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It was a sad day for ‘enlightened moderation’ on Wednesday. It came up against conservative reaction and beat a retreat. A majority of us are Muslims, and for most of us it is immaterial whether our passports or identity papers say so or not.
We don’t need a stamp to establish our identity. The significance of the ministerial committee’s decision to recommend restoration of the religion column in our passports doesn’t, therefore, make much of a difference in the religious context.
Nor would it matter for non-Muslims if they continue to be identified by their faith, of which undoubtedly they are as confident as we are of ours. It is the decision’s political significance that is worrisome.
The ministerial committee met in the wake of the so-called ‘million march’ by the MMA in Karachi and a persistent campaign against the new passports, which do not carry the religion column.
The MMA stalwarts will be perfectly justified in claiming victory, and will be emboldened to make other demands to suit their purposes. For weeks, they had concentrated only on the religion column’s restoration: forceful criticism that they were belabouring a non-issue had led them to grudgingly add inflation to their agenda. Now, the non-issue has been given respectability by the government’s own committee.
Its recommendation is subject to approval by the prime minister. It will require a very brave man to turn it down, and our prime minister has had no opportunity so far to display the courage of his personal convictions.
Indeed, it will be right to suspect that the ministerial committee would not have acted as it has done without prior clearance from up above. If the idea is to remove a minor prop for agitation from the MMA’s hands, and pursue other major social reforms, then we have seen over and over again how giving way on religious issues that are raised for political mileage only strengthens retrogressive trends in society.
Mr Zulfikar Ali Bhutto by succumbing to the PNA’s demands had not only ensured his own downfall but paved the way for Ziaul Haq to take the country into a decade of oppressive laws.
Soon after Gen Pervez Musharraf had taken over, he had promised procedural amendments in the blasphemy laws, but under pressure from the religious lobby, forgot all about it.
The Hudood laws similarly remain unchanged. Blaming deletion of the religion column on Mr Zafarullah Jamali, the short-lived PM, will not do. The government should be seriously concerned about how it is losing its way on it is domestic agenda.