As Religious as a Pakistani
As religious as a Pakistani, must be formally inducted as an idiom in the English language, and which I undoubtedly was. Children are what they learn, they say, and in Pakistan where the society breathes Islam, having religious parents is a generous icing on the cake. But some children’s cerebral activities transcend outer influences. I am undoubtedly one of them, too. The domino effect of doubt creeping into your faith makes whole stack tumble down in a jiffy. But I did spend some time on the fence, researching and contemplating, and eventually thanked God I that was finally an atheist!
Fortunately for me, I was in Australia, studying, and not in Pakistan. Upon public declaration of my renunciation of religion, I evoked nothing but “good on you mate, let’s grab a beer”. In the liberal West, especially in a highly equal and a-religious society such as Australia, this response was rather generous, as during the many tea parties with my friends I always got told that almost every other person here is secular, if not an atheist, and faith was such a personal aspect that one simply must not confront one with it. Everyone is absolutely free to associate oneself with any faith and no one can be impugned because of it, they said. And so even though I was an uber-atheist, (as one my friends once called me) in the highly (religiously) diverse social interactions I had, there were no problems whatsoever pertaining to my faith or the renunciation and subsequent lack of it. This, made me erroneously believe that same was the case in every society: probably the zenith of naivety. Anticipating my return to Pakistan after the completion of my degree, I was often warned by worried looking friends, over drinks (as the tea had now changed to scotch), to keep my mouth shut when I go back, only to be greeted by my light dismissals of what I called “occident-scary-kitten-syndrome’: in the West, most people only see and hear from the mainstream media about the situation in countries like Pakistan, which exaggerates and blows out of proportion, a small firecracker going off in some obscure little town. And the vast majority is [arguably] of sane, law abiding citizens who are as normal as Normal Norman, whereas the country gets judged by a few crack-heads. This ‘syndrome’ is what had my friends afraid for my wellbeing. So I, nevertheless, was determined to keep my faith (or the lack of it) to myself. After all, rant all one may, it is a personal matter.
But, the reality was obstinately misplaced from what I had imagined (reality should have adjusted course)!
Family & Friends
Even though I came from a fairly influential family, I always thought it was a tad pointless to advocate freedom of expression in a place like Pakistan, where the majority had empty stomachs. Just as Lenin once said: “No amount of political freedom will satisfy the hungry masses”. The three strata of reactions from my friends and acquaintances, in order of ascending severity were: excommunicated by some of my mildly religious acquaintances; warned of an awaiting eternal hellfire by those whose religious pontification is up a notch; outrightly threatened of sharp blades by self-anointed Allah’s contractors. In face of such reactions it is eminently clear to me what thinking for oneself and being able to express it, means. As for family, well, it is very difficult to let a person whom you love, condemn him/herself to a volley of bullets in this world, and an eternal hellfire in the next. And your family almost always does not abandon you: there is an implicit pact, signed the day you breathe your first in this world, that your family will clean up all the mess you make. Most honour the pact, few don’t.
Pakistan’s Unparalleled Religiosity
Take for instance, a dinner table where everyone bows and shakes their head in unison when a diner thanks God and solemnly declares how Gracious is He who gave us this wonderful food, even though as sinful as we are, we surely deserve to starve to death. If one head out of the many does not move and the face remains remorseless, eyebrows go up, eyes widen; especially if that head has been out of the sanctity of the country of Allah for a while and the face has caught a whiff of infidel-ness. Or the instance when, during Azaan (call to prayer), you do not turn off the music. Or when you refuse to swear on Allah’s name, when demanded. Or you mistakenly eat in public during Ramadan when all the faithful are fasting for Him. Or you reject the idea that women are man’s property and you are allowed to beat them. The problem with this one is that it is unequivocally mentioned in the Qur’an, and the Qur’an is sacrosanct. You just cannot contest something explicitly mentioned in the Qur’an, because in order to reject it, you would inevitably have to declare that you don’t believe in a God. That is apostasy. Well, death, in other words.
Another rather interesting aspect about Pakistan is one which also sets it apart from other countries where religious persecution thrives, such as Iran, is that here, the society is a bigger persecutor than the state. The state is largely absent and/or incompetent. There is a big chance of you being executed by Iran’s Revolutionary Guard for being an atheist, but not by Pakistan’s Inter-Services-Intelligence or the Police because they have bigger things on their minds such as fighting terrorists, battling India, maximizing their own political clout and extorting money in their spare time. But 27 bullets can be lodged in your body by your own bodyguard, if as the Governor of Punjab you propose amendments to the blasphemy law, while staunchly asserting that you love the Prophet just as everyone else in the country. But no, your killer is showered with petals and is regarded as a hero. Or as a woman, you are paraded naked in the streets on charges of blasphemy. A lot of people in Australia, including two of my professors, asked me or rather expressed that they were at loss to explain Pakistan’s obsession with religion and the concomitant religious terrorism. Well, a crude statistical analysis can make a significant connection: more than 98% are practicing Muslims, with more than 80% of those being Sunni. The less than 2% minority religions only comprise of around 1.6% Christians and the rest are Hindus, Sikhs, Baha’is and Ahmadis. The minorities are impoverished, mistreated and face extinction by dint of daily mass-murder. Now, this might seem an anti-Pakistan or anti-Islam rhetoric but a country with a very high income inequality, severe social stratification, economic downturn, ravaging floods and earthquakes, its presence in the strategic hot-zone of the region, and the rather intolerantly belligerent mentality of the people of the Indian subcontinent, does put Pakistan’s difficult position into perspective. All of this is accentuated by belief in a religion that in the opinion of many, is in a phase that is similar to what Christianity went through in the dark ages, and unequivocally sanctions death for apostasy. When societies have less, they will tend to cling to faith more. Not always; but in my opinion, veracity of this claim is not difficult to determine in Pakistan’s case.
I was having a discussion with a friend, an esteemed author and a self-proclaimed Jewish agnostic, who was expounding how agnosticism is better in that classifying one as either (theist or atheist) is rather childish and we should be committed to doubt by falling on neither side. But in my country, you do not have the luxury to sit on the fence: everything you do, how you live your life, whole of the societal discourse draws from religion. For you to reject their way of life, is simply unacceptable. No part of your personal life is your own, not even your bedroom. Digress slightly, be persecuted.
This is serious. And what worries me more is that, in my experience, many people in the liberal West who upon being presented with this dilemma of mine, deemed it ‘not a big deal’, as if Kohsar Market is no different a place than the Kirribilli Markets. It is a big deal. A very, very big deal.
One might ask, where does the society get the moral authority to assert their way of life on you from? The Qur’an, the unquestionable word of Allah. Challenging even the smallest idea inevitably leads to impugning the authenticity of the Qur’an and subsequently the contention about the existence of God. And when I say society asserting their way of life, I do not allude to a moral harangue, but to Kalashnikovs, TNTs, scimitars and slit throats. In such a society, it is very difficult for a person like me, to steer away the discussion from contesting the Qur’an and subsequently God. But I have to do it, as a price for keeping my heart thumping.
Conium. The poisonous mixture that ended the life of Socrates. The charges? Corrupting the minds of fellow citizens and not believing in gods of the state. Some commentaries indicate that he thought he would be better off dead. I sincerely do not. No conium for me. And I earnestly wish for it not to be thrust down my throat.
EDIT: This article was published in Australia’s The Larrkin Post. (http://larrikinpost.com/when-i-went-public-with-my-atheism)