Op-ed: Our identity --Munir Attaullah
If the saner elements of society wish to see a modern Pakistan, we must begin by ripping this veil of hypocrisy shrouding our public affairs, and stop paying even lip service to a medieval, and essentially obsolete, framework of ideas
Existentialist philosophy finds its roots in such basic human emotions as anguish and despair; of helplessness and rage at our frequent impotence; and of bewilderment when we do not understand. For Buddha the answer was a kind of all-enveloping humanism, while Kierkagaard found salvation in religion and Sartre in uncompromising atheism. Sartre’s view was that for modern man, in today’s essentially rootless world, such feelings arise from the fact that the essence of our being conscious is the freedom to make choices; that our choices determine who and what we become; but when all choices are horrendous such a freedom can become an impossible burden because we are not free even then not to be free (i.e. we still must make a choice). As personal freedoms have expanded dramatically, so have the dilemmas.
But this is not a philosophy column (even though, had Sartre been alive today, I would have loved to quiz him about that bit on ‘not being free to be free’. Would he say that having no principles is also a principle?). Perceptive readers will however understand from the title the relevance of these introductory remarks. For is not the turmoil, anguish, confusion — and the accompanying rage — we see in the Muslim world, the direct consequence of our refusal to make some hard choices?
Of all the choices the toughest is that between our religious and cultural identity and the norms of the modern world. A small minority has made a clear-cut choice either way. The rest of us have tried, in varying degrees, to marry the two, with all its concomitant contradictions and uncomfortable confusions. And when the conflict between rigid old norms and largely flexible new ones is intractable, as it often is, we take refuge in self-deception and hypocrisy. The Islamic provisions of the Constitution, Shariat bills and courts, the Council of Islamic Ideology, the OIC, Islamic banking, Islamic democracy etc., are just a few examples of what I mean.
Now I am not so foolish as to believe it is possible — or even desirable — to completely shed the comforting warm cloak of our cherished Islamic identity. Who has the courage to go about naked, shivering in the icy blast of modern norms, searching for new garments to fit a badly distended body? And yet, the fact that very few of us have a stomach for full-fledged Islamisation is sufficient proof that the cloak is indeed badly tattered, soiled, and hopelessly dated — like flared trousers, which were once de rigueur but now look embarrassingly quaint. Even the illiterate, easily influenced poor, careful though they are not to offend the local mullah, have a healthy instinctive reluctance to follow his lead in worldly matters. But if a hybrid value system is inevitable, is there no way then to avoid the morass of self-deception and hypocrisy, with all its consequent confusions, unworkable solutions, and resulting angst?
There is a way. We must have the courage to make one fundamental choice firmly: in principle, on issues of public policy (especially in the field of political theory) prefer the modern norm to the religious, as Turkey has done. And not be half-hearted, defensive or apologetic about our choice by, for example, striving to justify the choice through concepts such as Ijtehad etc. For once you accept, even obliquely, the relevance of a religious framework to such questions, you ride a slippery slope where you will inevitably crash into the barrier of ‘must the will of man be allowed to prevail over the word of Allah or the dictates of the Sunnah?’ Try answering that bit of blackmail directly if you dare.
This fundamental choice cannot be shirked if our vision of a modern and progressive Islamic state is ever to be realised. And the argument cannot be won if the playing surface is the turf of our religion. So we need to assert, and clearly demonstrate, that Islamic political theory has little to contribute to modern political structures. And this is easy. For no matter how hard religio-political leaders try and square the circle, our religion has little relevance to, if indeed it is not totally incompatible with, modern representative democracy. Let us demonstrate that this is indeed so, and what consequences inevitably follow. For example, many tout sanitised versions of our glory days (such as the Khulafa-e-Rashideen era) as the perfect political model. Should we then be enamoured today of how, and on what basis, political power was then acquired or transferred? Ask if we should allow slavery, concubines, chopping of hands and stoning to death, and do away with a prison system? Should we rely on a basically militia army paid largely through a fixed share of the loot and plunder? What about all the political infighting and intrigue which led to the murder of three Khalifas? How can ancient tribal norms be a model for a modern state?
Of course for a long time to come religion will continue to have a huge influence on our society (and therefore our politics too). So be it. But if the saner elements of society wish to see a modern Pakistan, we must begin by ripping this veil of hypocrisy shrouding our public affairs, and stop paying even lip service to a medieval, and essentially obsolete, framework of ideas. As Sartre said, in the modern world we are what we are, and become what we become, through our own choices.
Munir Attaullah is a businessman