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VIEW: Whither enlightened moderation?—Abbas Rashid
Why is it that, to the annoyance of many in other Muslim countries, those who have monopolised religion in Pakistan are forever trying to prove that we are the best Muslims to be found on the planet? Who exactly is to be the judge of that?
There is little to take exception to in President Pervez Musharraf’s stated resolve to curb extremist tendencies in society and the desire to internalise, at the broadest level, the true spirit of Islam that is tolerant, accommodative and enlightened. He has taken this vision of his to many parts of the globe, exhorted OIC members to follow suit and has with increasing frequency called upon the people of Pakistan to take up the challenge of defying extremism. Meanwhile, however, the government of Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz does not seem to be holding out too well against politico-religious groups on the offensive against ‘enlightened moderation’.
Consider the latest development: the cabinet after some debate has opted to back down and restore the religion column in passports. The new Machine Readable Passports recently issued by the government did not have this column. The passport, after all, is a document meant to establish the citizenship of the holder to facilitate travel and for the benefit of the host state.
Politico-religious parties launched a campaign against this move and a cabinet committee was set up to look into the issue and report to the federal cabinet. The committee recommended restoring the column. Information Minister Sheikh Rashid, a member of the committee, also thought it an opportune moment to distance the government of Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz from the decision to remove the religion column from passports by pointing out that the decision was taken under former prime minister, Zafarullah Jamali. So what other moderate moves would this prime minister consider reversing next? Joint electorates?
What is interesting, of course, is Musharraf’s rallying cry of enlightened moderation on the one hand and his choice of political partners on the other. For the first three decades after independence, there was no column for religion in passports. It has been there since Ziaul Haq’s time and was dropped with the introduction of the new passports.
It was turned into an issue for political reasons with some quarters pointing the possibility that this would enable non-Muslims to misrepresent themselves as Muslims as the passport did not clearly state their religion. But, if that is someone’s intent why can’t the misrepresentation take place at the time they are applying for the passport? After all, the national ID card does not have a column for religion.
Some press reports suggest that the minister for religious affairs, Ejazul Haq was also among those who opposed the decision to restore the column in the passport. This seems a bit strange considering an interview he gave to BBC radio earlier this year in January. It carried some interesting observations that shed light on the way a certain lobby approaches these issues. Those opposed to a column for religion have rightly argued that other Muslim countries including Saudi Arabia do not follow this practice, suggesting that Pakistan would be doing no disservice to Islam by following suit.
But the minister would have none of it. Pakistan, he reportedly said, came into being on the basis of Islamic ideology and the government would do nothing against it. So is the minister saying that Muslim states not specifically created on the basis of ‘Islamic ideology’ are in some ways less Muslim or Islamic than Pakistan? This raises another question.
Why is it that, to the annoyance of many in other Muslim countries, those who have monopolised religion in Pakistan are forever trying to prove that we are the best Muslims to be found on the planet? Who exactly is to be the judge of that? How can we possibly be arrogant enough to suggest that Turkey, Bangladesh, Indonesia or so many other countries conform to lower standards when it comes to following the dictates and spirit of Islam?
In any case, enlightened moderation seems to be having a difficult time of it along a fairly wide front. Recently, the National Assembly voted down a bill seeking to amend the law on honour-killings. The law the assembly did pass provides the perpetrators with a loophole to get away with murder by making use of the Qisas and Diyat ordinance (1979), which allows the victim’s elder (wali) to pardon the killer. (Earlier a potentially more effective bill tabled by the PPPP was blocked.) Meanwhile honour killings continue, unabated; they seem to have little impact on those entrusted with the duty of enacting laws that among other things steer us towards building a more humane society.
Similarly, we have the government retreating in some measure on the issue of the Aga Khan Examination Board. After agitation by politico-religious groups the government appears to have acquiesced to a much narrower scope for the operation of the Board than originally envisaged. Here again the agitation appears to have little to do with facts of the case. There is the questionnaire on AIDS that has been extensively written about which had nothing to do with the Board. Second, there is the constant refrain on the part of those opposed to it that the Board has been entrusted with changing the curriculum. It seems to matter little that under the enabling ordinance, it simply is not permitted to do so.
One is not sure how and if any of this is going to get resolved. But one thing is certain, President Musharraf is not going very far with his programme of enlightened moderation with the partners that he has. Now that the president has finally been persuaded of the wisdom of seeking allies among the mainstream parties he should also be willing to cede power in considerable measure rather than just office in the new arrangement. Driving too hard a bargain or excessive manipulation will be counter-productive and will serve neither the national purpose, nor perhaps his own.
Abbas Rashid is a freelance journalist and political analyst whose career has included editorial positions in various Pakistani newspapers