Imagine a former British colony where most citizens practice a religion that has become tightly knit with both national identity and bitter anti-British feeling. After a violent war for independence, the new country’s earliest leaders align themselves with religion through law and start to exercise censorship of any narrative or discourse that upsets its hierarchy. Egged on by clerics, the religion is officially ordained as divine and by law all are made subservient to God’s will — and even manage to win a special position for religion in the new constitution.
Sounds like Pakistan? It’s in fact a description of early Ireland — in the very heart of the liberal Western world and secular Europe. Today as Ireland ranks among the top 10 countries from a list of 200 that consistently score the highest rankings in UN defined development indicators — from equality of the sexes to freedom of religious practice — one could be forgiven for forgetting that the country has for decades been hostage to religious dogma as state policy before becoming a secular state where no one is threatened by or with religion.
It makes for a fascinating contrast the study of the evolution of Pakistan and Ireland and to see who started with a dream and ended with a nightmare and who plunged into darkness but rose to illumination of a promise realised. Political scientist Shane Leavy while documenting the Catholic clout that has haunted Ireland points out that after centuries of religious persecution from Protestant British rulers, Catholicism had become deeply connected with Irish national identity. After independence in 1922, Ireland emerged as a barely secular state, with the Catholic Church holding vast cultural and even political clout.
Mind your language
Such was the control of citizen’s life by the state that the new country immediately started censoring foreign films on religious moral grounds, banning over 2,500 and cutting 11,000 over the first few decades. The first Chief Censor Officer James Montgomery announced that the Ten Commandments were the guiding code, and started a crackdown on screen against kissing — an ‘unsanitary salute,’ as he called it. Divorce, birth control, dancing, bad language (including any mention of the scandalous word ‘virgin’) and images of Christ were hastily suppressed to keep the meek and godly people of Ireland, well, meek and godly. In Pakistan, the censor in the late 1970s and 80s went lengths to enforce a moral code that frowned upon husbands and wives portrayed seated on the same bed or the same sofa on film, or even a screen mother hugging her male child.
Even literature was kosher when it came to declaring haram what is part of people’s daily lives. In Pakistan Saadat Hasan Manto was dragged into courts for writing about repressed sexual lives of ordinary people stifling away under a nosy moral code. The fact that courts even entertained petitions from the orthodoxy that claimed violation of their modesty underwrote an intolerance of social interpretation by harmless wordsmiths. It is this intolerance that in due course would merit whiplashes for girls who ventured out of their homes without ‘legal male chaperones and stringing up dancing girls in Swat. Whether it be poets who wax lyrical on love and longing like Faraz or on people and politics like Faiz, the religious-minded Establishment of Pakistan has always sought to adversely influence the grassroots narrative.
Poetry of poverty
Ditto for Ireland where even poetry faced the religious censor. Patrick Kavanagh, one of the greatest Irish poets, taunted this Catholic prudery in his 1942 epic ‘The Great Hunger’, about a sexually repressed Catholic farmer who ages in bachelorhood without having the courage or wit to look for a wife within the stifling religious moral code. Nothing like a poem causing an outrage at the pain of state denouncement that takes its inspiration from a non-secular milieu. Kavanagh’s flat was raided by police after the poem, which showed the farmer resorting to ‘interfering with himself’ after failing to find a wife, was published — the magazine edition it was published in was promptly banned.
Extramarital sex during this period was absolutely taboo, and women who became pregnant outside marriage were sometimes forced into Magdalene laundries where they worked under Catholic nuns as drudges, in strictly enforced silence, to purify them of their state-defined ‘sins.’ Thus Ireland developed a self-image of being a godly, conservative country content with spiritual things, particularly compared with the apparent lustful energy of the US. Indeed, recounts Leavy, Irish Prime Minister Eamon de Valera said in a 1943 speech that “the Ireland which we would desire of would be the home of a people who valued material wealth only as the basis of a right living, of a people who were satisfied with only frugal comfort and devoted their leisure to the things of the soul.”
Secularism not secure
In Pakistan, the Establishment started asserting itself forcefully to the only overt bout of socialism the country has tried under a ringing public endorsement. The secular dispensation of the country’s first elected government got so tangled up shaking off the pressure from the right that it sowed the seeds of a sustainable rise of the state orthodoxy by its appeasement to the clergy — it sponsored a constitutional amendment that institutionalised discrimination on the grounds of faith: the Pakistani Ahmedis simply woke up one morning to find themselves a new religion by executive fiat. A whole sect that was hitherto part of a larger whole was excommunicated from its fold while the rest was, by implication, accorded official sanctity of faith-based superiority.
Strange that a secularist like Mohammad Ali Jinnah was the founder of what has become a constitutional religious and orthodox state that declares non-Muslims non-equal citizens and denies them aspirations to the highest two public offices. Perhaps the only undisputed leader of Pakistan, Jinnah is best known for his emphasis on a secular future for the newfound Pakistan by declaring in his first speech in the constituent legislature that the state will have nothing to do with the business of an individual’s faith.
And yet, even when now the judiciary is arguably the freest it has ever been in the country’s chequered history (the past courts sanctifying dictators and legitimising hangings and exiles of elected democrats), it is ironical that the Supreme Court and the Chief Justice professedly lose sleep over the “dreaded” prospect of the parliament declaring Pakistan a secular state.
All while a frozen Jinnah watches from his frame lovingly perched over both the court and the parliament. The irony is clearly lost on both the judges and the legislators.
Jihad against pluralisms
Like in Pakistan, so in Ireland. Pakistan today struggles with the way its official religion has morphed into a default definition of violence — what with the Pakistan Army with its official motto of “Jihad Fi Sabil Allah” (“Jihad in the Way of Allah”) fighting hitherto state-supported groups that preach and practice horrific violence in the same name of Allah and the same concept of Jihad. Pakistan is the irony paradise. This is not far removed from when Ireland developed a reputation for terrorism because of militant groups like the Irish Republican Army (IRA) who fought both London and Belfast. Parallels with Tehrik Taliban Pakistan (TTP) — and its extremist sectarian allies like Laskhar-e-Jhangvi and Jaish-e-Muhammad, as they battle Islamabad and Rawalpindi — are not too hard to discern.
The radical cleric leader who tried to make Catholicism Ireland’s state religion was Father Denis Fahey, who saw Rome-dominated Western Europe of the 13th century as an ideal golden age of Christianity before the emergence of European secularism. “Since then, there has been steady decay, and that decay has been accelerated since the French Revolution,” he wrote. How eerily reminiscent this is of parties like Jamaat-e-Islami and Jamiat Ulema Islam — both with considerable electoral following in Pakistan — that seek a rejection of procedural modernity and a return to the Muhammadan period and the era of the caliphate thereafter.
Strange are the exhortations among Pakistani Muslim religious groups against secularist parties like Pakistan People’s Party, Awami National Party and Muttahida Qaumi Movement about their soft corner for ‘Western’ liberalism, as though secular liberalism is an inevitable part of Western civilization. Says Leavy: “Even when I was growing up in the 1980s, I had a vague sense that we Irish were the religious, conservative ones, compared with the godless American hedonists we saw on television!” That’s how Pakistani religious groups seeking to enforce Sharia see the Americans!
The Garden of Eden
The collapse of state-patronised Catholic domination in Ireland was unpredicted and it happened quickly. The constitutional reference to the “special position” of Catholicism was removed in 1973, the sale of condoms without prescription was legalised in 1985 and divorce in 1995. Today, Ireland is about as liberal and secular as any other country on the planet. Yet when sex stopped being a taboo subject, people began to finally report widespread sexual and physical abuse happening in Catholic institutions. In Pakistan we see a parallel movement of orthodoxy and liberalism. The violence unleashed by militant groups in the name of Allah forced the citizenry to vote out the Islamists and bank on the secularists. Divorce laws have become rationalised in favour of women and there is even a law against sexual harassment of women at the workplace and violence against women inside homes.
While there’s a mighty long way to go before the Pakistani state (as opposed to political parties that openly profess egalitarianism and equality) stops discriminating among its citizens on the basis of faith and allows equal freedom of religious thought and practice to all without patronising a single one, at least it’s a good beginning that the clergy is removed from the seat of power that doesn’t assume a critical mass of irrevocable influence. This should theoretically stop further codification into law of faith-based prejudices. From here there’s still a long haul to functional secularism, but at least a majority seems to march forward.
Source: The News