How Reluctance to Debate Religion Has Resulted in a Total Quagmire

Posted on June 11, 2010 by


by Raza Habib Raja
First published at the Pak Tea House

I have often been much more amazed not at the religious fanaticism of the few, but at passivity of the moderate majority. And although skeptics will cast their doubt but the fact is that Pakistan on the whole has a moderate population, particularly when compared to countries like Iran, Saudi Arabia etc, where large sections of population are thoroughly radicalized. In Pakistan comparable fervour is dominant only in pockets. Yes this is a country which has Taliban but it is also a country where people have largely voted for PPP and PML (N) (which is a moderate conservative political party). This is a country which despite being conservative has never voted clergy into power. It has a relatively independent media and entertainment avenues are more eclectic compared to aforementioned Islamic countries.

And yet this is the also the same country which through legislation declared Ahmadis Non Muslims and that too during the tenor of ZAB, arguably the most intelligent and liberal Prime Minister. And mind you PPP did not originally have any such agenda item in its manifesto. Moreover, Hadood and blasphemy laws are solidly entrenched despite the fact that these were not enacted through a proper legislative procedure. Today parties are reluctant to even debate these controversial legislation[s] despite the obvious fact that these are in contravention of the modern day ideals of human rights. Due to these black laws, the religious extremism and discrimination have been institutionalized and Pakistan has become extremely controversial in the international arena. Despite the enormous negative publicity and being in the watch list of various human rights organizations, there is hardly any concrete debate in Pakistan on the mainstream media and legislative forums to repeal these laws. No political party wants to be the political casualty even if it can muster the two third majority. And this is happening in a country where clergy are regularly outvoted by huge margins.

In my opinion the issue is not that population is radicalized but rather actually too timid due to the extreme veneration of religion and its fanatic patronage by the clergy. This is an important factor which needs to be understood before we can have any realistic chance of repealing of controversial laws and even tackle general extremism. Plus it is this reverence which creates this state of denial wherein Muslims find it impossible to believe that any Muslim can indulge in heinous crimes like terrorism.From the childhood, religion is revered and its reverence is reinforced through promoting a culture of unquestionable acceptance. Once we grow up despite the fact that majority is not completely adherent to the rituals the unquestionable reverence remains embedded in our mindset. I know many people whose personal lives show complete abhorrance from even the basic Islamic teachings and yet they would never publicly question anything in the name of religion. It is this critical group which is educated, moderate and yet timid to question things at PUBLIC FORUM which has resulted in this stalemate where laws like Hadood Ordinance and Second Amendment despite being visibly contrary to very basic human rights, find no vociferous voices of objection.

The central issue is that once a thing is widely projected  as un islamic by the mainstream religious ‘scholars”, no one raises any effective voice to challenge it and the prime reasons are extraordinary unquestionable reverence and inability to challenge clergy in interpretation. In our personal lives we will even violate several unquestionable Islamic good rituals but in public too afraid and indifferent to raise a voice against something which clearly is against the basic spirit of our religion itself.

A classic case is the issue of Ahmadis.  Since mainstream clergy has declared them as Non Muslims and their status does not directly affect us, therefore all of us have simply accepted that they are. None of us is ready to challenge clergy and to conduct efforts to repeal second amendment. No political party can muster the courage to confront a handful of zealots. Even Altaf Hussain had to retract his statements supporting Ahmadis.

Of course passivity and timidity originating from this reverence is also reinforced by manic irrational “defence” from the clergy who is ready to pounce on any one talking about reformation in religion. In several instances people have been forced to retract their “bold” statements when the clergy fanatically retaliates by categorizing them as blasphemy. The media either endorses the fanaticism or merely adopts appeasement as the approach to “pacify” things. The latest causality of this fanaticism is Ms Fauzia Wahab who was accused of committing blasphemy and was literally hounded by the clergy. Our “independent” media could not muster any courage to speak in her support. In fact leading newspapers like Jang were openly critical of Ms Wahab.

Another rationale for passivity comes from believers of “religion is a personal matter doctrine”. There are several of us who show reluctance to debate religion by citing the above reason. In principle I fully agree that it should be a personal matter as religion relates to our innate and spiritual beliefs. Since different groups practice it in their own way, therefore when it is incorporated in laws it can be overly imposing on others.  And the problem is that here it is incorporated in our laws and therefore it is no longer that personal!! And if you want it to be relegated to personal affairs you need to debate those laws and therefore you will end up debating the source of the laws, the religion.

A common tactic used by conservatives to discourage any critical debate is to give belittling reference to inadequate qualifications of those who are trying to adopt a reformist approach. What really amazes me that this reference is never made when you are supporting ultraconservative view of Islam. Surely our qualifications are inadequate for that also. Moreover, all of us are ready to knit sophisticated conspiracy theories about foreign affairs without any so called qualifications and yet for religion which majority of us have studied right from class one to intermediate, we are required to have extraordinary qualifications.

Unless and until we are ready to discuss religion with a critical approach, we will always be in a quagmire. Unless we try to challenge clergy and take the mantle of interpretation away from them we will always be impotent and virtually on the defensive when internationally critics brand islam as an intolerant religion.

Every tragedy also opens up an opportunity to take a fresh look at the situation. The horrific attacks on the Ahmadis have also forced many to rethink the status given to Ahmadis. Even leaders of conservative parties like PML (N) have shown some courage. Right now we should capitalize this opportunity and open up the debate on repealing second amendment.

So my brothers and sisters come forward and let’s break this apathy!  Islam is our religion and we do not need these clergy to interpret it for us. Let’s all unite and break their hegemony. Let’s show collective courage and no mullah will dare to oppose us. What we need is not sporadic uncoordinated efforts but a united, focused and coordinated approach. With our education and focus we will be able to break their hegemony and also this quagmire.

Posted in: Religion, Science