Raza Habib Raja
The Council of Islamic Ideology (CII) Pakistan is a body whose job is to give recommendations to the government of Pakistan for making the legal framework more in line with Islam and for that purpose it actively reviews several existing as well as the proposed laws.
Most recently the CII is in the news for suggesting that men should be allowed to beat their wives. Before that CII made international headlines because of actually rejecting a bill prohibiting child marriage on the grounds that it was contrary to teachings of Islam.
The proposed legislation was progressive in nature because it recommended giving out harsher punishments to those entering a marriage with a minor, as well as raising the minimum age of marriage for women to 18 year olds.
These actions of the CII have literally caused a huge uproar and has even shocked many who claim to be moderate Muslims. Some of my close friends who are religious but consider themselves moderate are of the opinion that while Pakistan’s legal framework should be based on Sharia, what CII is recommending is something completely regressive. “Why can’t CII support religious laws which are based on moderate version of Islam?” one of my friends complained.
I think this is where the problem lies. Many moderate Muslims want religion to have a more prominent role in the legal framework of the country and at the same time they expect that they will get some moderate version.
I am perplexed by this because the desire to have more Islam and yet expecting that it would be moderate is actually somewhat paradoxical. This is because you can reinterpret existing Islamic laws in metaphorical and contextual ways to bring them in line with modern times and the result will be something progressive. But when you try to review existing conventional laws or proposed laws (many of which actually are in line with modern times) to bring them in line with religion, the result is likely to be reactionary particularly when reform is being done by conservative scholars.
Literal interpretations by design seem “closer” to religion and hence would be preferred when conventional laws are evaluated for conformity with Sharia. Moreover when the public pressure is also for more religion and the composition of CII is of orthodox scholars, what we are witnessing today is hardly surprising.
With some of the recommendations already out in the public sphere, the implementation of these may actually end up being demanded by hardliners. This is what those forming the moderate majority need to realize that they will eventually get much “more” than they had originally visualized.
And yet many still remain in the state of apathy. This is because patriarchal and regressive recommendations like allowing underage marriage and removing the need to have wife’s permission for second marriage, if implemented, would not affect the daily lives of many, other than those directly affected. And not to forget that our male dominated and patriarchal society is unfortunately often least worried about women anyways.
But if these recommendations are allowed to be implemented, this process won’t stop here and would gradually envelop the sphere of our daily lives and the associated small pleasures. As human beings, we often realize when our daily liberties get affected and it is often too late by then to reverse the trajectory.
I fully believe that majority moderate Muslims do not want what is happening right now. However, they are simply too apathetic and also doubt their capability with respect to debating religion and its role in their lives.
In my opinion all of this strengthens the case for secularism as a secular state actually would safeguard all the moderate concerns and also accommodate the heterogeneity of Islamic thought. And yet due to severe misunderstanding that secularism is analogous to atheism, no one is even prepared to think in that direction.
This is where people have severe misunderstanding. In theory a secular state is better for protecting religious diversity in interpretation as it remains neutral between various interpretations. A secular state does not mean that a religion inspired law cannot be implemented but that conscious efforts to bring all laws into conformity with some version of Sharia won’t be undertaken.
This would actually de-link legal code from religion and will prevent any law from assuming regressive form. This would actually be beneficial to moderate Muslims as well as minority sects as no version of religious interpretation would be preferred over other. This will also protect women from exploitative and outdated laws.
Some of moderate Muslims believe that solution is not secularism but liberal reinterpretation of religion. Here I beg to disagree. Reinterpretation of religion works at individual level and not at the collective or state level. It does not work at the state level because eventually you have to select one interpretation which will be for the entire society. There is no guarantee that a liberal interpretation would be preferred over harsh one. That is why at the state level, the legal code has to be de-linked from religion. In other words, there has to be separation between religion and state.
It is imperative for the so called moderate to realize that if they do not raise a voice now, they will end up getting what they definitely do not want. And perhaps trying to go for separation of religion and state would actually lead to what they envision.