In Pakistan being a Muslim isn’t enough anymore. You have to be a certain type of Muslim, constantly having to prove your piety and religiosity to others (by religiosity I mean public religiosity). We seem to have gone so far as a society that senseless violence justified by religion is becoming part of our culture. Once you go down that path it’s very hard to come back.
The writer works for Climate Action Network Europe in Brussels.
In Pakistan we wear our religion on our sleeves. With people obsessively competing to prove their “muslimness”, piety seems to be more about making a public show of how religious you are rather than looking at how your deeds affect others. To quote Karl Barth “Faith is never identical with piety”. For me religion is a personal matter and should be kept that way.
Virtually every major issue in society is seen through a religious lens with an objective to see whether it adheres to “real” Islam or not. The media Pakistan acts as the moral police and often clergy is invited on channels to hand out verdicts, a prime example being the atrocious interview with the late Governor Salmaan Taseer, preceding his brutal murder. Many people that I talked to didn’t think that Taseer was a blasphemer but they claimed that he wasn’t a good muslim and so he brought his untimely death upon himself. The harshest reality check was when hailing a murderer as a hero appeared to be a virtue for many- a way to showcase their loyalty to Islam.
Unfortunately we live in a country where the word of the mullah has become synonymous with the word of Allah. Recently friend was harassed by a mullah while visiting a bank for not sporting an Islamic beard. He was told that he needed to be taught a lesson and that the fear of eternal damnation wasn’t a good enough deterrent. Islam is also becoming synonymous with Saudi culture which is in turn is seen as the pinnacle of faith and piety. We often forget the injustices that exist in their society. Wahabisim is being exported by preachers like Farhat Hashmi and women are being encouraged to adorn Saudi style abaya and niqabs in order prove that they are good muslisms.
A student at a university was reprimanded by a professor for his personal facebook page not meeting Islamic standards. According to the professor one of the widget he has on his page (it allows you to track fans) had followers with the name Muhammad who had animated profile pictures, which she deemed as highly disrespectful to our Holy Prophet (pbuh). She repeated called him a “Gustakh-e-Rasool” and declared him “Wajib-ul-Qatal”. She even went as far as trying to get this student suspended for not taking her advice. The poor student’s misery doesn’t end there. She has been since harassing him by sending threatening text messages and calling his family continuously.
Where will all this end?
A common strategy amongst traditionalist is to accuse anyone whose understanding of Islam is not in line with the conventional view of not being muslims and they call for them leave their faith. Their adherence to the literal letter of the law has become such that even a small deviation from their dogmatic interpretation and traditional edicts is considered blasphemous. There is no room for dissenting opinion or independent thought let alone discourse. Islam is often used for political commandeering. Recently Fareed Paracha on a talk show misquoted a few verses from the Qur’an to make a point, not only was the audience unable to question it, the other religious scholar supported the claim. In fact the moderator of the show emphatically agreed with Mr. Paracha.
Religious authorities not only have a powerful hold over the public as the gatekeepers of faith but are also receive patronage by the State. In a society where people are attacked for not being religious enough you create a climate of fear where people have to prove that they are more religious than the next person leading to a downward spiral of intolerance.
We were put on this path to righteousness by our elders right after independence through the inclusion of the Objective Resolution, the compromises made in 1973 constitution to appease the right and last but not least due to the radicalization by General Zia ul Haque. He created a generation of what I call the “children of Zia”, children who grew up on the anti-India, jihad, supremacy of Pakistan ideology, using religion as a vehicle of hate. People will always find ways to spread bigotry and violence, be it through religion, nationalism, fear or political ideologies. It’s not the vehicle that is the problem, it’s the message you promote through it.
What was ingrained in us was a strange mix of religious nationalism and paranoia. It’s no wonder that every issue in Pakistan becomes the object of conspiracy theories but I digress.
So my question to you would be, how do you define a good muslim? Someone who is knows the Qur’an by heart, prayers 5 times a day and then goes out and kills someone in the name of religion. Or someone who openly drinks but then spends most of his time aiding the poor?
I define being a muslim as a person who believes in the basic tenets of Islam. If in your heart of hearts you believe in Islam and what it teaches you then you are a muslim. No matter what category others put you in. What is in your heart is between you and God. No one can or should judge someone else’s faith. There seems to be a dichotomy between religiosity and the moral traditions. We often forget why we are being asked to follow those rituals, that these practices were put in place to make you a better human.
I think our understanding of Islam will evolve over time and people will realize which of its teachings we should be focusing on. I for one would like our society to break away from the prevalent ideology of hate and focus on the compassion, tolerance and justice it teaches us towards others regardless of their faith, race, sex and caste. The Charter of Compassion led by Karen Armstrong is one such initiative we could all learn from.