His audience, which consisted of the educated elite, patiently sat through this nonsensical sermon in deference to the shallow norms of propriety. But amazingly some even praised the cleric, probably because they had never bothered to understand the pronouncements of their sacred scripture. The fallout of such indifference has been hideous. A recent study shows that last year as many as 1,600 women in Pakistan were mercilessly killed for reasons of misbegotten ‘honour’, 2,000 were tortured and 450 committed suicide.
Seventy-six years ago the damage that clerics can do by exploiting religion was clearly understood by Jinnah. He told the students of the Aligarh University on February 5, 1938, that the Muslim League had liberated them “from the reactionary elements of Muslims and to create the opinion that those who play their selfish games are traitors. It has certainly freed you from that undesirable element of maulvis and maulanas.” He rounded off this impassioned speech with the words, “…may I now appeal to you to emancipate our women. This is essential. I do not mean that we are to ape the evils of the west. What I mean is that they must share our life, not only social but also political.”
Jinnah was undoubtedly one of the most outstanding leaders of his times. But even he underestimated the ability of clerics to “play their selfish games” by distorting the teachings of Islam for no higher a motive than capturing political power. This is the fundamental problem that Pakistan encounters today. The Al-Qaeda inspired Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan even after killing nearly 50,000 people, has the gall to claim that its intentions are entirely pious. It has consistently maintained that its only objective is the enforcement of Islamic law or Shariah.
The gruesome statistics will keep mounting till things change but this will never happen till the national mindset, which is anchored in tradition and disguised in fabricated religious formulations, is radically transformed. In his ‘Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right’ which appeared in 1843, Karl Marx wrote that religion is the opiate of the masses. This is not always true because the early Muslims reached the pinnacle of glory so long as they abided by the spirit of their faith the central emphasis of which is the supremacy of reason and the acquisition of knowledge. Their fall came only when they deviated from its injunctions.
In an article for this newspaper several months back, I disagreed with the Marxian view but in an altogether different sense. The argument was advanced that religion when wrongly interpreted is not merely the opiate of the people, but becomes the poison that destroys society. This is the lesson that the leadership of Pakistan has never learnt. As a consequence the country has become a prisoner of obscurantist thought propounded relentlessly by clerics from the pulpits of mosques. This is the bedrock on which the ideology of the TTP is anchored.
The outlawed group decided to put its terrorist activities on hold for a month. Talk show hosts are jubilant that after the March 3 suicide bomb attack on the district courts complex in Islamabad there has been a pause in major terrorist outrages. It did not matter to them that two policemen assigned for the protection of a polio inoculation team were brutally shot dead in Dera Ismail Khan on Tuesday.
Wednesday’s meeting between Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf leader Imran Khan has been touted as a sensational event that will augur well for the development of a national consensus in support of the peace process. It did not occur to anyone that there was never even the slightest of difference between the two leaders on talks with the TTP. If at all there was anything surprising about this meeting it was that it had taken so long to materialise.
The pieces are in place for the second phase of the futile dialogue with the Taliban and the expectation of the prime minister is that it will be “result-oriented.” The government’s negotiating panel has been reconstituted and consists of three serving bureaucrats and one retired diplomat. This team, as is evident from its composition, is not ‘empowered’ to take consequential on-the-spot decisions. Members of the committee will, therefore, be merely shuttling like courier pigeons between Islamabad and the Taliban leadership.
The process has already been ‘result-oriented’ but only for the TTP because it has achieved two objectives. First, it has acquired political legitimacy without having to pledge fealty to the constitution and; second, it has gained the time to regroup and recoup its losses from the recent precision strikes by the Pakistan Air Force. In a few more weeks, when the snows of winter will have melted, it will be ready to resume its terrorist outrages.
This is what had prompted the outlawed group to temporarily suspend its agenda of mass slaughter and destruction.
The outcome of Friday’s consultations in North Waziristan between the TTP’s central shura and its panel of mediators will soon be known. If direct contact between the Taliban and the government’s newly minted committee of negotiators is established, then the outcome of the talks is entirely predictable.
The TTP will continue to insist on: (i) the imposition of its concept of the Shariah; (ii) a permanent cessation of drone strikes; (iii) the withdrawal of the Pakistan Army from the tribal agencies; and (iv) the release of Taliban prisoners. Its ancillary demands range from the severance of ties with the US, amnesty for Taliban commanders, reparation for property damage caused by drone attacks etc.
The declaratory policy of the TTP has always been that it will settle for nothing less than the enforcement of the Shariah. This, of course, is the smokescreen behind which it conceals political ambitions. The laws of Islam are simple and few. Of the Quran’s 6,247 verses only 30 pertain to penal and 70 to civil laws in order not to impose too great a burden on believers as explained in the holy book itself (5:101-102).
As for the Sunnah, in several well-authenticated traditions of the Prophet (pbuh), his illustrious widow, Aishah repeatedly said that “his way of life was the Quran.”
One wonders whether the hadood and blasphemy laws enacted by General Ziaul Haq or even the 2nd Amendment of the constitution would be able to withstand rigorous scrutiny in that light.
On March 8, it was, therefore, a sheer delight to see the skilful manner in which Saleem Safi of Geo News grilled Maulana Abdul Aziz, of the Lal Masjid in his talk show ‘Jirga’. The cleric brought religious literature in order to justify the TTP’s demand for the Shariah. If he had only bothered to understand the message of the Quran he would have come across the passage: “The parable of those who were graced with the burden of the Torah, and thereafter failed to bear this burden, is that of an ass that carries loads of books but cannot benefit from them” (62:5). This, of course, applies as much to Muslims.
S Iftikhar Murshed is the publisher of Criterion Quarterly.