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Piety and politics

Piety wins votes, but the piety industry is not an equal playing field. In coming days, the key concern for Pakistan will be over the relationship of piety to other forms of religiosity

Piety and politics

The religious beliefs of the imminent prime minister, Imran Khan, became a pre-election concern when a video of his visit to a Pakpattan shrine went viral. Sympathisers defended the act by arguing that other political leaders also visit shrines and are drawn to sufi practices. PTI’s official social media account explained that Khan’s supplications at the shrine were a sufi requirement of abandoning the ‘ego’ in search for the self. The ‘tolerant’ or ‘secular’ view was that it was no-one’s business to comment on a political candidate’s faith or practices since this was a ‘private’ or non-issue.

These are all excuses borne of delusion. Not only has politics become the New Religion, complete with leaders revered like demi-gods but also it’s futile to keep faith out of the realm of politics in an Islamic republic. Globally, the faith of candidates and their religious views are relevant and critical in determining their eligibility and appeal to the electorate. In our case, the religious views of leaders have directly influenced laws, governance and policy. Unless there is agreement for the need to secularise the state, such expectations are in vain.

The same liberal thinkers who consider Khan’s various parleys with religion to be irrelevant, have celebrated the victory of religious minority candidates in Sindh and been anxious about the meteoric rise of Tehreek-i-Labbaik Pakistan which is considered as anti-Ahmedi and pro-blasphemy laws. Either the religious views of all candidates are non-issues or, they are all equally liable to scrutiny about their faith-based practices. It is easy to say candidates must not use religion as an instrument for canvassing or political ascension but when the country’s laws and judicial system are based on religion, how can we expect secular electioneering?

Khan may share the views on the khatam-e-nabuwat and blasphemy laws with Khadim Rizvi and may have patronised a culture of abusive politics too but he did not run an aggressive campaign on these issues. In fact, Khan’s act of piety at the shrine shielded him from his hard right views. His shrine visit caught some off-guard because he is believed to be of the secular variety of the enlightened Oxbridge educated class, unlike the under-educated ‘feudal’ counterparts of the other parties.

However, Khan is consistently afforded the benefit of doubt over his far right religious inclinations, his philandering behaviour, his bigoted views on minorities and his clear lack of acumen on global politics because of his class status. His supporters abuse or fawn over his ex-wives not for their autonomous character but only in relation to whether they support him financially and politically, or not. Khan’s current wife is a pietist which is a very political occupation and therefore, the argument of religion as a private issue is not tenable in her case either.

Some analysts have tried to pin the rise of extremism under Musharraf’s rule onto external policies, the entrapment of Pakistan into the War on Terror, and due to imperialist games but there is no doubt that a growing Islamist and pietist movements within Pakistan fertilised the ground for extremism to embed and thrive in for over a decade.

Celebritisation of piety

The unresolved place of religion in Pakistan dates from its genesis and no meaningful secular alternative discourse has been allowed to evolve. Piety in Muslim contexts has filled the vacuum caused by the discontent with both formal religion and secular rulers. In many cases, piety has accelerated because of its embrace by celebrities and women. This celebritisation of piety has been very popular in Egypt but also other Muslim countries.

Piety movements such as the pre-Partition Tableeghi movement continued in a quietist mode in Pakistan. During Ziaul Haq’s dictatorship, the pioneering theocratic TV game-show, Neelam Ghar, was hosted by Tariq Aziz. Despite its ironic name that aptly identified the state as a brokerage house for peddling religion, it was more of an ascetic, cold-war era, dry religious quiz show (with questions to which hardly anyone had the answers), rather than an entertaining pietist performance.

It was the late pop musician Junaid Jamshed, who was a true example of the pietist conversion of a celebrity. His required repentance enabled him to become a virtuous subject and use his talent to become a preacher himself. Later, we saw a similar pietist turn with the Pakistan cricket team under Inzamamul Haq and the publicised re-veiling of the fashion model, Atiya Khan.

But an example of a women’s pietist movement from the 1990s is the Al-Huda movement that had institutionalised dawa and established a base in the public sphere and gathered a cult-like following even before the attacks of 9/11.

It was under Musharraf’s rule that apolitical culture of celebrities became a state-sponsored feature. Several designers, stars and celebrities became cheerleaders for his military rule and televangelism peaked under his fallacious ‘Enlightened Moderation’ policy. It gave a platform to a spectrum of preacher-scholars with huge followings, ranging from the scholarly Ghamdi, to the on-set grave-digging and later, game-show host and now, PTI leader, Aamir Liaqat. Some analysts have tried to pin the rise of extremism under Musharraf’s rule onto external policies, the entrapment of Pakistan into the War on Terror, and due to imperialist games but there is no doubt that a growing Islamist and pietist movements within Pakistan fertilised the ground for extremism to embed and thrive in for over a decade.

The aspiration for piety is described as an attempt to achieve religious excellence. The motivation is a need to morally cleanse oneself and is prompted simultaneously out of a fear of and need to be close to God. Repentance is one method and learning to become virtuous subjects is another path to becoming pious.

Piety is performance

Unlike faith that resides in the heart, piety is anything but private because the journey to ethical self-making takes a public route. Islamic outreach (dawa), (re)veiling, religious education and repeat pilgrimages are the paths to piety and all require visibility and amplification to be effective. Pietist props or halal products crop up in the market precisely because of the demand for these. Charity, dreams, revelations, istikharas, shrine venerations and different kinds of veiling practices contribute to attaining religious excellence and embodying piety. There is nothing private about any of these and the commodification of TV and radio shows that offer these services for a small price, simply help to institutionalise the piety industry, with local proprietors running these businesses.

Some sceptics scoff at visions and dreams, such as the one claimed by Khan’s current wife, Bushra Maneka, that reportedly carried the divine instruction for their marriage. But dream interpretation is an integral part of Islam, including the original revelation. Connecting visions/revelations to the social or political is at the heart of the piety experience and another example of the fusing of the personal with the political. Those who think piety is ‘just personal’ should be prepared that the piety experience will serve as an integral part of Khan’s politics including in his vision of what he calls an Islamic Welfare state. Once repentant, if you stop pursuing piety you only become a lapsed soul. Which political leader or born-again celebrity can afford that without risking redundancy?

Although, piety is compatible with modern, urban life, the beauty of piety is that it can serve as an effective decoy, shield, firewall that deflects from material-based responsibilities. The right to veil as an Islamic obligation or desire distracts from the hard fact that due to lack of basic rights, women’s status in Pakistan lingers second from last in global indices. The individual virtues of a leader disguise his leadership failures and limited progress on projects and yes, corruption that continues in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. Pietist celebrities clean their historical slates of polygamy, divorce or transgressive sexual behaviour by acquiring a pietist persona and pursuits. Repentance turns the subject into a virtuous one even if s/he may be abusive, misogynistic, racist, bigoted, sexually transgressive, a cheater, or a blasphemer.

Piety wins votes and has a market share but the piety industry is not an equal playing field. The patronage of saints is competitive and upper class patrons monopolise its political value. In coming days, the key concern for Pakistan will be over the relationship of piety to other forms of religiosity — militant but also other passive-aggressive pietist ones, such as the Labbaik movement. The morphing of this Barelvi strain from a quietist into a politically active one is the most compelling evidence of the potential of pietist movements.

All those who had invested in piety as the anti-dote to militant or political forms of religion will have to revisit their theories of how there is some mild, apolitical and benign alternative to religious politics that can be found within the realm of Islam. Piety and politics is a marriage made in heaven and yields tremendous political benefit.

Afiya Shehrbano Zia

aafiya sheharbano
The writer is the author of 'Faith and Feminism in Pakistan; Religious Agency or Secular Autonomy.

One comment

  • Awesome. This is gold standard writing on what is a murky by design awfulness.
    Kudos woman!

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