In this 21st century, where teenage pregnancies, live-in relationships, and gay marriages are the norm, the word “Pakistani” has become synonymous with either ‘fanatic’, or ‘radical’, or ‘Islamist’, or more popularly ‘terrorist’, and at times, even all four together. But being someone who has that very word stamped across their identity, I seriously beg to differ. Pakistan is the only state in the world, apart from Israel, that was formed on the basis of religion; hence the official name ‘Islamic Republic of Pakistan’ as forth 1956.
But in truth, the image of Pakistan that is portrayed, of a fanatic state that is ruled by the ‘beards’, is a very false one, and rather obnoxious. A feudal state we are, but not one that is ruled by religion, at least not in real life, but rather only on paper. The Pakistan that was formed in 1947 was very different from what it is now. Rather, the Pakistan that existed in the 1960s and 1970s was even greatly different from what it was initially. The Pakistan of today is swarming with people who very proudly boast of a ‘western’ outlook on life. With a bland period experienced only during the Zia reign, where even the playing of music in public was banned, these people have experienced a smooth journey, which would have been even smoother had not the ‘extremist’ forces that came into existence after that very era, had not created complications for a liberal way of life.
Although we celebrate our religious holidays like Eid-ul-Fitr and Eid-ul-Adha with a lot of fervour, the concept of Islam, or even ‘religion’, hardly exists in our households. Taking, for example, the religion that is allegedly followed by over 90% of the population, Islam. According to Islamic teachings, it is imperative for every Muslim to follow and uphold the Five Pillars of Islam, namely belief in One God, prayer five times a day, fasting for 30 days during the month of Ramadan, giving Zakat or poor due for the less privileged, and Hajj, which is conditional.
One would be surprised to know that not many people actually follow these rules. In my personal experience, I have met very few people who actually pray, let alone pray five times a day. Fasting during the month of Ramadan is more of a social practice rather than a religious one; as conveniently all the restaurants are closed during the fast period, and with all the gatherings for Iftari, it would seem positively ‘rude’ towards the host not to fast. Alcohol is illegal in Islam and technically banned in our country as well, but consuming it is a normal practice, and almost always goes unchecked.
The same goes for prostitution, which is actually a very thriving business in areas like the Shahi Mohalla in Lahore. Another example is that of interest on money or property, which is also Haram in Islam, but that does not stop banks from marketing their very existence on it.
There is no rule about dressing either. A normal teenaged girl, belonging to the middle class, would normally wear jeans rather than an Abaya. Most people are actually taken aback when they see an ‘educated’ girl wearing a hijab, for to the middle class society at large, this practice is almost alien. And deep down inside, even to us it represents oppression; it just seems unreal to do this out of choice.
This hypocritical and superficial religious point of view prevails not only the big cities, but in rural areas too, where one would expect a stronger impression of religion. There, religion is not a way of life, it is rather a formality. Most rural folk would not know what is written in the Holy Koran because many have not read it. Those areas work on a feudal system. A young girl is not sent to school not because it may be unIslamic, but rather because of the feudal mindset that education is not meant for women. Islam, on the other hand, greatly promotes the acquiring of knowledge.
I have grown up hearing and seeing all these things, and get absolutely baffled when foreigners carry around their misconceptions about our society. I had the experience of talking to a German during a flight for over an hour about the importance of education, and that man clasped his hand over his mouth when he got to know that I was a Pakistani, let alone an educated one, and a girl, and on top of that one that was wearing jeans, and not a hijab, as he had expected.
I consider myself to be a religious person in practice, as I do my best to be steadfast in prayer, and I fast as well, and dress conservatively. But living in a society with hypocritical views on religion, it becomes hard to follow any religion at all. The reason I do follow my religion is because it is better than to be part of a system in which religious practices are a mere display and mean nothing at all. The concept of religion is to attain spiritual peace by making an emotional connection with what one might believe to be a Higher Power. Sadly, very few people realise that. Many people practice religion but do not understand what it means to bow down before a God one does not see, but still blindly believes in. I believe that religion is what gives a stagnant life a soul, and that too one which believes that there is Force that is driving an entire universe.
We all might conveniently have our respective religious belief typed out on the second page of our passports, but those very beliefs may not materialize for an entire lifetime. It is but a social statement to belong to a certain religious group; there is no depth or feeling in it. I believe that it is religion that completes a human being and defines who they are through their practices. A person who firmly believes in and fears One God and all that His power represents would never go out and commit murder.
We call ourselves ‘educated’, ‘enlightened’ and ‘modern’, but it is these very misconceptions that are leading us towards a barbaric way of life, and makes us no different from the person who kills in the name of religion. Even in radical Islam, those people completely miss out on what it stands for, and that is peace, peace of the mind, body and soul. In the words of Emerson, ‘Religion is to do right. It is to love, it is to serve, it is to think, and it is to be humble.’