Can Uniform Prayer Timings In Islamabad Bring Religious Harmony?

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The recent news development of Muslim clerics and the Ministry of Religious Affairs agreeing to have uniform prayer timings in Islamabad has been hailed as a positive step forward. While there can be little argument that a step which aims to promote religious harmony is good, it is important that the matter is studied in more detail.

Setting conspiracy theories aside, it is common knowledge that the government has taken the recent step to develop some sort of understanding among different Muslim sects, as miniscule as it may seem, and in the process give birth to the idea of coexistence. Disappointingly, however, the recent step has only included four schools of thought – Shia, Barelvi, Deobandi and Ahle Hadith.

This development has a disappointing angle to it because the effort to take a step towards religious harmony only scratches the tip of the iceberg, thus conveniently ignoring what lies underneath. Proponents of this move by the government may argue that one needs to move forward one step at a time, but how do these steps account for anything when the roots are infected?

We offer constitutional coverage to religious disharmony by banishing Ahmadis and people belonging to different religions. Any development, big or small, will virtually hold no weight because the legal document that governs our country echoes the opposite. Does the current government, or the many that came before it or the ones that will come after it, have the resolve to tackle this issue and wipe the constitution clean of any religious chauvinism?

The chances of that are zero.

Not because there is a lack of individuals who want this, but because there is a lack of individuals in positions of influence who want this, either because there is a lack of desire or because there is a fear of the backlash should such a demand be put forward. Not even the country’s current batch of mainstream left-wing political parties will bring forward a strong demand for such a move. Not even the centre-right Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) and Imran Khan, who speak of change, will ever in a million years touch this issue.

Similarly to various other aspects of our socio-political life in Pakistan, matters related to religion are deemed no-go areas. When the religion in question is Islam, matters are amplified beyond comprehension. However when the religion in question is not Islam (or a version of Islam we don’t agree with), matters are dragged under the carpet. The contrasting principles are evident for everyone to see.

The notion that a country of 180 million people, encompassing different cultures, ethnicities and languages, needs to be defined by one state religion is inherently flawed. The notion that religious doctrines cannot be questioned is even more flawed. We live in an age where ideologies and thought processes can, and should be, questioned or even negated. It should be perfectly acceptable to follow a particular religious ideology, just like it should be perfectly acceptable to denounce religion altogether. It is our dogmatic approach related to matters of religion that serves as one of the most rigid barriers between a Pakistan that is self-destructing and one that is not.

This is one of the many reasons why this step by the government, positive on the outside but shallow on the inside, needs to be scrutinised much more carefully. What is needed is a review of the legal frameworks that has given rise to the religious disharmony that exists within Pakistani society. Pointless agreements between Muslim clerics and the state will not suddenly give rise to coexistence between the various religious beliefs existing in the country right now. In order for that to happen, the closet cover given to anti-minority sentiments in our constitution needs to be removed and the gates of a more broad worldview need to be opened. Until that happens, everything else will only be an exercise in futility.

This post originally appeared on The Express Tribune Blog on 17 April, 2015.

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