Too many are demanding of blind faith
Pakistan Today – 5 November, 2013
Ever since General Ziaul Haq unilaterally decided that Pakistan’s majority religion was not exclusively the individual citizen’s business but that of the state, the past 35 years has spelt systematic encroachment and interference into matters of personal faith. It didn’t stop there, developing into assault on intellectual freedom, taking swipes at academia when departure from unwritten ground rules were perceived, and a controlling tendency over public behavior. Bhutto’s earlier marginalization of a minority that threatened no one simply buoyed aggressive attitudes.
Zia’s time passed, but not before giving firm root to regressive elements bent on seizing political control. Eleven years and unlimited funds from within and abroad strengthened their base. Far from containing them, elected governments used them as props of convenience to shore up their own areas of weakness. Except for a handful that make repetitious rounds of TV channels, there are few informed enough to apply knowledge to people’s development.
It is frequently contended that submission to Islam — as defined by some dominant group or other – would automatically solve all economic problems. This is simply not true; Islam provides guidelines for personal and overall life, not ready-made blueprints which would negate the purpose, integrity and effort of the individual towards self-realization in keeping with conscience and common sense. Expecting citizens to bow to any single set of beliefs cannot be justified, although some keep trying.
Very few provide the balanced and universalist outlook that all can readily embrace. Too many are demanding of blind faith, and don’t acknowledge that there’s no fixed point when spiritual awareness begins and the process of religious experience is fulfilled. Some are indoctrinated from a very early age before children are capable of reasoning, so that beliefs handed down by family and community are internalized and taken as an unquestioned given. This does not apply to everyone. For many, while concepts of right and wrong are inducted early, formal religious instruction begins after children learn to read, although the age varies.
Over the ages, the nature of spiritual experience continues to be highly varied. Some search out mentors, others from within themselves. Some begin and end as believers or unbelievers; or having once believed, experience disillusionment, see the light again later, and return. The human mind cannot be manipulated except against its own will.
While initially the independent electronic media was invaluable in quickly informing urbanites on the most urgent public-interest and political issues, coverage never became comprehensive enough to cover broader concerns. Among them are universal human rights, and constitutional and personal rights – which sometime inconvenience corporate rights. Religion could have been used supportively, but wasn’t.
Television includes many hours of religious focus. Some seriously try to address human problems, and answer religiously-oriented questions for the genuine seeker. Some seek interpretations in light of contemporary times: not always forthcoming. Some directly or indirectly downgrade women. Some hold a specific ideological bent, which is fine — unless it rejects other points of view and becomes a lightning rod for discord, especially if use of force is upheld.
Along the way, many have completely stopped thinking for themselves and seek answers about the ‘rightness’ or ‘wrongness’ or ‘correctness’ of routine everyday acts. So much so, that some advisers stray way beyond principles of faith to rigidly recommend what individual behavior and practices should be. Viewers can of course choose programmes and speakers they feel comfortable with, but some can’t even decide on that, and end up confused.
Whatever the case may be, Islam doesn’t enjoin faith being imposed perforce. It can be taught, but is subject to understanding and voluntary acceptance. That right is constantly being violated. Subtly and not-so-subtly, people are literally browbeaten into silence over what some ‘experts’ thrust on them. Since they cannot enter people’s heads, people’s submission is determined by making them unquestioningly parrot prescribed statements amounting to relentless psychological harassment.
Again and again, many fail to understand the necessary neutral base of secularity – which does not mean lack of ethics or morals but may provide universally acceptable norms – enabling all beliefs to have equal standing. This is evident on panel discussions when people for whom religion is a private matter are thrown together with those having fixed, even fanatical, views. Since they have no common denominators to begin with, such debates degenerate into unseemly arguments, or the holier-than-thou proclaiming themselves victorious irrespective. Some anchors are guilty of intentionally planning and provoking uncalled-for and unseemly controversy to increase ratings.
Matters have come to such a point that suo moto notice seems the only recourse, not only for freedom of information and expression, but also freedom of worship sans intimidation, not forced to choose to belong to one sect or the other. But how many can take that step? Even justice costs time and money.
This article was published in Pakistan Today on 5th November, 2013