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Extreme is the new moderate

By Saroop Ijaz
September 10 2012


In a “Monty Python” episode, a young soldier approaches his Colonel and expresses the desire to quit the army because he signed up for water-skiing and travelling and not for the fighting or killing. Upon which the Colonel inquires, “Watkins, are you a pacifist?” The young soldier, Watkins, replies with a sincere straight face, “No, sir. I’m not a pacifist, sir. I’m a coward.

This might seem as an oblique and insensitive way of approaching the blasphemy law debate in Pakistan. Yet, this is the feeling that one sometimes get about the liberals and moderates in Pakistan when they engage in this debate and perhaps they could benefit from young Watkins’s humiliating candour. However, a recent incident requires revisiting this impression and allows for the possibility that perhapsnot all of the silence and fuzziness can be explained by cowardice. The cleric that framed the child, Rimsha Masih, in the shameful episode, has now been arrested and charged with blasphemy law also. There was some expression of jubilation on this perceived victory. Never mind, that the charges on Rimsha still remain; there is also a broader implication of this. The irony of those who oppose the blasphemy law and yet rejoice when a cleric is given “a taste of his own medicine” is obvious. Similarly, when Governor Salmaan Taseer was assassinated, there were calls by well-intentioned liberals that a “fatwa” be obtained from “moderate” clerics against those who incited Mumtaz Qadri to commit the murder. The fact that they are strengthening and lending credence to the very institution that caused the murder in the first place did not occur to them. The upshot of these examples is that now all of us (liberals, conservatives, moderately religious, etc) think in the language of the religious fanatic.

HL Mencken’s writings about the “Scopes Trial” (also known as the “Monkey Trial”) where the right of teaching  “evolution” to high school children was under attack by Catholic laws of the State of Tennessee and the religious community, who felt offended, might have value. Describing the community of the town of Dayton, where the Trial was going on and the jury selection, he wrote: “In brief, this is a strictly Christian Community, and such is its notion of fairness, justice and due process of law… Its people are simply unable to imagine a man who rejects the literal authority of the Bible. The most they can conjure up, straining until they are red in the face, is a man who is in error about the meaning of this or that text. Thus one accused of heresy among them is like one accused of boiling his grandmother to make soap in Maryland…. Such a jury, in the legal sense, may be fair. That is, it may be willing to hear the evidence against him before bumping him off. But it would certainly be spitting into the eye of reason to call it impartial.” Replace a couple of words to Islamise the passage and this is about Aasia Bibi (who it seems has been forgotten already), and Rimsha now. Feel free to be depressed by the fact that this was written in 1925. We, today, have no notion of fairness and justice outside of religion it seems. Returning to Mencken again on the mindset of the jury, “…Fundamentalist mind, running in a single rut for fifty years, is now quite unable to comprehend dissent from its basic superstitions, or to grant any common honesty, or even decency, to those who reject them.”

This tendency of using religious thought and rhetoric is not restricted to the blasphemy law debate. The Supreme Court feels the need to refer to religious injunctions in almost all important matters and to affirm its integrity and independence, the Army chief cannot address the troops without referring to “Jihad”. On a separate note, the fascination with what Mr Jinnah would have wanted or said on an issue is clearly religious in form, even if not in substance.

A persuasive reason given by some for deliberately using religious justifications against religious extremism is that in the given circumstances, it is the only language that anyone is prepared to listen. It is perfectly understandable and makes some practical sense. However, when a “moderate” religious cleric or view is adopted by the liberals as a model of tolerance, then we have already conceded an “extreme” as a starting point. To silkily enter the debate under the pretense of agreeing with religious point of views and then attempt to steer it towards moderation is perhaps well-intentioned, however, it is apologetic and more importantly, it will not work. The faithful ally, the moderate cleric might turn out to be not-so-moderate on a different issue and hence, the liberal might find himself/herself doing constant cleric-hopping and very soon run out of clerics. So, the liberal or moderate would not only eventually lose but also in the process would have enhanced the credibility of the clerical positions.

The argument against the blasphemy law has to be made outside of religion and is quite simple. All of us have a right to be offended by things and even free to consider it a “sin” and wish for someone to burn in eternal hell fire, as long as we do not act to expedite the process. The state has no business or moral justification for prioritising one person’s sensibilities over another’s freedom and criminalising it. Hence, blasphemy laws should be repealed. This seems incredibly naïve and does not have enough strategy behind it. Both these objections are true. However, the alternative is much worse. Even if the moderate forces lose in both cases, a distinct possibility, there is honesty in only one position. The desire for avoiding a confrontation although a quaint one is fairly meaningless, there already is a confrontation and we don’t get a say in the matter. A middle point or a compromise is just a face-saving term for surrender and to add insult, a surrender that does not guarantee mercy. No recourse to religious scholars and precedent is required for fighting for a child with Down syndrome persecuted for blasphemy, common human decency should be sufficient.

Originally published by Tribune Pakistan

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