Space for dissent
BY A Z A M G I L L | 6/26/2015

PAKISTAN`S blistered soul faces challenges from overlapping factors of ideology, language, ethnicity and multi-denominational belief systems. Within this disparateness, the pulpit is a constant that can unite or divide. Right to citizenship by birth and right to citizenship by blood cohabit awkwardly with religious imperatives.

Denominations plus ethnic, ideological and language groups constantly seek ascendancy through violence. Their power base is usually religion, a balm to the soul that can also be its bane. Mismanaged hybrid ideologies compound the inherent instability of a young nation. Each group claims to uphold untainted ideals of democracy and social equality.

Language itself is not immune to the onslaught of purity. Urdu, English and Arabic are Pakistan`s national, official and religious languages, respectively. Four provincial, five regional and the 60-odd minor languages fight hard to claim purity and disclaim cultural sedition. Fear and frustrated ambition can erupt to the surface and seek single-issue political platforms over a perception of purity.

With eight major and seven minor ethnic groups broadly grouped by language, purity rears its ugly head with the threat of ethnic purification lurking over the horizon.

Taking bickering denominations into account, each of the dozen paths of redemption and salvation declares inclusiveness in public but remains exclusive in private. The powerful seek to purify the landscape of the impure.

Faith has gone public and seeks state involvement, patronisation and implementation.

A single tribe may illustrate the overlap of ideology, ethnicity, language, ideology and belief systems, having within it different religious denominations that speak diverse languages and hold conflicting political opinions.

Samad Khan, a Sunni Muslim, is a Tareen Pakhtun whose Doabi Punjabi-speaking parents migrated at Partition from Basti Pathanaan, Jullundur. His recently acquired Pashto complements his Urdu and impeccable English, while his politics are Anglo-Pakistani populist democracy selectively embellished with religion. Tareens may be native Urdu, Punjabi, Seraiki, Hindko, Pashto or even Balochi speakers, representing various belief systems and ideologies. The same is true for every tribal and clan group, yet there is intermarriage among tribal equals, including religious denominations.

Over the past 67 years, intermarriage and the ideological, linguistic, ethnic, and multidenominational overlap should have created a homogenous society gradually overcoming itís natural divisions to fuel rather than regress development as it has done in Pakistan.

Denominations aside, 95 to 98pc of Pakistanis are bound within a common belief system that justifies high expectations of solidarity and stability. Yet the opposite holds true.

Accusations and counter-accusations by warring groups to proclaim their purity have led to bloodshed and instability, starving development and feeding poverty.

Each group is convinced of its righteousness, a violently expressed trend.

This righteousness emanated from the pulpit and became the rank and file`s prevalent self-righteousness embedded in belief. Neither legislation nor the point of the bayonet will eliminate self-righteousness, the regrettable by-product of public religion. The Soviet Union tried that for 69 years and failed.

Religion is a fundamental need. In the aftermath of the Soviet Empire the Orthodox Church went bullish, and Islam emerged stronger.

Pakistan has been alternately experimenting with legislation, the bayonet and a Western-style electoral system with religious trimmings. Neither has been satisfactory, and repeating the dose is liable to worsen matters.

Pakistanis` weakness for religion is also their strength.

If their faith has been used to divide, it also has the power to unite and stabilise. When the pulpit emanates righteousness, it can also ensure against self-righteousness. Instead of conducting a losing battle with the religious leadership, it is time to institutionalise it as a collegial body within a system of checks and balances to serve as vigilant ombudsmen rather than versatile political actors.

Moreover, a state unfettered by religion will strengthen faith. It will also trim state power, which often exceeds its remit. Purity will then become a concept mitigated under checks and balances.

During the Pakistan Movement, the Muslim League rank and file filled the streets, yearning for a Muslim/Islamic state.

That expectation has not yet been fully satisfied. Self-interested groups will always be able to harness that unsatisfied expectation.

They need to be denied that terrain.

Pakistanis should submit to the will of the people without giving in to religious tyranny, and adapt the loose framework of a constitutional theocracy to their needs in which religion remains a principal reference for legislation, while ensuring that the power of the collegial clergy is on par with that of the queens of England and Denmark.

That should allow Pakistan a badly needed cooling down to retrieve its tired soul. •
The writer is a freelance contributor.

Published in Dawn