Why this public obsession with religion? (The Express Tribune)

Lateef Khawaja was a retired man who lived a few houses down the road from us in Lahore. Everyone considered him to be a pious man but there were a few things he would never do: carry prayer beads in public places, compel kids to go to the mosque, or despise the youth for listening to English music. And there was one thing my parents would always do: ask me to request Khawaja sahib to pray for my success before annual exams.

Islam in Pakistan was a private affair back then, not a public obsession. My childhood memories of public display of Islam in Pakistan are limited to a bearded Quran teacher coming to our neighborhood, cricket players prostrating after winning the World Cup and an occasional TV programme answering religious questions.

Somewhere along the past three decades, that private affair became public. During my last visit to Pakistan, I was shocked to note the intensity of this rising public obsession with religion. Instead of having many teachers of the Holy Quran we now had bearded men who were mostly concerned with rituals. Cricket players were not only prostrating after victories but also being photographed while saying congregational prayers on the field. And a plethora of Islamic TV programmes were busy carving a pretty narrow path to salvation.

Things had changed on my street as well. While long beards and burqas were now ubiquitous, no one would even say “salaam” to Lateef Khawaja. I wondered why?

This public obsession with Islam invariably pushes the perpetrator towards hypocrisy and pulls the masses towards conformity. Evidence would suggest that the cricket team prays to Allah in public and preys on cash in private. There is a growing market for Islamic gifts such as handcrafted prayer beads made with semi-precious stones. And the ground under our feet is shrinking fast if we still want to hold our ground against this silent intimidation. Talk-show hosts invite religious leaders and sheepishly preface tough questions with, “you will not beat me if I ask you this, right?”

Pakistan’s public obsession with religion has allowed the mullahs to control the affairs of the state. Individual freedoms of Pakistanis, even those freedoms Islam itself guarantees, are endangered. Lateef Khawaja’s freedoms were the first casualty of the mullah’s grip. He was declared non-Muslim in 1974, barred from saying “salaam” in 1984 and lost his right to vote on a joint electorate in 2002. Being an Ahmadi in Pakistan, he legally cannot display his religious beliefs in public.

What would happen to the freedoms of our children in Pakistan if this public obsession is not confronted, I wonder.  And where will they go to seek prayers when the Lateef Khawajas from every segment of our society are effectively marginalised?

Published in The Express Tribune, October 31st, 2010.

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