IN a conservative society, it is tempting to couch issues in the rhetoric of morality. But precisely because Pakistani society is already sliding towards the right, it becomes doubly important to resist it. That we are often unable to make this distinction is evident in the manner in which the debate over sheesha cafés is being framed. Earlier, Lahore’s sheesha cafés were criticised for the amorphous sin of “misleading young people” — code, as everyone knows, for providing young people the opportunity to meet and talk. Recently, Karachi’s Defence Housing Authority went a step further and banned all sheesha activities, with a DHA spokesperson telling the media that this was in order to “save the youth” from lounges that are “instrumental in spreading waywardness in society”. In at least three cases, most recently on Monday, the police conducted full-scale raids and confiscated the offending “equipment”.

That there was a need to involve the police at all beggars belief. But far more dangerous in the long term will be the couching of the anti-sheesha debate in terms of morality. The only defendable reason to shut down such an activity is on the grounds of health, as is the case against smoking in public places. If the DHA or anyone else has the medical evidence to back this argument, they should produce it, given that in many places sheesha is generally allowed, even in some countries that are against smoking as a matter of policy. Pakistan’s young people already have too few avenues of public and peaceful entertainment; and if the police force is looking for criminal gangs that contribute to violence and lawlessness, there’s no shortage of those either. Young people’s morals are their own concern, or at best that of their parents.

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