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May 16, 2019

A walk into the darkness


May 16, 2019

Pakistan and its people have now walked quite a long way since the country appeared on the map in 1947. Through these seven decades, the walk has taken people into a kind of twilight zone. Today, darkness seems to be closing in even closer, leaving fewer and fewer glimmers of light.

From a time when communities across the country were generally able to live in harmony, we have a descent into more and more intolerance and division. The attack by extremists on an emergency centre in Sukkur, set up to combat the ongoing heatwave in Sindh, and provide people water in cases of need, signifies the degree of irrationality that has overcome us. Those who carried out the attack, forcing the closure of all emergency centres in the area, said they were acting in defense of the controversial Ehteram-e-Ramazan Ordinance, which dates back to the Ziaul Haq era.

Under the same law, in past years and today, persons including the elderly have been attacked for taking even a sip of water in public, eatery businesses have been forced to close down their shutters all through the day even along busy highways, depriving owners of much needed revenue in a time when costs continue to soar, and vendors have had their carts overturned by enraged mobs incited by the sale of edible items a few hours before the breaking of the fast

Many would argue that this is insanity. There are multiple other examples. In Peshawar this year, the long tradition in the city of Sikh residents setting up roadside iftari spots along busy roads which offered free food to labourers, passers-by and others seeking to break the fast has been abandoned this year on orders by the administration. The Sikh community was warned there were threats to their safety. This follows the murder last year of rights activist Sardar Charanjeet Singh was killed last year. Charanjeet Singh, whose murder continues to be investigated, had been one of the most prominent organisers of the iftaris served on pavements. Again, the denial to Sikhs of their gesture symbolizing communal harmony makes very little sense.

But then, less and less makes sense in a country from where reason seems to be drifting away. The controversy over moon-sighting is just one example. The proposal by Minister for Science and Technology Fawad Chaudhry that the event be managed scientifically through a lunar calendar and his setting up of a committee of scientists to manage this has drawn wrath from the Ruet-e-Hilal Committee and other clerics. No doubt their own interests are at stake, given the vast sums spent on maintaining the committee and on organizing moon-sighting rituals.

For once, Mr Chaudhry has shown wisdom. We hope it will prevail and we can do away with the images of men peering through telescopes in search of the moon, whose appearance can so easily be predicted in this age of astronomical knowledge and advanced meteorology.

The blast outside Data Darbar in Lahore could be a part of efforts to attack Sufi Islam, with its stress on philosophical interpretations of the religion and acceptance for all beliefs. The dangers that stem from intolerance were also evident in the long delay involved in Aasia Bibi’s exit from the country, which took place a few days ago and was delayed following the court verdict declaring her a free woman because of fears of protests by extremists.

There are of course many other symptoms of the malaise. The attacks on places of worship, the gunning down of Ahmadis, the declarations by eminent sportsman Shahid Afridi that his daughters would not be allowed to play sports in public and many other events all contribute to the forces which seem to be pulling us back into a medieval age.

Against these forces we need an organized effort led by the government and the apparatus it controls to combat what is happening. But when the prime minister inaugurates a university where we are told spirituality and science will be combined into a common field of knowledge, there is an addition to confusion and the lack of clarity over the direction we are headed in. Already, we seem to have lost our way in the darkness.

Naturally, we need to understand that, while religion will always be a central part of life for the majority in the country, it should not lead to violence, attempts to discriminate against specific groups including women or mow down those who are not Muslims. There is already a divide within the Muslim community as well with sects locked in war against each other and groups such as the Hazara Shias targeted on the grounds of both ethnic and sectarian divides.

Political leaders from all schools of thought need to combine forces to convince their followers that this is nonsensical. They need to send out a strong message, reinforced by those in power through changes in textbooks, a control over the preaching of hatred or intolerance over the media and other similar measures. Most of these have been discussed while drawing up important legislation such as the National Action Plan of 2015. Sadly, they have never been implemented and as a result, we find the cliff that faces us is growing taller and steeper almost by the minute.

From somewhere within the shadows that have closed in around us, we need to find an opening through which we can clamber out and head for a safer space. The walk towards this destination must be led by the government in power and joined by all those in positions of influence. These include religious scholars and celebrity figures. Sadly, we have already driven many of these personalities out of the country, fearful of their lives.

The situation simply cannot be allowed to continue. We need to rediscover the true meaning of religious belief and understand how necessary communal harmony is for our very survival. There are already too many divides cutting across our society and the soil which makes up our territory. These have been visible recently in Balochistan and in other places. They need to be healed, and we need to remember that only good sense and a strong idea of the direction we are headed in can help us rediscover the map we need to follow to find light. Today, only a thin sliver is visible at a considerable distance away. We must walk towards it as quickly as we can manage and find the strength to pull aside the shades so that more light can shine through and introduce the elements of reason we have parted with over the decades.

It is essential that we begin efforts to ensure the light can reach all parts of the country and all households within it. There are too many places from which it has vanished. This explains our illogical efforts to impose religion, without understanding that this can never happen without expanding peace, harmony and acceptance for all as widely as possible. Religious belief that results in violence and death can have no meaning. An understanding of this reality and an acceptance for all beliefs must be made far more widely available.

The writer is a freelance columnist and former newspaper editor.

Email: [email protected]

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