracy has legalized all shady character people as the ruling elite of the country. Imagine a guitarist was ruling Great Britain, on the other side a Premier of France was alleged to be involved in illicit relation with his lady secretary. In Pakistan we had Mr.10% as our President, one Premier accused of Drug selling and plundering of pilgrims and the other has been convicted in fraud worth billions and was ordered to be arrested by the courts. For 5 years, more than 80% members of legislative assemblies framed country law with their fraudulent degrees, i.e, defrauding the whole Pakistani nation. Long back a democrat swarmed the country with Communist Democracy and devastated the complete National Industrial Structure, Educational Structure and Economic Bases, with his crooked Nationalization policy, which was developed by a so called "Dictator". Some cheats defrauded and swindled national wealth in the name of "Mulk Sawanro" and confiscation of "Dollar Accounts". It is high time that we get rid of this fraudulent system and adopt National Executive Council, resembling the old Caliphate System or Chinese Pattern of Governance. People are fed up of this drama of elections for the sale purchase of votes and constituencies for gaining power and authority to swindle and plunder the left overs. Your Democracy is the biggest Hyppocracy.
Naeem Apr 04, 2013 07:50pm
We should let the voters decide who they want to elect. The election judges are going way beyond their responsibilities in determining who is religiously correct. Democracy will fail if the election judges get their way.
Arslan Khan Apr 04, 2013 07:58pm
Religious monstrosity is causing unimaginable damage to poor pakistanis (average layman). In coming years world would forget what Nazis did to Jews in Germany. People will wake up to unprecedented horrors to what talibinization of Pakistan will do to its 180 million people. A very very scary thought.
Beg Apr 04, 2013 09:38pm
What is your problem when for the first time constitution is being implemented. You want the system to run the same way to the path of self destruction. You have not learned the lesson yet even after seeing the utter destruction and plunder done by ex parliamentarians who came to parliament due to NRO without the application of our constitution, you want that the constitution shall never be implemented as it has never before to let the corrupt and theives again come to rule this nation and destroy us completely. Are you insane
Beg Apr 04, 2013 09:42pm
People of Pakistan now believe that taliban will be less destructive than these corrupt politicians. People have their limits, they are pushed to the corner to think like that
zubair Apr 04, 2013 09:42pm
yeah good one, get rid of the mandatory graduation requirements and let the illiterates run the government...just what we need
Beg Apr 04, 2013 09:45pm
Your comment is the feeling of common pakistani
Mustafa Apr 04, 2013 10:41pm
Dear khalidmurad1, You said "It is high time that we get rid of this fraudulent system". Please tell us who these "We" are that you speak for. In other words which group of Pakistanis do you speak for? If indeed you belong to a righteous group in Pakistan, then tell us how many people are in your group. Even if you are in a righteous group of hundreds of thousand Pakistanis, you cannot impose your wish on 180 million people. But you can try by starting a new Tehreek movement (a new party) and preach your ideas such as
Thingamee Apr 04, 2013 11:44pm
And why don't the 180 million people stand up for themselves? Rip the beards off these mullahs and sweep them into the Arabian sea.
Sfyn2it Apr 05, 2013 03:21am
I am unsure whats implied here. The thesis and conclusion suggest the 'dire' affects from scrutiny of candidates held to particular guidelines set by the judiciary but the body paragraphs plead to extend such practices to every "stratum of society". If your point is the latter, then this step from the judiciary should be seen as a step forward. Progress comes in sequentially. I hate to use the old adage here but the reminder is needed: "One step at a time." Pakistan Zindabad.
GoodDeedsLeadTo Apr 05, 2013 03:29am
Those who have nothing to hide should have nothing to worry about.
Tin Apr 05, 2013 03:35am
There is an old saying, Making stick to beat yourself. People make traditions and now it bites back.
malik Apr 05, 2013 03:50am
On the contrary I think most people are very happy with the socalled Islamization of society and I dont see anyone coming out on street against it. They want sharia and khilafat and almost all of them lie and cheat and are corrupt.
Kashif Apr 05, 2013 04:38am
Few years ago, a letter appeared in Dawn suggesting that we are about to witness a dictatorship which will claim to know all.. What we are currently witnessing is a true manifestation of that assumption. If I being an ordinary citizen will to stand in election, I will need to prove my religiousness to a person who may be more corrupt than me. Judiciary is one of the most corrupt institutions in this country and we have handed over the decision of assessing moral righteousness of Pakistanis to such an institution. When Fakhro Bhai was nominated for ECP, everyone hoped that elections will be fair but what we are now witnessing is a systematic and very planned way of pre-poll rigging done by ECP itself. It is time for civil society to rise against such tyranny and ruthless self-delusion of righteousness.
Pramod Apr 05, 2013 05:40am
my question is how come a non muslim will contest an election because he will not have any knowledge of Islam and nothing wrong in that. He follows a different faith so in that case questions asked will be related to his faith or Islam and If Islam then is it not kind of forced conversion.
Numair Apr 05, 2013 05:44am
A brave and much needed article! We need more people to come out and say 'Enough is enough!'. Religion should no longer have any say in the matter of how human beings are treated! We need secular humanitarian laws, not religious ones!
concerned Apr 05, 2013 06:35am
These provocative laws are going to have serious repercussions in the society as a whole. How can reciting of one surah or another make one righteous and sagacious? serious reformation is required in the field of legislation if we want to save Pakistan from dismantling in the name of religion.
Khurram Apr 05, 2013 06:43am
"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
brighton rodeo Apr 05, 2013 07:06am
It is true and could be believed without doubt pakistan is falling in the hands of selfrighteous election examiners. Who examined and granted authority of perfection to these examiners for giving tests to the election contestants. God bless this nation and give insight to see the future which would be worst than Germany when jews and others were persecuted. Tme to rethink.
baakhlaq Apr 05, 2013 08:50am
Why do the Returning Officers allow cameras in the courtrooms at the time of scrutiny of the papers?
muhammad Apr 05, 2013 10:35am
Non-Muslims can contest on reserved seats
Akram Apr 05, 2013 12:27pm
you have made the mistake of assuming others think as you do. Count the numbers of thumbs down you have, and learn why others don't think as you. I would say its because we have seen all the 'islamic solutions' before, they all failed, and are simply regurgitated every few years. Learn from your history, don't keep making the same mistakes.
Riaz Apr 05, 2013 12:51pm
Had the politicians showed even a little honesty, or showed a little pity when robbing the state, they might have invoked some sympathy in the public mind, at this dire hour of inquisition. Since they behaved with such arrogance, in such a ruthless manner, mercilessly starving the half starved, they deserve every bit of what is being dished out to them. They have taken Pakistan to the brink of destruction, robbing mercilessly what ever little was left in the treasury, in the last few days of government.
AAmir Khan Apr 05, 2013 01:10pm
Actually the ECP is following the law as written. If you want a different outcome then change the law. This is really a case of the chickens coming home to roost. We allowed Musharaff and Zia to make these laws about religious inclinations; it felt good at the time; we felt if our leaders knew how to recite Quran and Hadith then they will be righteous and serve us well- like Zia. Those laws were grandfathered in and are now the laws of the land. The ECP is only enforcing them.
areluctantpakistani Apr 05, 2013 02:26pm
Ayaz Amir had nothing to hide, didn't he? He is actually being victimized for not hiding something!
p r sharma Apr 05, 2013 03:13pm
You can not restrict the right of a citizen( non Muslim) conferred by constitution, why a non Muslim not be allowed to contest in unreserved constituency ?. Can't he dare to represent Muslims?
Faisal Apr 05, 2013 03:53pm
The problem is'nt that those running the Government are illiterate, the problem is that they are corrupt and immoral.
Maulana Diesel Apr 05, 2013 04:06pm
Do you think literates parliamentarians have done good to Pakistan. They let the country down.
farrukh Apr 05, 2013 05:21pm
These corrupt politicians who have looted the country over the last decades will not accept any scrutiny. They are crying foul. Can anybody tell me why should they not follow the law of the land. If anybody is corrupt or unfit for any reason he should be thrown out before the election. GOOD RIDDANCE .
Salman Apr 05, 2013 05:36pm
The Parliament chosen by the PEOPLE of Pakistan, that brought hundreds of amendments in the constitution, of which mostly were passed in the last week - "literally", did not choose to remove these requirements. You can call it "witch-hunt" or whatever you want, we call it the "will of the people", that you are trying to suppress and want your own ideology, whatever that may be, on the people of Pakistan. You have the right to raise your objections and speak your mind, but giving space to only a select frame of mind on your newspaper turns you into the worst kind of "dictators" and "inquisitors".
A Pakistani Apr 05, 2013 07:18pm
Secular state of Pakistan !
joe average Apr 05, 2013 10:08pm
would I be wrong to assume that the judges are only following the laws that the law makers have made themselves, or do they assume they are above the law and the law only applies to the general public
Muaz Apr 05, 2013 11:57pm
the judiciary is simply implementing the constitution, which lays down fundamental requirements for an individual to become a lawmaker
beg Apr 06, 2013 01:51am
wishful thinking
observer Apr 06, 2013 04:25am
Lawyers and ex-judges of JI mind playing with the nation. Zia and Modudi must be dancing in their graves.
Raoul Ciao Apr 06, 2013 07:43am
I think islam is great religion(some may say Greatest ;-) ) but is a poor choice as a political lightning rod. ALL religions in fact, have a poor record when it comes to them being POLITICAL systems. The fact that the pakistani judiciary is forcing a political-religio candidature whetting is a travesty and, indeed, using religious knowledge (madarsa educated may be far better than those who had a liberal education of the secular type) as an indicator of (a)ability to enact laws which will impact millions of lives (b)ability to be above-board, may be a pretty wrong move. Is a talib student with blood on his hands and ability to flawlessly recite religious texts a better potential political agent for elections than someone who may have worked at grassroots and empathised with real issues of life on earth of the constituency she/he represents, and whose religion is more Humanity than anything else? Not to pardon all politicians, but to ensure wrong benchmarks are NOT used for defining who will be a better politician will throw up even more, not less, monsters , tomorrow into law maker seats.
khanm Apr 06, 2013 08:22am
reading The entire comments from the various folks
mohammed ali jawaid Apr 06, 2013 12:00pm
the debate should end by now as the honorable Lahore High Court has stopped RO's to ask irrelevant question. meaning thereby that ROs were wrong, period!
Abdul Waheed Apr 06, 2013 01:23pm
Certain judicial officers of lower judiciary are exposing their sick mentality by asking frivolous questions about family lives, religious matters with a aim to disgrace, humiliate politicians. By doing that they are humiliating themselves and their families as though they are highly educated but look just bizzare people.
Abdul Waheed Apr 06, 2013 01:25pm
Bureacrats are more corrupt than politicians.