Saturday October 16, 2021

The burden of piety

November 24, 2019

We are happily on the way to becoming a pious nation – yet again. And we have happily found a pious leader – yet again. His followers did not pick him because of his piety. In fact, piety would have made him dull to most of his followers. They fell for his physical charm and heroism and of course because he was clean, like a canary in a coal mine.

In the meantime, the Khan of Bani Gala has turned pious, as pious as some legendary leaders of the Ummah whose biographies can only be found in the Islami Kutab Khana of your city. In our own national history, there is only one leader who made piety the major plank of his charm and legitimacy. Today, we despise him despite his piety and no one is willing to own his legacy, except his biological progeny of course.

We, the subjects, have to suffer our masters in a hundred thousand ways. We have to suffer their desire to have more riches, their desire to have more power and their desire to have an ensemble of Qawwals around them. That's a familiar burden. It is a different ball game altogether to carry the burden of their piety – to have their rosary around our necks. Believe me, it can be harder than having the albatross of our own sins around our necks.

South Asian Muslims, or at least the Indus Valley types, want their mullahs bearded and pious. (It is another thing that they often get surprises here and there.) But they like their leaders clean-shaven and modern, and frankly they like it if their leaders have been able to achieve what they can only fantasize. That's why manly men outperform holy men at our ballot boxes.

Syed Maududi's biographer, Vali Nasr, tells us how the great Islamic scholar was unhappy over the political choices made by South Asian Muslims. He believed that it was him and not Jinnah who deserved to be the shepherd of the South Asian Muslim herd.

Twenty -three years later, he thought that his dream was turning into reality. While the nation awaited the results of the 1970 elections, his party was busy in full dress rehearsal of assuming power. He himself delivered a sermon on ruling well and turning Pakistan into a pious state. The nation once again betrayed him by picking Bhutto, a whisky-guzzling Westernized scholar and demagogue.

Lesser Muslims continued to rule Pakistan through elected or unelected means till Ziaul Haq came and combined power with piety. It was a cocktail we had never tasted before, and frankly we did not like it. It was too bitter for our taste. Thirty-one years later, this nation is still groaning under the burden of his piety.

Nawaz Sharif inherited Zia's cloak but threw it away too soon. He had a better chance at claiming that he was desi, ‘Made in Pakistan’, and thus more patriotic than the Bhuttos who had become too ‘vilayati’ due to their Western education and intellectual pretences.

The mixed blessing of piety is upon us again. Power is again mixing with piety in a strange fusion that we have never experienced before because there are too many ingredients in the mix, both indigenous and outlandish.

Having a pious leader is somewhat like having a son who has joined the Tableeghi Jamaat. Your food will turn poisonous as he adds Maut Ka Manzar to your daily diet of aaloo gosht. He will lose job while he is gone to Cheecha Watni on a forty -day long mandatory annual chilla. He will bring a bahu who is the daughter of a senior Tableeghi bazurg. However, you will die in peace because, compared to this life, the hereafter will appear more pleasant to you.

Piety at high places is riddled with many problems. Piety is micro-scale. It cannot be linked to structural and institutional reforms. Ever heard someone saying "he is a very pious leaders. He has undertaken exemplary institutional reforms in his country”? Piety is not about police reforms. It is about bringing food to a person confined to a police lockup. It is not about economic growth and economic policy that ends poverty and hunger. It is about setting up langars.

Building a school or a university is an act of piety, reforming the education system isn't. We must praise the builder of a small private university even if 25 million children remain out of school in his rule. He must be praised for the great feat even when 30,000 to 40,000 students shiver in the open in one district of Kohistan despite six years of his rule in the province. Of course, piety did not require rebuilding 354 schools destroyed in an earthquake more than a decade ago.

We must celebrate the great achievement of NUML even when the government of the great builder slashes the education budget by around 20 percent, allocating merely Rs28.64bn for the Higher Education Commission, against its demand of Rs55bn, practically paralysing higher education institutions across the country. Piety is piety. It cannot be linked to macro questions of policy.

There is another bigger problem with piety. At times, piety breaks its own boundaries and enters into the realm of the miraculous. That's when djinns may start residing on your rooftop and you may be able to see the future in a pot of water. What if the face that appears floating on the surface of the water is that of Usman Buzdar. What piety have the poor people of Punjab committed to earn such a reward?

Because piety is unassailable, unquestionable and unaccountable, behind the veneer of piety, there often lurks the autocratic desire to have more power, to rule forever and to obliterate the enemy with the dagger of piety. But within the ranks of the enemy, there may be people assuming more piety, commanding skills to cross fatwa with fatwa. It is a battle a society should never wish for. The curse of piety is upon us.

The writer is an anthropologist and development professional.

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Twitter: @zaighamkhan