Thursday, December 06, 2012

The troubling rise of fatwa power in Pakistan...

by Salman Hameed

There is a troubling rise of the authority of religious clerics in Pakistan. For historical reasons, the power of the clerics had been negligible in Pakistan for much of the 20th century. They did have the street power, but with some notable exceptions, they were considered out-of-touch with the modern world and the educated middle class. Nevertheless, they functioned as imams for the local mosques - even in the most liberal and educated bastions of Pakistan. Now things are changing. Various ulema groups are organizing and are starting to exert more and more authority over all sorts of matters. Yes, we can point to the impact of the Zia era policies and/or the general rise of piety. But I think it is also due to their over-representation in the new era of cable television. Previously, there would be one show - may be with Dr. Israr Ahmad - and that would be tucked either before prime time or after. But now, you can find these ulema not only on all sorts of talk shows, but they also have the opportunity to appear on several of the 24-hour religious channels. On a political front, religious parties have never been able to make a mark. But, television of the past decade has made them into everyday authorities.

I was reminded of that with the recent blasphemy case of Umair Asim. This was never really considered a judicial matter alone. The fatwa of the local clerics was always needed for any kind of progress on the matter. Blasphemy controversies, in general, have helped these groups gain recognition (also known as notoriety). 

This has implications for science as well. When it comes down to issues of stem cells, beginning and end-of-life matters, organ transplants, biomedicine, evolution, and a host of other matters, these folks will have a huge say in these matters. And none of these guys (and most are indeed men) have a clue about science (Javed Ahmad Ghamidi is somewhat of an exception - but then he is in an exile for safety reasons. And then, even he has some major misunderstandings regarding evolution). Is there much hope for the independence of science in the near future in Pakistan? Skepticism. Doubt. Curiosity. Uncertainty. These are all essential for the production of good science and in generating a scientific culture. One doesn't have to leave religion to embrace these values to do fantastic science (for example, see - Abdus Salam). But one does need the freedom to explore ideas wherever they take you. But with the rising power of the ulema, this space will be even more limited in Pakistan. 

Not related to science, but I just ran into this news item. Darul Uloom Deoband in India, has recently issued a fatwa barring women from working as receptionists. I guess they didn't want to be left behind in the race for idiocy. The query, perhaps not too surprisingly, came from a Pakistan-based company. From Dawn
India’s leading Islamic seminary, the Darul Uloom Deoband, has barred Muslim women from working as receptionists, calling the act un-Islamic and against Shariah law, said a reported published on Tuesday. 
According to the Press Trust of India, the Darul Uloom Deoband has issued a fatwa against the appointment of Muslim women as receptionists. The seminary issued the fatwa after a Pakistan-based company submitted a query on Nov 29 regarding the appointment of Muslim women as receptionists, said the report. 
Darul Uloom said that a Muslim woman working in offices as receptionist was un-Islamic because Muslim women were not allowed to appear before men without wearing a veil, as ordained by Islam. 
Muslim cleric and president of the UP Imam organisation, Mufti Zulfikar Ali, defended the fatwa and said that Muslim women could work in offices if they wore the veil. However, he added, the post of receptionist required constant interactions with people, and thus should not be practiced.
Okay - this is all a downer. But lets not forget that there are also those who are trying to keep science and Islam separate. So let me leave you with a link to the Rationalist Society of Pakistan (RSoP) and a short video of Pervez Hoodbhoy - who has been fighting these battles for a long time:

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