By Rooshanie Ejaz, HRS
(Islamabad): Ever since I can remember, I have been taught that Islam is a religion that supports freedom and human rights for women, children, men, animals and the planet in general. Yet when I look at the issues that roil the Muslim world, I can see that these rights are blatantly violated on a daily basis. The examples are multitudinous: just look up any news report from Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iran, or any of several other countries, and you will come across many such violations. This leads me to believe that Islam, as a religion, has failed to deliver these rights even to Muslims – let alone to the non-Muslim minorities residing in Islamic countries.
There are an estimated 1.5 billion Muslims in the world. Most of them live in countries whose laws are derived from Shariah. This is clearly an issue, because, as it happens, we have cornered ourselves. What I mean is this: we Muslims stand firmly by the notion that we will not tolerate the merest criticism of the divine word of the Quran or the Prophet of Islam. For us, targeting blasphemy has become a popular indoor sport.
Anything from throwing away a business card because the name on it is Muhammad Faizan – as happened in the case of one Dr. Valiyani, who was arrested and charged with blasphemy last year for doing precisely that – to touching the Quran with “dirty hands” can get you convicted if you happen to have a Muslim adversary in Pakistan. A man named Munis Masih and his wife have been sentenced to 25 years in prison for touching the Quran with “dirty hands”. He claims that he had a dispute with his neighbor, who made a false accusation as a way of getting back at him. There are countless such stories here in Pakistan.
It boggles the mind to think that people can do this to each other in the name of religion. But they do. People do this to people. There is no divine hand in these brutal sentences. There is no Prophet leading the clerics forth to “purify” the Ummah. These are people. They need to be treated like people, not untouchable demigods. Herein lies the main issue: we have idealized Islam’s earliest followers – and thereby dehumanized them. We treat them as perfect models whose behavior we are supposed to the last detail.
This notion that Islam’s founders were incapable of error needs to be changed. But thanks to the volatile nature of my fellow Muslims, moderates like me are essentially terrified of voicing such opinions at a grass-roots level. It is obvious that the smallest statement, twisted and turned by bullying clerics who direct the passions of the mob here in Pakistan, could result in a life-threatening situation. This is a tragedy, for as a Muslim I should enjoy the inherent right to define the parameters of a very private and personal matter – namely, my spirituality – on my own.
As Muslims, we are not encouraged to discover, to interpret, and to gauge our own feelings. We are told that you can either follow Islam as a strict code, predefined by your elders, or you can declare yourself a non-Muslim and live in exile from your community. This will not work, and it is not working. The need for freedom in religion is an important catalyst for basic human evolution.
The masses in the Muslim world are far too volatile. It takes very little to get them to kill people who, in their opinion, have insulted their religion. This was made clear by the recent deaths at the UN offices in Afghanistan. Innocent, hardworking people died because someone burned a copy of the Quran thousands of miles away. This is why it is so important for all Muslim states to come down hard on religious extremism. It isn’t just the opium of the masses; it is also the napalm of the masses.
Last year two young boys, accused of theft, were beaten to death by a relentless and furious mob in Sialkot, Pakistan. Mobs provide anonymity – a dangerous weapon when coupled with religion. The government of Pakistan does not dare to take up arms in the face of this extremism, even though, the worst of the Shariah-influenced laws were implemented as recently as the 1980s. The moment a moderate government official proposes abolishing these laws, he or she is either forced to withdraw the proposal, as Shireen Rehman did, or is brutally murdered, as Salman Taseer was.
It is terrifying to think that people have been so brainwashed that the average Pakistani simply does not understand that the Hudood Ordinance, implemented by a dictator, is a man-made set of laws that can be legitimately contested without cries of “apostate” or “blasphemer”. This means that Muslims can be told pretty much anything by a few clerics, and because they have been brought up on the idea that violence and eventual death are the only appropriate punishments for blasphemy, any critic of religion risks serious personal harm. How are we to grow as a nation under such circumstances?
I do believe that if laws protecting women were in place, as opposed to the damaging Shariah- based prosecution for rape, things could be different. The only people who are harmed by the exposure of sexual abuse in the Muslim world are the female victims. One of the most recent cases concerned a 23-year-old girl who was gang-raped in Jeddah and sentenced to a jail term and 100 lashes. It is grotesque that Islam fails to protect such a girl from being punished for a crime that was committed against her.
From cartoonists living in fear of death to young couples fleeing their home countries and hovering in the shadows for fear of being personally harmed, it is clear that the Muslim world is living in the dark ages of oppression. Clerics usually argue that the woes of the Muslim world have two causes: a large-scale Zionist conspiracy and the fact that Islam is not being practiced in its “pure” form.
I feel that there is a much more substantial reason for this. The ego of the Muslim world is too big. We simply do not have it in us to take a good look at ourselves and reform. Obviously it is not acceptable to chop off a hand as a punishment for theft or to be able, under the law, to pay off a murderer. Nor is it right that men should be able to make the decisions that affect the lives and bodies of Muslim women. But this is the way it has been for 1400 years – and it had better not be changed, because to change a “perfect” thing is to not believe in its perfection. To not believe in its perfection is to insult it – and so the chain reaction goes on and on until someone pays for it, usually with his or her life.
If Muslims are to survive in peace and harmony with the rest of the world, they will have to overcome what are obviously issues of ego and “honour”. We will have to learn that we are just as human as the other human beings with whom we share the planet. We will have to accept the precedence of humanity over religion. A cause is only worth dying for if you are saving someone who is suffering. I don’t think that a religion can “suffer” pain when it is insulted. But human beings and their loved ones certainly suffer from having violence committed against them in the name of religion.