Sunday, November 16, 2014

Khaled Ahmed - Pakistan: Tyranny of piety

The world will be surprised to know that the constitution of Pakistan has a provision for piety, the one thing that the nation-state in the 18th century had begun thinking was not measurable. Today, crime is described in penal codes, then punished. Religion too punishes crime, albeit at times too harshly, like cutting off the hand for pilferage. But how can you punish lack of piety, like not knowing a certain Arabic verse of the Quran by heart?
Article 62 of the constitution of Pakistan says that a member of parliament is not disqualified as long as “he is of good character and is not commonly known as one who violates Islamic injunctions; he has adequate knowledge of Islamic teachings and practises obligatory duties prescribed by Islam as well as abstains from major sins; he is sagacious, righteous and non- profligate, honest and ‘ameen’, there being no declaration to the contrary by a court of law; he has not, after the establishment of Pakistan, worked against the integrity of the country or opposed the ideology of Pakistan.”

If you don’t pass this test, you can’t even stand for election — the election officer can ask you to recite a Quranic verse in Arabic — and if you can’t, you can be denied nomination. Of course, the non-Muslim members of parliament are exempted, although subject to possessing “moral character”. For clarity’s sake, sin and crime are clubbed together in religion, whereas the “non-intrusive” modern state doesn’t consider all sins as crime. A policeman in Lahore feels safer nabbing sinners, who are mostly peaceful citizens, in preference to dacoits, who can shoot him dead. The penal code, after a heavy injection of religion, allows him this choice. 

There is the provision — “adequate knowledge of Islamic teachings and duties prescribed by Islam” — relating to the practice of piety. What is “adequate”, one may ask? Of course, only the clerical community or those ex-madrasa soldiers of Islam doing jihad can pass these two tests. The Taliban adhere to this provision of the constitution rigorously: warlord Mangal Bagh in Khyber Agency, on the authority of a hadith, burns down the houses of those who don’t attend group prayers in a mosque on Friday. 

After reservations expressed by some quarters, the Supreme Court of Pakistan has declared that it will deliver the final verdict on how Article 62 is to be enforced. We don’t know how it is going to handle the “duty” of saying “compulsory” namaz. Laws presently in the statute book can get parliamentarians sacked for drinking “wine” in their hostel. What will the honourable court do about the “compulsory” (farz) namaz? Muslim courts are always conservative — a “liberal” judge is a curse — and can’t be expected to become “Voltairean” to make religion compatible with modern times. 

If the honourable court wants to become “enlightened” and “rational”, it had better look at some recent developments. The Imran Khan government in the Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa province has announced it is changing its curriculum for textbooks back to what it was before the “liberal” ANP government committed the apostasy of removing dozens of divine verses from science books and set aside large swaths of text eulogising the early Perfect Caliphate. Most probably the judges — who flee Pakistan after handing down verdicts favouring victims of the blasphemy law — will play it safe. 

Their interpretation of piety as described in Article 62 will jibe with the views of the growing community of religious scholars attached to madrasas and backed by excitable youths doing jihad. A high court has recently “wisely” decided to confirm the death sentence of a poor illiterate Christian woman, Asiya Bibi, convicted by a scared lower court. A mentally ill, old British Pakistani, sentenced to death for calling himself a prophet, has been killed in Adiala jail in Rawalpindi by a police guard who had become influenced by the “piety” of another prisoner named Qadri, who had earlier murdered Punjab governor Salmaan Taseer for criticising the blasphemy law. 

Policemen become brainwashed by “pious” convicts — witness the prison staff in Sindh enslaved to the righteousness of Omar Sheikh, who had a hand in killing American journalist Daniel Pearl in Karachi. The Arab-funded Islamic University in Islamabad has come under fire and could suffer in the court of law because its students staged a mock UN debate allowing the display of “Israeli culture”. Divine edicts may exist to dub this a lapse from piety. 

No woman has been stoned to death, although she deserves stoning after reporting rape. Why? Because her testimony is not equal to that of men. Iran is closer to the piety of Article 62 because it regularly stones them. No hands have been cut off in Pakistan. Does that mean no one steals in Pakistan? Most politicians could lose one hand, if not both. Muslims are unfortunately yoked to democracy, which they don’t really like because of its “imperfection”. It tolerates “impiety” and yet carries on. We hear in India many MPs have criminal cases going on against them, and yet the world says democracy flourishes in India while it languishes in Pakistan. 

Can our Supreme Court accept that once a man is elected by the people, he can’t be dismissed from parliament on grounds of “impiety”? Many pieties are private; should the court break into the privacy of the elected person through suo motu cases? A drunkard may serve the people better than a cleric who apostatises fellow Muslims. The court will have to side with the cleric. Reason is fleeing Pakistan, together with most non-Muslims targeted by the blasphemy law. Hindus are fleeing Sindh because of the rising tide of rape through the “piety” of conversion. 

In Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa, now restoring “piety” to the curriculum, the families of 127 Christian women and children killed last year by terrorist outfit Jundallah have not been paid the promised compensation. How will the Supreme Court reinstate reason to save Pakistan from dying of excessive “piety”? Curricula undermine reason, science education declines. Despite the BJP, the Indians have a technology platform that sends a space vehicle to Mars. The last time we used technology in elections, it failed on the first day and will not work if we ape India and stage the next one through computers. 

Pakistani scientists are usually more “pious” than rational. But a maverick nuclear scientist named Pervez Hoodbhoy has “heretically” created the Eqbal Ahmad Centre for Public Education “online” (eacpe.org) that seeks “to foster the use of science and reason to understand nature and society so as to better enable all citizens of Pakistan to participate fully in the political, economic, social and cultural life of their society”. Here is an actual alternative to the pieties of Article 62. But I must confess the popularity graph of Hoodbhoy in Pakistan is nothing that I can write home to my mother about. For a pious man, it is not a good idea to be seen together with him, and I don’t know how he would fare in the honourable court if he were dragged there for having misled people like me. 

The writer is consulting editor, ‘Newsweek Pakistan’

http://indianexpress.com/article/opinion/columns/tyranny-of-piety/99/