On the heels of the recently proposed bill by the Council of Islamic Ideology (CII) regarding permission for a husband to lightly beat his wife and prohibition on mixing of genders in schools, hospitals and offices, I had an informal discussion with female teachers at the Karakorum International University (KIU) in Gilgit. They were of the opinion that men in Pakistan are fearful of everything novel and different, including women. Hence, their version of religion also smacks of fear. Someone quipped that so weak is their idea of religion that the laughter of women can produce cracks in the walls of paradise.
The proposals of wife-beating and segregation of genders are manifestations of a mind that cannot comprehend and tackle the drastic changes that are occurring in every sphere of life in the modern age. Psychologically, such a mind fails to change the objective conditions of the world, for it is bereft of the capacity to make sense of mutations in the configuration of the self, society and the world. This inability creates fear of change and compels a person to enfold himself within the cocoon of his old certainties.
Dogmatism in any society, ideology and religion stems from this process of fear. Being a product of a mentality that harbours fear of novelty and change, the CII has nothing significant to contribute to society except issuing edicts that only produce hindrances in the creation of an open society.
So the question that arises is: what are the factors that beget such mentality? Most analysis attributes the existence of a besieged mentality to religion only. This can be partly true. However, there are broader economic, institutional, psychological and socio-cultural forces at play in the creation of fear. Religion and ideology do not permeate a particular society in their purest form; rather the social ethos and institutional approach also change the essence of religion by casting it in their mould. Therefore, it is wrong to assume that there can be a pure essence of religion.
In Pakistan the religious essence is robed by involvement in the politics and power relations of state and society respectively. When the sacred gets entangled in profane matters, it will be analysed according to mundane standards and realities.
The interface between religion and power structure may make religion an emancipator in some cases and an oppressor in other. Instead of viewing the manifestation of religion in its essentialist form, its multiplicity should be taken as a point of departure for an analysis. Hence, it can be said that it is humans through which religion expresses itself – not vice versa. Being part of the same space and universe of meaning, people imbue everything, including religion, in the colours of their worldview.
In the first place, the existence of the CII within a modern state system is questionable. However, it will become a more oppressive and regressive tool if it is spearheaded by a person who is a product of the infrastructure and culture of fear that has mushroomed and flourished in our country during the last three and a half decades. Before Maulana Sherani, Professor Muhammad Khalid Masud headed the CII. Unlike Maulana Sherani, Professor Masud’s approach towards social and religious issues is not informed by fear, but is a product of the meeting of the horizons of a Muslim mind and Western epistemology.
Muslim societies today are faced with umpteen challenges, but because of poverty of thought they have failed to develop an episteme that is compatible with modern needs. According to Professor Arkoun, this poverty of thought is a result of the disappearance of critical reason in Islam after Ibn Rushd. On the other hand, Western thought succeeded in producing knowledge related to natural and human sciences. In order to fill this deficit of knowledge in Muslims, it is indispensable to acquire modern knowledge in the West so that Muslims are able to rethink the world through a modern paradigm. The efforts for interface between the Muslim mind and Western knowledge is stymied by guardians of truth in Islam; their only survival is dependent on the perpetuation of a closed mind and society.
There is a common fallacy among people in our country that the West is Godless. And to fill its spiritual and value deficit, it needs our version of religion. This perception is contrary to fact as universities in the West house the best theological and religious studies departments, which produce the latest research about Islam and other religions. Oxford, Cambridge, Harvard and Paris-Sorbonne universities were established to train clergy. Over the centuries they have expanded their horizons to explore dimensions of society and universe by undertaking research in natural and human sciences. Our seminaries, though, remained frozen in time.
In the modern scientific age of today, one has to meet certain criteria to be a master or specialist in a particular field. In case of any ailment, it is logical to seek the advice of a doctor because he or she holds the required credentials. Unfortunately, in our country anyone can claim to be an expert on something as sensitive as religion.
There are people who have built the whole edifice of religion on fear of the other, women, change and modernity. This fear is produced and maintain through an infrastructure in the shape of seminaries and institutions which produce people who have a fear of the world.
In the West those who aspire to join the church obtain their masters and PhD degrees from theological schools in the best universities. With exposure to modern disciplines they are better equipped to explicate religion in modern terms and metaphors. Custodians of Islam, however, have made themselves prisoners of their dogmatic enclosure. The situation in our country has gone from bad to worse as the last vestiges of rationality and dialogues have been obliterated to make more ground for a dogmatic narrative manufactured in factories of fear – seminaries.
Maulana Sherani and his ilk represent a long tradition of fear in Muslims, which uses women as a scapegoat for every crisis in state and society. Renowned feminist and sociologist Fatima Mernessi in her book, ‘Islam and Democracy: Fear of the Modern World’, beautifully encapsulates this tradition in these words, “Banning mixing of the sexes and advocating the separation of men and women as the measure to alleviate all political crises is far from being a novelty in Muslim political history. It is a tradition, even a state tradition”. She further writes, “Wine and women – here we have the Gordian knot of the crises. Tathir, the ritual purification of the social body, requires the destruction of the first and the confinement of the second.”
In order to extricate ourselves from the morass of fear, the state has to take drastic measures that can help in opening hitherto closed spaces, selves and minds. For that purpose it ought to bring seminaries under its control and regulate them on modern lines on the one hand, and introduce modern theological and religious departments in universities on the other.
Since women are the primary victims of this exclusivist infrastructure of fear, both mental and spatial, they can develop a counter-narrative which stems from their own existential experiences. It will ruffle the mental composure of guardians who have had a monopoly over the truth of religion for centuries.
The writer is a freelance columnist based in Gilgit.
Posted in The News,June 5th, 2016.