Tolerance and Religion

By Faisal Bari

I ASKED a guest visiting me during Ramazan whether he wanted to eat or drink something. I felt that as a host it was my duty to ask him. He was surprised by my question and did request a glass of water. He said he had been reluctant to ask even though he was thirsty and had come a long distance in the heat. He felt I might feel offended at being asked for a glass of water during the month of Ramazan.

I narrated this incident to a friend to show how we as a society had become so intolerant and had internalised the intolerance expected. My friend, a showroom owner, said that he had a similar experience recently. He discovered that a client visiting his showroom was Christian. He told his salesman to get some sherbet for the client. The client said that he was afraid to ask for it even though it was a very hot afternoon: he was afraid of the reaction of Muslims.

Last Ramazan, a guard who was supposed to stand on duty for eight to 10 hours in the July heat was badly beaten up by a crowd of enthusiasts because he was not fasting and had tried to have a drink of water while on duty. Did the beating strengthen the faith of those involved, or of those who saw the incident or read about it? For me, it had the opposite effect: I felt embarrassed.

One of my teachers, who had employed a Christian domestic helper used to make chapattis with his own hands for his employee during the month of fasting. He did not want to have his employee go hungry throughout the day and, at the same time, did not want to ask anyone else in the house to do this and give the impression that he was passing on the responsibility to others.

When did respect for Ramazan turn into dictatorial hegemony, persecution and intolerance? A guest has to be honoured. Why would his or her fasting or not challenge my religious sentiments in any way? Why do we feel so insecure and threatened that we have to shut down all restaurants during the day in Ramazan? Should we not just worry about our fast and let others worry about theirs?

We are, very rightly, outraged at the killings of the Palestinians in Gaza. But we do not display the same outrage when Ahmadis or members of the Shia community are targeted in Pakistan. Clearly something is very wrong in the way we are interpreting our religion and making and implementing our laws.

Recently four Pakistani Ahmadis were booked for the alleged offence of ‘preaching’ their religion. Meanwhile, one can hardly get away from all the preaching that goes on on television and by all the religious political and non-political parties and factions that exist across our society.

This connects to our notion of how we have constructed our concept of a nation and citizenship. It also connects with the last column I wrote on the role of religion in politics. Religion cannot be, exclusively, the basis of defining a nation. From a religious perspective, this is clear from the Quran as well. Every prophet, when facing opposition from his nation, has nonetheless called them his nation. It stands to reason that if belief in a religion was the basis of nationhood, prophets would not have called their people their nation till the people had started believing in the truth they were sent with.

Being a co-religionist can only be one basis for a common identity; it cannot be the only basis for forming a nation: culture, language, ancestry, geographic location and many other commonalities can be the basis of our identity as a nation. To privilege one group over other groups is a recipe for disaster in a multicultural, multilingual and multi-religious society.

Does this question the status of the two-nation theory? Clearly it does. But this is a bigger topic that Pakistanis need to think through given the context we live in today. We will not labour the point anymore in this column.

The task, clearly, is a big one. We have not only made laws that discriminate amongst citizens on the basis of their religion and give differing rights to worship and preaching and varying access to religion-based laws in family and personal space etc, we have, as a people, also internalised this way of thinking. This is evident in our everyday existence.

Recently, a parliamentarian suggested that alcohol be banned for Christians too. If he had made the argument on moral grounds, one could have reason to debate the issue. But his argument was that since drinking is forbidden for Muslims, it should be banned for all groups in the country. We keep seeing this argument again and again. But the problem is not with the argument alone and the fact that a parliamentarian thought it was respectable enough to present it; the problem is that too many citizens have bought into this way of thinking. And over time, as is bound to happen, the space for disagreement with this now dominant way of thinking has become narrower.

Is it possible to step back from this space? Many feel that this is no longer possible, and we are condemned to keep going down the path of intolerance and religious bigotry. But, despite our trajectory, is it not worth trying to correct our path? Is it not better to try and utilise public space to debate the issue and see if the dominant narrative can be challenged in any way at all? This is just an attempt, however inadequate, to do that.

From the Dawn, Pakistan, Published Friday August 1st, 2014.

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