Wednesday, October 11, 2006

University life in Pakistan (and other issues)

This article in Time details the bullying nature of the Jamaat-i-Islami's student wing, the IJT. I really cannot put into words how much these people piss me off. I mean, I can, but it would involve a lot of cursing, and we here at fiverupees like to keep it relatively clean.

This stuff is nothing new of course. There has been student violence in universities in Pakistan for the longest time. But what's changing is that instead of being political (i.e. the student wing of the JI beating up a kid from the student wing of the MQM or vice versa) it's becoming (become?) cultural. These JMMAs (Junior Mindless Medieval Assholes) want to stop "music, drama and dance" at universities, and have wanted to do so for quite a while now (check the date on the link provided). They sabotage fashion shows. They denounce secularism and liberalism, and have no qualms getting their message across violently. They destroy year-end projects for graduating students if they find them "objectionable". They beat up people for flirting (even if they turn out to be married). In short, they make an obscurantist, violent nuisance of themselves.

These issues orthogonally return to the question of the separation of church (or mosque, whatever) and state. The extreme right opposes any sort of secularisation of society, because it maintains that we were meant to be, and should be, an Islamic country. It is difficult to get into the "meant to be" part of the argument, because both secular people and Islamists can fish some quote or the other by Jinnah which supports their stand. Part of the problem is, of course, that Jinnah never unequivocally and categorically stated his vision of Pakistan. This is because he was (a) a politician and (b) a lawyer (no offense, NB and Alien Panda). Politicians and lawyers make a living prevaricating and vascillating, to the point where you can always find support for almost any theory (within reason) about any politician or lawyer. So there's no point getting into a black-hole argument with anyone about what Pakistan was "meant to be". There's simply no way of knowing.

There are plenty of valid arguments, however, for what Pakistan should be. Pakistan should be a Muslim country, not an Islamic one. One term term refers to the demographic make up of the population while the other connotes a politcal-legal patronage by the state. I advocate having man-made laws govern our civil lives. This fact does not preclude Quranic laws from governing our spiritual life. That is a point that must be emphasized. There are very few words that have been abused more than "secular". Secular does not mean an absence of religion or even a limitation of it. Secular means a separation of church and state. In other words, the state cannot legally favour one religion over another. This is an extremely important distinction. People are free to live their lives however they choose. Idiotic laws that ban hijabs or Jewish skull caps are not secular. They are totalitarian. In a truly secular society, if people feel that Islam should govern their lives, they should be free do make that choice and live they way they wish to. But what secularization ensures is that their choices don't govern my life. As they say, the freedom of your arm stops at the beginning of my nose.

I can predict the counter argument to my point: secularism is a Western idea. We are Muslims, and Muslims believe that the Quran provides a complete code for life, and we need not look for laws elsewhere when they are laid out for us by God. (I hope I'm not falling prey to the create-a-straw-man trap here, and by all means let me know if you think I have). There are two fundmental problems with the view just outlined.

Firstly, if you believe that Islam must govern our public lives, then I ask you: whose Islam? Sunni or Shia? Barelvi or Deobandi? Mystic, modern or medieval? This is a serious question that I have yet to hear a serious answer to. The most common one is: "The reason we have so many sects and divisions is because we have strayed from the path prescribed by the Quran. If we took its words at face-value, there could be no disagreement." That statement has two problems associated with it. One, the Quran does leave a certain amount to interpretation. This is a fact. Two, even if the statement were true - and, again, let me emphasize that it is not - how would one go about "converting" the people who don't adhere to the prescribed faith; the "true" meaning of the Quran? Would we tell them that they are wrong, and hope they see the error of their ways? Or would we go about it like the Taliban, who killed Shias for fun?

Secondly, an idea being Western in its origins does not necessarily make it unsuitable for non-Westerners in practice. By way of example, democracy is a Western idea. It is a fairly popular idea the world over, cutting across religous, ethnic, socio-economic and geo-political lines. And while there will be variations in how countries interpret the idea of democracy - in other words, America's democracy looks nothing like India's which looks nothing like Japan's - the important point to note is the widespread acceptance of the idea itself. Similarly, the merits of the idea of a secular government and legal system are not weakened by pointing out that its origins were of a different geographical space. That is neither here nor there.

One of the great strengths of secularism is that without any institutional backing, people are free to interpret and practice religion as they see fit. This was (and still is) largely the case throughout the Indian subcontinent, or indeed the Muslim world. The way a Kashmiri practices Islam is significantly different from the way a Pathan or a Bengali practices Islam. Secular systems put religion where it belongs: in the private sphere, where ownership of it is exclusively belongs to the believer. I should make clear when I say "private", I don't mean it as opposed to the term "public". I mean it as opposed to the term "Public". Capital "P". It should be clear that in a country like Pakistan, where a large majority of people are devout Muslims, that religion will always be in "public". By that I mean, people will always wear prayer caps, people will always go to mosques on Fridays and office work will always slow down in Ramazan. But Public religion entails something entirely different. It entails, for one thing, 4 witnesses being required for a rapist to be prosecuted. Can you see the difference?

It's important to note, lest I'm bombarded with accusations of being a Western-educated, jeans-wearing, scotch-drinking, orgy-partaking liberal scum, that there a number of precedents for the system I'm advocating. Indonesia. Malaysia. Tunisia. All three are Muslim countries, not Islamic ones. If you ask the average Indonesian, he would not consider himself any less of a Muslim than, say, a Saudi. Why should we be any different?

I should also note, somewhat tangentially, that implicit in a prescription for man-made laws is the assumption that our sensibilities and morals are informed by Islam, or religion in general. But it is essential that our reason acts as a middle-man, so to speak. In other words, we get our values from religion. Those values, when treated with our reason and our understanding of the modern world, will lead to a debate. That debate, once concluded, can lead to a law.

To clarify, I don't think for a second that secularizing Pakistan will immediately do away with the problems I outlined right at the beginning of this post, where the overzealous Thought and Moral Police feel it necessary to tell the rest of us what we can and cannot do. But it will help, because it will slide the chair of institutional countenence away from underneath them. There has to be, however, a two-pronged strategy with such behavior. This is something that I realized after a discussion with NB a few months ago on Hudood laws. I was insistent that for violence to recede against women in Pakistan, the Hudood laws have to go. Quickly. NB was of the opinion that it might not be worth the political capital, and that it should be tackled from a socio-cultural perspective, that is, teach people it's not cool to gang rape women. I thought it was a legal question, he thought it was a normative question. We were both right then, and the same arguments that apply to the Hudood question apply to the personal freedom question: both political-legal reform and socio-cultural change are sine qua non for any advancement on these issues. And both are, and will be, incredibly challenging.


Asad said...

I would like to say, for the record, that this is one of the better posts I've read on this blog so far. Well written Choot. Kudos.
The arguements are solid, and I look forward to seeing the responses to this.

Anonymous said...

great an Indian and I can understand what you feel. This "bullying" is nothing different from what Bajrang Dal etc. do but they are definitely called goons and dealt with properly - or that's what I believe.

For the Islamic state views, I can understand and appreciate but not in a position to comment.

Last but not the least, kudos for the courage you have shown in putting these words. Your writing skills are very good. Keep it up!

Ahsan said...


Thanks for that.

Kabir said...

Bravo! Keep the rational comments flowing!

veena said...

Ahsan - First of all I appreciate the wonderful job you are doing. I have been a silent reader of your blog for quite some days now. I am very impressed by your thoughts and ideas.I always wonder why and how people go so irrational in the name of religion and God that they destroy the very meaning of Humanity.Well,keep up the good work and let good thoughts and knowledge come to you from all directions.
A Hindustani - Veena.