Saturday, April 14, 2007

Support For The Jamia Hafsa Women

Really good column by Irfan Hussain today on the ideology of Pakistan and the difficulties in reconciling its "Islamic" roots with a desire for secularism.
Among the many emails I have received on the subject are a substantial number supporting the demands of the Jamia Hafsa women. They ask why Shariah should not be the basis of the law of the land since Pakistan was created in the name of Islam. The authors of these diatribes are not interested in Jinnah’s sophistry of Pakistan being a ‘home for the Muslims of the subcontinent’, rather than an Islamic state.

In truth, this is a tough argument to rebut. Perhaps the mullahs have it right. Maybe the demands that are being voiced by religious fanatics, seen in the context of the partition of India along religious lines, should be considered. Clearly, a return to the seventh century, something the zealots are adamant about, would be disastrous for the country. But that’s a separate argument. If you are convinced that our brief stay on earth is transient, and that we will be rewarded or punished for the rest of eternity for our actions in this life, then obviously what happens in the here-and-now is unimportant.

Things like GDP, life expectancy and literacy rates become irrelevant. What truly matters is that we obey the divine rules, as interpreted by various schools of Islamic jurisprudence. In this worldview, manmade laws, ethics, and boundaries are all of secondary importance. If our destiny is pre-ordained, we can only submit. Within this narrow frame of reference, it makes perfect sense for our cricket team to spend more time at prayer than at the nets. And if the team is sent crashing out of the World Cup in the first round, clearly this was the will of God.

Even if the part about the cricket team is a little disingenuous (we didn't lose because we prayed too much; we lost because we had only three batsmen and if any two, let alone three, of them failed in the same match, we would lose. Even to Ireland), his point is well taken. If someone truly and completely believes that Islam provides a complete code of conduct for existence, that the "Quran is our constitution," and that Pakistan was created in the name of Islam, how can you possibly argue against the imposition of Sharia? The set of ideas that such a person takes as an absolute given simply do not permit any concession in a debate on the question of whether or not a nation of Muslims should be secular.

The sturdy logic behind the Sharia-imposition argument is one of three reasons that I have begun to seriously harbor thoughts of Pakistan becoming an Afghanistan circa 1999. The second reason, as elucidated over at The Glasshouse a while back (sorry, can't find the post), is our population explosion. Around 2025, we will have something in the range of 250-275 million people living in our country. If even 0.5% of this population has sympathies for Taliban-style governance (an extremely low estimate; my best guess would be something twenty times that), we will have more than 1 million armed and angry people ready to fight for this most uncompromisable of principles. The third reason, as I stated a few days ago, is that you simply do not need that many people to wrought significant social change. The vast majority of people (and I don't mean to say this perjoratively) will be completely pliant in the face of intimidation because one's life is more important than a principle or even relative freedom.

The counter-argument to this doomsday scenario would go something like this: religous parties have never gained more than 13% of votes in elections in Pakistan, and the overwhelming majority of people support three power bases (PPP, PML and the Army) that are, generally speaking, secular in their outlook on political life. There are a couple of responses to that contention. One, the PML is not secular. Nawaz Sharif was poised to push Sharia through the courts during his second tenure. In the brouhaha over the coup and the emergency landing and Kargil and whatnot, everyone forgets this. Two, the Army's top brass today may well be secular but there is no guarantee that it will be ten or fifteen years from now, when the officers trained under Zia's time begin rising to the top. Three, the fact that Pakistan's religous parties have historically not done particularly well in no way precludes them doing extremely well in the future. For one thing, they could organize and play the game of politics better. For another, times have changed. Pakistan today is a much, much more religously conservative country than it was a generation ago. Evidence for that claim is admittedly anecdotal but I have yet to meet someone who seriously disputes it.

On that depressing note, I'm off to lunch. Will try and get a Younis Khan post out soon but no guarantees.


Adeel said...

Haha, line by Irfan Hussain on these women: "I still haven’t been able to understand why the government has not cut off the electricity, water and gas to the entire Lal Masjid complex, with its two radical madressahs. Given the onset of the warm weather, the stifling head-to-toe clothing of the chicks with sticks, and the absence of deodorants, it wouldn’t take long for the students to call it a day." Lol, chicks with sticks!

Rabia said...

I just found this post... it's depressing as #@!# and very true.

Ahsan said...


Thanks. Very occasionally I write something that actually seems prescient a while after it is written.