Is More Religion the Answer?

By Anjum Altaf

Religion is always ticking away in the background of almost every issue in Pakistan but there has been a decided uptick in the intensity of instructional fervour in recent days. The thrust is a desperate effort to make Pakistanis more pious in order to achieve the fast disappearing better society of our dreams.

To start off, a committee of the National Assembly passed a bill to make teaching the Quran compulsory in grades 1 through 12 in all federal educational institutions. According the committee chair “the bill is one of the good steps and will benefit students.” The education minister added that “this bill was moved because it was the people’s demand and because it was the need of the hour.” The text of the bill states that “it will make the divine message understood; ensure the repose of society; peace and tranquillity; Promote the supreme human values of truth, honesty, integrity, character building, tolerance, understanding others’ point of view and way of life. It will lead towards spreading goodness and auspiciousness and towards ending chaos and uncertainty.”

Not to be upstaged, the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education of the KPK government placed a front-page announcement in national newspapers that it was ahead of the game as the only province to have already implemented such an initiative. “We are ever-committed to harvesting all-rounder children to fully contribute to our society,” it claimed proudly (Dawn, page 1, March 18, 2017).

The Punjab government, never one to be left behind in matters of righteousness, chimed in with a more modest suggestion. The minister for higher education lamented “We are leaving our religion behind, we are forgetting our culture and ethics. Hence, I have made the hijab compulsory for our women and sisters in colleges.” He added it was his duty to take the step “as it is the duty of every Muslim.” He had also thought through an operational plan: “I have also made a policy for it, if your attendance falls below 60 pc then we will give 5 pc attendance to those girls who wear a hijab.” When the government had second thoughts on the idea, the public prosecutor stepped in to salvage the prestige of the province. He offered to guarantee the acquittal of 42 Christians accused of a crime if they agreed to embrace Islam.

Soon thereafter, the newly-appointed Chief Justice of the AJK Supreme Court announced that prayers had been made mandatory and that the annual increment for court employees would be conditional on the regular offering of prayers, which, he said, would be secretly checked. No doubt we will be hearing soon from the laggard governments of Sindh and Balochistan but the trends seem fairly clear about the direction in which we are headed to make the country more pious.

No one would fail to applaud the desire to improve society. Things are so abysmal that it is difficult to think of a single governmental transaction that is free of fraud and graft. And the state of general morality is so degraded that few are willing to engage in market transactions without first securing a trusted personal connection with the transacting party.

There are two concerns, however. The first is that those pushing for piety are among the more impious. Not even the ministry of Haj and Religious Affairs is spotless. And how transparent is the KPK department of education in appointing people to its own sub-departments? When the dishonest begin pushing honesty, the red flags go up automatically. This could be just another distraction while the loot continues uninterrupted.

Second, we live simultaneously in the age of religion and of science. Where, one wonders, is the evidence on which all these policy proposals are based? On what basis is it argued that Quranic teaching from grades 1 through 12 or wearing the hijab in college would make us more pious? If this is only the belief of some individuals why is that belief getting privileged without any empirical support?

What there is by way of evidence might suggest quite contrary conclusions. At least since Zia ul Haq there has been an exponential increase in religiosity as well as nationalism with the infusion of Islamic and Pakistan studies throughout education but Pakistan has only declined on the corruption index of Transparency International.

The number of mosques per square kilometer has risen steeply to the point that simultaneous broadcasts have rendered azaans cacophonous. The number of mentions of God per hundred words spoken in Pakistani languages is now perhaps higher than in any other language in the world. The number of madrassas has multiplied without any increase in peace or tranquility. Rather, the growth in strife and intra-religious bigotry is there for all to observe.

This evidence suggests that more religion is unlikely to reverse the trends. The reason might be that most people have compartmentalized their behavior into separate compartments for  religion and practical life. This is best exemplified by the apocryphal story of the Pakistani importer visiting China who requested his host to give him spurious merchandise at inflated prices but not to serve him any pork. We see the equivalent at home everyday when bureaucrats and shopkeepers suspend all activities at prayer times only to resume fleecing clients and customers once they return from the mosques.

If this characterization is correct, pumping more religion into the religious compartment will have little impact on behavior in this world. That is because the social system we have validated is one in which all that matters is how rich one is no matter how one has accumulated the wealth. Wisdom, integrity and simplicity have all become the hallmarks of fools and the unworldly.

Religious education with a focus on belief divorced from action is not the same as an emphasis on ethics that guide actions independent of belief. Ghalib articulated this clearly long ago:

nahiiN kuchh subbha-o zunnaar ke phanday meN giiraaii
vafaadaarii meN shaykh-o barhamin kii aazmaa’ish hai

(there is no staying-power in the snare of prayer-beads and sacred-thread
the test of the Shaikh and the Brahmin is in faithfulness to principles)

An edited version of this opinion was published in the Express Tribune on 27 April, 2017. The original text is reproduced here with permission of the author.

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