VIEW: Going dry —Gulmina Bilal Ahmad

Courtesy to "Daily Times"

We are so consumed with a matter of private faith that we will accept all ills in a head of state but not the fact that s/he is a non-Muslim. What right do we have to say that there is equality before the law in Pakistan when one of our laws bars a Pakistani from a position on the basis of his/her religion?

We are consumed by religion. The Muslims amongst us are consumed by Islam whereas the non-Muslim Pakistanis are consumed by their own religions. The reasons are different but the results are the same. The Pakistani Muslims, through state-sponsored educational, social, cultural and media influences and propaganda since the 80s have been encouraged to wear Islam on their sleeves. Thus, it is no wonder when once in Gujranwala, during a communication skills training with young students, a young 20-something man passionately spoke about an Islamic shoe and how all of us should wear Islamic shoes. When asked as to what, pray, is that, we were told it is a shoe that covers your foot. Clearly, sandals were not Islamic. According to him, sandals worn with socks are acceptable.

Non-Muslim Pakistanis have been compelled to first think of their religious identity and then think of themselves as Pakistanis because of the excessive brandishing of Islam as the “majority religion” and the officially sanctioned identity of Pakistan. The result is that our religious and ethnic identities are well developed; our national identity not as much.

Whether this is a positive development or not is a different discussion. However, the effect of our overdeveloped religious identities on our politics is adverse. A few years back, we had this controversy over the religion column in our passports. At an estimated loss of Rs 80 million, the religion column was inserted into the new machine-readable passports that were to be issued. A Nazi style stamp stating, “The stated religion of the passport carrier is Islam” was stamped on the machine-readable passports that were already issued.

Declaring a sect Muslim or non-Muslim is another result of our obsession with our religious identity. Another consequence of our religious obsession is the law that no non-Muslim can ever become the president. Thus, we are so consumed with a matter of private faith that we will accept all ills in a head of state but not the fact that s/he is a non-Muslim. What right do we have to say that there is equality before the law in Pakistan when one of our laws bars a Pakistani from a position on the basis of his/her religion?

This obsession of ours with religion affects our political priorities. In our assemblies, we have no time to discuss the energy crisis that we are confronted with. There is a dearth of time to discuss the law and order situation or the challenge of extremism and terrorism that stares us in the face. Yet, we have time to discuss the personal habits of our citizens and how we can control their personal behaviour. Last week, the Punjab Assembly spent 52 minutes discussing alcohol consumption patterns and prohibition. A non-Muslim Member of the Provincial Assembly, Pervaiz Rafiq, sought support on a resolution that would prohibit the sale and use of alcohol in Punjab. The sale and use of alcohol is prohibited to Muslims courtesy Zulfikar Ali Bhutto. Bhutto, himself a consumer of alcohol, understood the political soul of Pakistanis and banned the sale and use of alcohol, declared Ahmedis non-Muslims and declared Friday to be a public holiday to take the punch out of the political sloganeering of the conservative right. Thus, he also played the religion card for short term gains but suffered a long term loss. Mr Pervaiz Rafiq wants to improve on the policy initiated by Bhutto by including non-Muslims into the ambit as well. Mr Rafiq is of the opinion that since Christianity also prohibits the use of alcohol, Christian Pakistanis should also be legally prohibited to consume alcohol. If this resolution is approved by the Punjab Assembly, then effectively Punjab will go dry — at least on paper.

These 52 minutes of debate and speeches supporting the resolution could certainly have been spent better. Taxpaying Pakistanis on whose expense the Assembly runs are well aware of the merits and demerits of alcohol consumption. Debate on whether Christianity or Islam allows or disallows alcohol should be done in churches and mosques instead of Assemblies. The Punjab Assembly, that day, did not have time to discuss the water problem between Punjab and Sindh but had time to discuss alcohol consumption.

Whether alcohol should be consumed or not is a private issue. The jury is still out on whether Christianity allows or disallows alcohol. Hindus or Sikhs residing in Punjab can very well challenge the law as discriminatory for the proposed law would restrict their access to alcohol and they are not barred by their religions from consuming it.

Excessive legislation and regulation always has the danger of creating and facilitating a black market. In spite of prohibition for Muslims, alcohol is available through bootleggers. According to statistics quoted in various sections of the media, out of 1,560 alcohol-related cases reported at just one hospital of Lahore, more than 90 percent were Muslims and only seven percent were non-Muslims.

Thus the issue is not that of religion or of law. It is a personal matter and the state should not regulate personal matters, especially that of faith. When religiosity becomes a barometer of good citizenship, as has been the case in Pakistan for decades, we see the rise of intolerant and extremist attitudes.

The slain Taliban leader, Muslim Khan, ordering the lashing of a burqa-clad woman who “dared to speak to a male shopkeeper”, the Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal’s (MMA’s) proposed Hasba Bill, the religion column in passport ruckus, the gender insensitive attitudes and remarks towards women, the banning of alcohol for all and sundry through legislation are different sides of the same coin: the coin of extremism and curbing diversity in views, interpretations, religions and behaviour. For to legislate on a matter is to create a uniform law for everyone; personal beliefs and actions cannot be uniform. To expect that must be, is to be intolerant.

As Pakistan struggles to fight the war against terrorism and extremism, it must remember that extremist and intolerant attitudes have to be rooted out not just from the tribal areas but from other aspects of our lives too.

The writer is an Islamabad-based development consultant. She can be reached at