An assumption underlying the debate over our sprawling Talibanisation has been that enforcement of Sharia is a good thing, just not the Taliban brand of Sharia. But how can we know whether a majority of Pakistanis want Sharia to be “enforced” upon them when we have never had a candid debate on the role of religion in this country?
As a state and a society we have put in place a coercive environment where it is heretical to question any social, political or economic agenda articulated in the name of Islam. Our self-enforced inhibition to debate the role of religion in defining the relationship between the citizen and the state in Pakistan is not only breeding and reinforcing religious intolerance in the country but has created an environment where any political agenda camouflaged as a programme for enforcement of Sharia automatically acquires prima facie legitimacy without any scrutiny of the merits of such agenda or its Islamic credentials.
Sufi Mohammed and other semi-literates who support armed jihad, wear a beard and possess a bully pulpit, have arrogated to themselves the divine right to speak in the name of God. These self-styled guardians of Islam have no qualms about openly declaring that anyone opposed to their political agenda is a “fasid,” “mushrik” or “kafir” who automatically stands ousted from the realm of Islam and is liable to be killed. Even when Sufi Mohammed declared that the MQM was a heretical party and our Parliament and judicature constituted an un-Islamic system, our prime minister and other parliamentarians refused to respond to such “personal opinion” of the new emir of Swat.
The elites in Pakistan and mainstream political parties have shown a tendency not to engage in religious discourse. No one wishes to get on the wrong side of the maulvi, who might be an underdog in terms of our societal power dynamics but has accumulated considerable nuisance value over the decades. There has been no focus in Pakistan on the education and training of the maulvi, who is generally drawn from the more deprived sections of the society and drifts towards madrasa or mosque in seeking a full-time vocation in the absence of any alternative prospect of upward professional or social mobility. And yet he has access to the podium in the mosque and the ability to influence the thinking of those who pray behind him, as his legitimacy is a consequence of his position in the mosque, and not derived from his credentials as a scholar of Sharia or Fiqh.
There is religious discourse in the country. But the Parliament or the more educated and progressive sections of the society are neither defining the contours of this discourse nor engaging with it. The consequence is the proliferation of a brand of faith that is seen as being retrogressive and cruel, and that huge sections of the society do not own up or relate to. The village maulvi has been offering half-baked solutions to the complex problems afflicting Pakistan for decades. The Taliban are now doing the same, except that they have also acquired control and monopoly over means of coercion in many parts of Pakistan and thus have the ability to implement their obscurantist agenda. Instead of proposing solutions inspired by Islamic values to the myriad problems of a complex society the Taliban are determined to slap the rest of their compatriots to an ancient time and create a medieval society that simply doesn’t have complex problems.
The crude concept of penal justice and social justice that the Taliban are marketing could be appealing to some deprived, disempowered and disgruntled sections of the society that have lost faith in the ability and will of the state to protect and promote their interests. But the problems that we confront today are the products of a moth-eaten dysfunctional system of governance and not the lack of piety or religion in the country. Forcing people to pray publicly, bullying men into wearing a beard and tying the “shalwar” higher than is customary, and shrouding or shunning women to their homes and excluding them from public life will not make our problems go away. Even assuming for a minute that the freedom and liberty that many value within the society is overrated, what is it that enforcement of some new Sharia system will enable us to do and how is our present constitutional system holding us back?
Over 96 percent of the citizens of Pakistan are Muslims. Some abide by a maximal view of religion and wish to be informed by the texts of the Quran and the Sunnah in performing each and every act in their daily lives. Some follow a minimalist view and while following the mandatory injunctions of Islam they believe to have been endowed with choices and discretion to order their lives. Some acknowledge the mandatory nature of various injunctions of Islam, but lack the discipline or the will to comply with such injunctions. Many are confused about the role religion should play in their public lives and still others are convinced that religion is a private matter between the person and his Creator and has no role in dictating public choices that a community makes as a collectivity. How, then, do we conclude so readily that a majority of the citizens of Pakistan wish Sharia to be “enforced” in the country?
The question of Sharia enforcement must be distinguished from the debate on whether or not Pakistan should be a secular state–i.e., one where the state is legally separated from religion and maintaining a neutral position neither promotes nor prohibits religion. The question being posed here is whether we should be a Muslim nation-state or endeavour to become an Islamic state. We are presently a Muslim nation-state simply by virtue of the fact that our overwhelming majority is Muslim. Islamic rituals and Sharia is already a part of Muslim households, with birth, death, marriage, divorce and inheritance being dealt with in Islamic tradition together with varied compliance with other rituals of Islam. We have a Constitution that states that Islam is the religion of the state and that Muslims shall be “enabled” to order their lives in accordance with the teachings and requirements of Islam.
We have constitutionally created the Council of Islamic Ideology comprising celebrated religious scholars of the country to advise the executive and the legislature on whether any laws are repugnant to Islam. We have a Federal Shariat Court that adjudicates issues that deal with or require enforcement of Islamic law and we have a Shariat Bench as part of our Supreme Court to sit in appeal over decisions of the Federal Shariat Court. Thus, we would have been a Muslim nation-state if we didn’t have institutionalised arrangements to formally incorporate Islamic edicts within our law and jurisprudence. But as an Islamic state we have acquiesced in a minimalist view of religion, whereby any law or ruling repugnant to Islam is to be struck down; but in areas where there is no binding Islamic edict, representatives of the people have the discretion to determine what the law should be. What, then, is enforcement of Sharia meant to achieve? Given that all Muslims agree that there is an obligation to offer prayers five times a day, should we promulgate a law requiring the state to flog whoever fails to say such prayers?
Is it desirable to remove the sensible distinction between a crime and a sin and require the state to step into the shoes of God and sit in judgment over the piety of citizens and punish those found wanting? And, given that Islam as a religion hasn’t bestowed the authority on any individual or institution to speak authoritatively in the name of God or render one authentic interpretation of the edicts enshrined in the Quran and Sunnah, who will determine which conception of Sharia is the legitimate one? Can the state, then, authorise or tolerate one group of people coercing others into complying with their conception of Sharia or itself get into the business of defining a legally binding concept of Sharia? Should the state expand its existing constitutional mandate of ‘enabling’ citizens to order their lives in accordance with Islamic teachings to get into the business of “enforcing” a certain conception of individual Islamic obligations of Muslims?
The liberals in Pakistan continue to reiterate Jinnah’s vision for a secular Pakistan and his speech of Aug 11, 1947, emphasising that the state would have nothing to do with religion. But even if we concede for a moment that “Pakistan ka matlab kya, la illa ha illallah” summarises the true purpose of Pakistan’s creation, the slogan means different things to different people. There is urgent need for us to have an open public debate in the country to evolve a consensus over the role that the state can, and should, legitimately plan in relation to Islam. So long as we continue to abdicate the responsibility of defining for ourselves the manner in which we wish the state and religion to interact in Pakistan out of timidity, laziness or indifference, obscurantists, bigots and vigilantes who neither have the ability nor the inclination to develop the concept of a modern Muslim nation-state will continue to hijack religion to pursue invidious political and personal agendas.
The writer is a lawyer based in Islamabad. He is a Rhodes scholar and has an LL.M from Harvard Law School.