Praying at the same time

April 19, 2015

Respecting the religious freedom of sects

Praying at the same time

Resolving conflict is one thing -- imposing uniformity in the interests of some vague version of cohesion, is quite another.

In a reported latest decision, the Federal Government’s Ministry of Religious Affairs has decided that all mosques of various Muslim sects in Islamabad will issue the call to prayer at the same time. A significant number of people from various walks of life have hailed this decision. However, I find this enthusiasm to be misplaced. Furthermore, it is my submission that the bona fide desires behind such a move notwithstanding, this is a deeply troubling measure. It directly violates religious freedom and forces the majority’s wishes on the rest of the pack.

I was born into a Sunni Muslim household. And I am not the most religious person you will ever run into -- therefore my argument is driven not by religious conviction but as someone who believes in religious freedom and pluralism. You do not need to be religious to recognise that religion matters deeply to people. And you do not have to like this fact but that is what it is -- a fact. It gives people, among other things, deep personal satisfaction to follow the tenets of their religion.

The call to prayer (Azaan) is a very intimate part of Islam and its various sects. It serves not just the obvious collective purpose of gathering people for prayer but its timing also announces the individuality of various sects.

There is also a political element to all of this and a sense of community. To replace that with a uniform time, and to take away the individuality of sects, is likely to directly (and unnecessarily) harm the religious sentiments of people -- particularly those belonging to sects other than the majority.

The aim here should not be confused with the efficacy of the measure itself. Pakistan, for decades, has been plagued by sectarian strife that has often turned violent. The state has a justifiable interest in reducing this conflict. But is this the most appropriate means? Or is this even one of many desirable means?

We are acting under the delusion that diversity of beliefs is the problem. It is not. The corruption of those beliefs and their linkages with desire for political power is the problem.  

Sects other than the majority need to be assured of their individuality -- and the respect that comes along with it. By telling everyone to pray at the same time we are acting under the delusion that diversity of beliefs is the problem. It is not. The corruption of those beliefs and their linkages with desire for political power is the problem.

Praying at the same time might sound good in theory but someone belonging to a minority sect will ask, whose time are we using as the standard? Sure, it might be inconvenient for the general population to listen to multiple calls for prayer but that is a cost of allowing certain religious freedom. And it is not as if the law regarding the call to prayer over the loudspeaker is being strictly enforced or amended. What is being done is an imposition of the majority’s standard over minorities in an issue which requires celebrating diversity.

Leaders of various sects might have assented to this for now -- whether under government pressure or some other reason -- but be prepared for a backlash. Countries with a history of problems caused by role of religion in public life often react in a kneejerk fashion. Pakistan is making the same mistake again. Musharraf’s ‘enlightened moderation’ was a poorly thought out strategy, apart from being illogical in our milieu.

The current measure is cosmetic. Strife between various sects spreads not because of timings of call to prayers but about beliefs vis-à-vis that are propagated in the name of religion. Also worth noting is the fact that hate speech about other sects goes largely unopposed from within the religion and its various sects.

Turkey has a militantly secular stance. I find it staggering when so many in Pakistan’s allegedly liberal circles celebrate the Turkish approach. Turkey is militantly secular and for all the wrong reasons. It is a state that puts forced uniformity ahead of an individual and a community’s right of free exercise of religion. Being a First Amendment devotee (free speech, free exercise of religion and religious establishment), I find the Turkish approach deeply offensive -- again not because I am religious but because I believe that free exercise of religion is a fundamental human right. And Turkey has never been a model of religious tolerance in its state practices.

Yes, we need to bring the various Muslim sects closer together. Yes, their leaders and the communities need to co-exist but forced uniformity is not the way forward. The element of choice is what enhances freedom and stability in society -- not its absence. Free exercise of religion gives people a stake in the system instead of being disenchanted with a system manipulated to the majority’s advantage.

Einstein found uniformity dull for a reason. He had classrooms and society in general in mind. In a society as complex as ours, nuanced issues present no easy solutions. Individuality is the essence of freedom. Issuing the call to prayer at a different time is a part of each sect’s identity. We just have to respect that -- not necessarily love it. And we have no right to squeeze the life out of practices that accord that sense of identity and individuality.

If we want our future to be defined by cosmetic measures that please the disconnected elite’s sense of cohesion, sure, go ahead with this measure. But if we are actually serious about solving difficult problems, we have to accept and respect the individuality of sects -- and the noise that comes along with it.

Praying at the same time