Pakistan, like much of the world, is in the midst of a covid-19 pandemic. Luckily, compared to global numbers and averages, it is doing fairly well till now. Like millions of expat Pakistanis, I wish her the best, hope things will improve, and get back to normal soon.
But I want to draw attention to another pandemic of a much more resilient kind, that has ravaged our country for far too long, and is mutating into deadlier forms with the passage of each day.
This particularly virulent strain affects cognitive abilities and renders sufferers immune to common sense and rationality.
It’s called the Mindless Acute Religiosity Syndrome (MARS).
A cabal of unhinged clerics are the biggest carriers of the affliction. They offload their manic dogma on the largely uneducated, and therefore most vulnerable amongst us. Worst of all, this scourge has spread generally unchecked for decades.
It's heartbreaking butt ye zarori hai #coronavirusinpakistan pic.twitter.com/gBSiW5IkCZ
— Nasir Khan (@NasirMee) March 26, 2020
These crafty tzars of zealotry have learnt how to whip up the emotions of our devout, but mostly ignorant masses, through fiery sermons, much of which they neither truly believe, nor practice themselves.
A case in point is at least half a dozen prominent clerics who were tirelessly quoting the Quran and Hadith, advocating against the closure of mosques and suspension of Friday congregations. They all categorically termed it as against the Sunnah, and Sharia. Yet, one stern visit by, presumably the military or law enforcement authorities, and they all took a 180 turn on their staunchly rigid stances.
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If this is not a glaring example of duplicity, I don’t know what else is.
Bizarre as it may sound, I would have respected them a lot more if they had remained un-bent in the face of pressure. That way, at least, they would have demonstrated a smidgen of integrity and true belief in their position.
This unfortunately does not even scratch the surface of the problem our society faces. There is an entire lower rung of psychopaths posing as clergy, who are spewing illogic on an even grander scale. In their world, Kalonji is kryptonite for any ailment, the stomach lining of pigeons from a certain darbaar can cure cancer, dumm durood is digitally disseminated through WhatsApp, and the list of pseudo-miracles goes on and on.
Yet when it comes to their own health and wellness, these despicable quacks would rush to their nearest hospital asking to be seen by the best foreign qualified doctor available.
This is another glaring example of duplicity.
Deep down inside, they know the faith they resort to and invoke in every aspect of life, does not render them immune to the laws of nature. Kalonji and a taweez may seem to cure an ailment, but no amount of declaration of faith would regrow an amputated finger, period.
This jingoistic, chest thumping, brain numbing faith is not exclusive to Pakistan. There are plenty of charlatans in all denominations, and all dominions. We have all seen convulsing pastors beaming deliverance through TV screens, rocking rabbis spewing hate and anger, and pundits aplenty, washing away the ills of the world in cow dung and urine.
But what sets the emancipated world apart from one mired in ritual and dogma, is the constant and unrelenting resistance to these winds of regression. In Pakistan, we have reached a sorry stage where any sane voice is snubbed, silenced, and labelled as an agent of one sinister conspiracy or another.
itz ur Choice……#coronavirusinpakistan pic.twitter.com/aJSjjahGel
— Saib Hassan (@Saib_Hassan) March 27, 2020
As a first step, this has to stop.
It’s time this epidemic of hyper religiosity is confronted without fear, shame, or guilt, otherwise it will drag our entire society in to the depths of its depravity.
Secondly, we have to realize that it’s not society that shapes people, but people that shape societies.
Our pursuit to purge our environment of all ills as a pre-requisite for starting our journey of reformation is also a flawed concept. After all, some of the most devout practicing Muslims I have seen, live in the so called immoral societies of the West where they are surrounded by everything we shudder at the thought of.
Yet their faith is in many ways, stronger and more resilient than many in Pakistan.
We have to stop our obsession with creating some utopian religio-cultural paradise on earth, and focus inwards within our person. The paradise on earth that we seek will automatically follow.
Thirdly, we also have to understand that faith is a deeply personal thing, and that it does not need to be on display like a peacock’s tail. Neither does it need any middlemen.
This emphasis on looking, dressing, behaving and interacting in a certain way in order to be classified as a person of faith has also got to stop.
And lastly, we have to develop an unnerving tolerance for diversity of thought, and inclusion of opinion.
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These regressive forces are no way near as strong as we have made them out to be. Whenever there has been a strong and decisive push back, they have retreated. Its just that the sane elements in our society have not coalesced and whole heartedly stood up and backed those that have raised their voices against them in the past.
It is time to change that. It is time that we reclaim our country back.
Tell them that we wont let them define who we are and what we hold dear or stand for. Define it yourself, and our society will be the richer and more beautiful for it.
The writer is a Canadian of Pakistani origin, has had a long career in international development, working around the world for the United Nations and global NGOs for more than twenty years. He currently runs a water conservation business, based out of Pickering, Ontario. The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Global Village Space.