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Talibanisation is a contagious disease. Look around. Do you have a Talib friend, family member, neighbour or colleague? They need your help urgently.

Babar Sattar: Talibanisation of the mind

Last week a conservative schoolteacher in Rawalpindi hailed a cab to get to work in the morning. She wore a gown and had covered her head with a ‘dupatta’. A few minutes into the journey the bearded taxi driver asked her if she was Muslim. She said she was. Then why she had not covered her head properly, he asked. She responded by explaining that she ordinarily wears a headscarf, but as she was running late that day she was unable to put it on. Such hurry could invite punishment and result in her being dispatched to the hereafter soon, he retorted. At this point she began to shake with fear and tried to reach for her cell phone to seek help. He turned back and grabbed the cell phone. As the taxi had almost reached the school campus, she insisted that she be let out. The driver obliged, but left her with a chilling message: if the female staff of the school failed to observe proper ‘pardah’ they would all be sent to God sooner rather than later. Once out of the taxi, this horror-struck woman turned back to see if she could note the registration number of the taxi. The driver was still standing there watching her menacingly. She rushed into the school.

This is no isolated event. Be it warnings delivered to the medical community in NWFP to wear shalwar qameez, or edicts issued to music shops and barbers, or threats communicated to schools, or reports regarding women being harassed in bazaars and public spaces more generally, there has been a surge in vigilante action being carried out by our self-styled moral police. The worst justification for the Nizam-e-Adl regulation comes from liberals within the ANP and the PPP claiming that this legislation doesn’t set up a parallel system of justice, as it is merely procedural law adorned with Islamic nomenclature. Accepting the demand to ‘enforce’ religion legitimizes the discourse of bigots and their obscurantist project of personally stepping into God’s shoes to judge fellow Muslims, taking a measure of their sins and delivering divine justice in this world on God’s behalf. The growing intolerance that our society is witnessing with mute horror is fuelled by our odious brand of hypocrisy that encourages double-speak in the name of protecting and preserving tradition, culture and religion.

The growing Talibanization of the mind that Kamila Hyat spoke about in her column this week is a real threat to our fundamental rights and liberties. Simply put it is bigotry, intolerance, obscurantism and coercion practiced in the name of religion that feeds on (a) the fear of change being ushered in by modernity, (b) confusion about the role of religion in the society, and (c) the failure of the state to provide for the basic needs of citizens, including means of subsistence the absence of which renders people desperate and a balanced education without which they lack the tools to question and resist extreme intolerant ideas. The message of the Taliban or other religious bigots can be simple and appealing to a majority of the population that is deprived of basic needs, disempowered and consequently disgruntled. The contract between the citizens and the state is not being honoured by the state and thus the system neither provides for the basic needs of a majority of the citizens nor offers them any real prospect for upward social mobility. This problem of governance is then presented by the maulvi as a consequence of lack of religion.

America, the big Satan, has mesmerized the elites of this country, explains the maulvi. These elites, as agents of the devil, have signed on to modern/western ideas that are taking our society and our country away from our religion. Our miseries are a consequence of our sins and God’s vengeance and the solution is a return to a backward lifestyle that shuns modernity. The appeal of this thesis lies in its simplicity. We are unhappy with the performance of the state and the manner in which it is leading to the creation of a predatory society and crave change. And such change is promised by the maulvi in the name of religion.

We have never candidly spoken about the desired role of religion in our country and no sensible distinction has been between the discourses on what religion is and how it should be practiced. Thus, whether or not Sharia prescribes ‘pardah’ is one question, and whether the state has a right to enforce ‘pardah’ or citizens have a private right to ensure that others observe ‘pardah’ is a separate question. Because we don’t separate the individual right to freely practice religion from the debate on what constitutes the legitimate prescriptions of Islam, an interpretation of Sharia that favours ‘pardah’ automatically ends up justifying illegal actions of private citizens coercing and harassing others to abide by an interpretation they prefer.

The Constitution of Pakistan holds out the promise of ‘enabling’ citizens to order their lives in accordance with the teachings of the Quran and Sunnah. What the Constitution does is create a right and not an obligation. Except laws that regulate our collective lives as a society, that are informed by Islamic injunctions, the Constitution does not empower the state to ‘enforce’ religion in the private lives of citizens. Should a Muslim choose to order his private life in accordance with his understanding of the edicts of the Quran and Sunnah, the state is under an obligation to ‘facilitate’ him. And this individual right to freely practice one’s religion includes the right not to be goaded into practicing Islam in a manner that one finds disagreeable. This requires the state and the society to differentiate between propagation and intimidation. Where propagation of religion enters the realm of coercion, the right to freely practice religion becomes a casualty. Thus, the individual right to practice religion freely can only be meaningful if it protects against the type of bigotry being practiced by Sufi Mohammad in Swat or Abdul Aziz in Islamabad.

It is imperative that the distinction between virtue/vice and legality/illegality in the country be kept alive. The growth and spread of bigotry in our society is not only blurring the line between sin and crime, but is also arrogating to private citizens the ability to enforce an obscurantist moral code – a right that citizens don’t have even when it comes to enforcing the law. As aforesaid, the right to practice religion freely in one’s personal life naturally includes the right not to practice religion, just as the right to free speech includes the entitlement not to speak at all. Let people privately judge others for being good or bad Muslims if they so wish. But such judgment must not be allowed to abridge or fetter the constitutionally guaranteed rights and liberties of those being judged. Irrespective of our disagreements over the content and interpretation of Sharia, all those who value the right to profess and practice religion freely can rationally agree that ‘enforcing’ a certain brand of Sharia neither falls within the province of the state, nor is a private right of any citizen or a group of citizens.

Further, within the discourse on the content of Sharia, it is imperative to resist the propensity of authoritatively determining whether or not someone is Muslim. Here too, the issue of what Islam allows and disallows as understood by human agency must be distinguished from the authority to declare someone a non-Muslim or oust a Muslim from the circle of Islam. Who are we after all to appropriate to ourselves the divine right of judgment that God has reserved for the day of deliverance? The tendency to readily issue decrees denouncing the faith of fellow Muslims not only makes us more intolerant, exclusive and fractured as a community, but also confuses the rationale and the need to act against militant groups. For example, Sufi Mohammad declares that anyone who doesn’t abide by his view of Sharia will automatically be ousted from the circle of Islam. In turn, maulvis opposed to Sufi emphasize that anyone who supports the Taliban who plan suicide bombings and slaughter Muslims is an infidel. This discourse is unhelpful. The state and the society need to strengthen their resolve to act against the Taliban terrorizing citizens, not because they are infidels or bad Muslims, but because they are criminals and have usurped the lives and liberties of compatriots.

Talibanization of the mind is finding room in our society either because a majority of our population that is religiously inclined continues to confuse its responsibilities toward God with those toward fellow citizens or because we are too timid to defend a lifestyle that might be judged by the religiously inclined. Unless we shun hypocrisy and stand up to defend a legal and social structure that allows us to order our private lives freely, in a secular fashion or in accordance with our own understanding of religion, freedom of religion will continue to be chipped away and more and more vigilantes will develop the urge to play God within Pakistan. (The News, 9 May 2009)

The writer is a lawyer based in Islamabad.

Email: sattar@post.harvard.edu