Dr. Haider Shah

Opinion is the medium between knowledge and ignorance (Plato).

The social cost of enjoying religion, Daily Times, 23 November, 2013

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OVER A COFFEE : The social cost of enjoying religion — Dr Haider Shah

If we keep on piling ammunition in every nook and corner of our house and one day a child ignites the whole dump with a single matchstick, who is to be blamed for the resulting mayhem?

Recently, a story in the western media touched my heart. A five-year-old leukaemia patient contacted the Make-a-Wish Foundation and desired to save the world like Batman. Thousands, including San Francisco police, politicians, media and social media volunteered to help the five-year-old realise his dream of becoming a ‘Batkid’ for a day.

In Pakistan, we all live permanently in an imagined world created by rhetorical speeches by religious preachers belonging to various creeds. While the above-mentioned ‘superkid’ saved people in distress, our heroes are in the habit of putting the whole country in distress. With Moharram we are told that the month of peace has commenced. What we actually observe is that all law enforcement agencies remain on extraordinary high alert. Even after sealing the whole country with containers and suspending mobile phone services we are still unable to prevent incidents in Rawalpindi, Multan and Kohat.

A few days ago, I happened to listen to Maulana Ahmad Ludhianvi and felt devastated. Not that what he said was repugnant but rather surprisingly whatever he said, I felt he had stolen my ideas. He very eloquently stated that billions of rupees were lost on account of extraordinary security arrangements necessitated by a few rituals of a religious sect. This money could have been utilised for alleviating poverty in the country, he argued. Quite rational and sensible comments from someone who is considered an icon of sectarian hatred in the country. There is one problem though, which is not unique to Ludhianvi sahib alone.

From our experience of debates at the Rationalist Society of Pakistan (RSOP), we realise that all believers use rationality as a weapon of offence but will instantly turn the filter of rationality off when others question their faith as well. We have seen Ahmedi brothers rationalising religion and criticising traditional beliefs but when their own belief system is opened to scrutiny they also run for the shelter of beliefs. Similarly, even Christian members of our forum are found wanting when the spotlight of rationality is fixed on them. Mr Ludhianwi made a strong case for banning all rituals that resulted in massive economic waste but then we should be ready to consider the whole faith industry and ask what net contribution it makes to the GDP of the country. The reality is that the economy is bleeding profusely in order to continue supporting these non-productive clerics.

As the days of Moharram drew nearer, the governments in all provinces nervously finalised security plans to thwart any terrorist attacks. But, on the 10th of Moharram, we learnt a very clear lesson: you can safeguard against a suicide bomber, you can prevent a terrorist act by bringing life to a standstill but what will you do with your own blood that is brimming with the poison of faith-led hatred? How can you guard every mosque, bazaar and imambargah? When thousands feel motivated by religious identities of all sorts, it is only a matter of time before acts of violence erupt at the slightest provocation. Yes, a few scapegoats can easily be found and, after hopeless reliance on religious leaders, we imagine that we have remedied the situation. We are in the habit of sleeping over grave issues.

Whodunnit? This term always plunges the national discourse into emotional outbursts of accusations and counter-accusations. We then customarily also hear a few ‘foreign hand’ conspiracy theories. Let us first dismiss these foreign hand theorists to the dustbin as they want to keep us blindfolded while our self-inflicted wounds become cancerous. Just browse the social media and you will notice that the demon of extremism is not confined to the boundaries of mosques and imambargahs. It has taken hold of our daily narrative. Despite the fact that heinous, inhuman crimes were perpetrated in Raja Bazaar, Rawalpindi, I do not feel that they were the actual perpetrators. If we keep on piling ammunition in every nook and corner of our house and one day a child ignites the whole dump with a single matchstick, who is to be blamed for the resulting mayhem?

Every stakeholder has used religion to serve his or her vested interests. The military establishment used it to wage proxy wars in our neighbouring countries. The media has used it to sell its television programmes and politicians have used it to garner political support. One cannot treat the wayward driving of a drunk driver unless he stops heavy drinking. Europe also was once obsessed with questions of faith and religious groups were at each other’s throats. Gradually, they overcame that obsession and, after much turmoil, also experienced the hollowness of other belief systems like excessive nationalism and communism. Sectarianism is a by-product of overindulgence in religion at the social level. If we, as a society, become less obsessed with religion and treat it as a personal matter and not a question of life and death, we will see that the sectarian balloon will also get deflated.

The superkid story had a happy ending except for the fact that the child himself is fighting his cancer, but he is doing so bravely. Our saga does not appear to be ending any time soon despite everybody seeing that the imagined world created by maulvis (clerics) and zakireen (preachers) only exists in their fantasies. Is it not time to ponder the price we are paying in terms of actual and opportunity costs for merely listening to their fantasies and then living in their imaginary world?

The writer teaches public policy in the UK and is the founding member of the Rationalist Society of Pakistan. He can be reached at hashah9@yahoo.com

Author: Dr. Haider Shah

Academic, Researcher and Writer

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