Our inability to discuss religion

Beyond fasting and praying, what does it really mean to be a Pakistani Muslim in the 21st century?

M Bilal Lakhani August 02, 2013
The writer is a graduate of Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism and currently teaches journalism at SZABIST in Karachi

Pakistan, with its predictable need to be at the centre of the world’s attention, is arguably the most critical battleground where the future of faith, as a religious and political force, will be determined. And yet, Pakistan’s national discourse avoids any meaningful discussion on religion and the role it should play in our personal and public life.

Instead of meaningful conversations on religion, we have larger than life Ramazan talk shows with grandiose sets that hand out gifts in the name of charity to an audience eager to display their knowledge of Islamic trivia. These iftar time television transmissions are Pakistan’s answer to American Idol. The American dream involves propelling half decent talent onto a world of rock stardom and an obscene amount of wealth. The Pakistani dream involves an overt display of religiosity, with the local bourgeoisie celebrating their ‘charitable spirit’ by trying to improve the lives of underprivileged families on national television.

Nowhere is our inability to discuss religion more appalling than in the curious case of Malala Yousufzai. To put it politely, Malala’s supporters are using ‘female education’ as an euphemism to discuss a difference in religious worldviews with extremists. Opposition to female education is a symptom of a larger problem, i.e., a distorted understanding of religion, which should be at the centre of our national conversation. Instead of calling a spade a spade, even in our most celebrated moments of courage, the Pakistani people are unable to have an adult conversation about religion. Even our storied ‘liberal fascists’ have to beat around the bush by framing a discussion about differences in religious worldviews under the garb of more publicly acceptable language, such as ‘female education’.

I’m not arguing for or against a particular interpretation of religion but I would like to make the case for a more open debate on religion and the role it should play in Pakistani society. We’re a nation that will fight for religion, die for religion but not discuss religion and what it really means to us. We have substituted morality with religiosity and lost our soul in the process. None of this has happened in a vacuum. In fact, one could even argue that our collective inability to define religion’s role in public life is premised on our inability to decide what role religion should play in our personal lives.

Beyond fasting, praying and visiting the mosque every Friday, what does it really mean to be a Pakistani Muslim in the 21st century? The answer to that question, quite frankly, is that most of us don’t have the time in our busy lives to think about religion and how strongly we feel about the role it plays in society. In the absence of critical thinking on this subject, the abstract notion of faith being a ‘complete way of life’ has entrenched itself in a significant proportion of the Pakistani populace. Extremists take advantage of this notion to build common ground with the Pakistani people by arguing that they share a similar objective, i.e., adopting Islam as a way of life. When the Pakistani people show their disgust at the violent means used by extremists to pursue their objective, the extremists use anti-imperialistic rhetoric to regain their sympathies. This vicious cycle, fuelled by our inability to talk about religion like adults, is proving to be our collective undoing. Some of us mistakenly believe that the Pakistani state is tacitly tolerating the presence of extremists in our midst. Unfortunately, it’s those who believe the exact opposite that are closer to the truth: with their proven ability to attack when and where they want, it’s the extremists who are barely tolerating the Pakistani state and not the other way around.

Published in The Express Tribune, August 3rd, 2013.

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