“Only free conduct is moral conduct. By denying freedom, and therefore the possibility of choice, a dictatorship contains in its premises the negation of morality. To this extent, regardless of all historical appearances, dictatorship and religion are mutually exclusive. — Alija Izetbegović, former President of Bosnia and Herzegovina and Islamic philosopher
The Transgender Persons (Protection of Rights) Act 2018 was passed in 2018. In 2022, it was declared “un-Islamic” by a specific segment of society. In response to malicious social media campaigns, state authorities coyly assured religious parties of swift changes to make the law “Islamic”. It is therefore important to examine the reasons for the law’s apparently widespread disapproval.
Why did religious parties frown on the transgender law? Is it an entirely religious matter? Who benefits from the current debate over the law? The larger political context around the issue could help make sense of the complex interplay of politics and religion in contemporary Pakistan.
Although there was a deliberate effort to link this act to the promotion and legalization of homosexuality in Pakistan, the problem lies elsewhere. The religious parties have clarified that the whole law is not a bad law, but that a specific clause is quite problematic in their eyes.
One of the most effective political strategies employed by autocrats was to keep large segments of society disempowered through religious means. What does the recent debate over the Transgender Law tell us about the complex interplay of politics and religion in Pakistan?
The problematic clause reads: “Any transgender person, being a citizen of Pakistan, who has attained the age of eighteen years, has the right to register on the basis of their perceived gender identity with the Authority national database and registration (NADRA) on the computerized national identity card (CNIC), the child registration certificate (CRC), the driver’s license and the passport, in accordance with the provisions of the Nadra Ordinance 2000 or any other relevant law.”
In other words, the Jamaat-i-Islami and the Jamiat Ulema-i-Islam-F have made it clear that they have serious disagreements with the “self-perceived gender identity” part of the law. Why do transgender people have the right to determine their identity?
Opposition to this act should come as no surprise. It is the continuation of religious orthodoxy by other means. It used to be about who could and could not be Muslim, then walkers got in trouble when they said “My body, my choice”, and now transgender people face Islamists. Those who oppose the law today have, like their predecessors, the same points of contention: how is it that people can have the right to declare themselves Muslims? How dare women with uncovered heads claim the right to their bodies? Who dares to give the right to self-determination of identity to transgender people?
The popular opinion is that all such “important and sensitive” questions must be decided by the ulema, the self-proclaimed repositories of infallible wisdom. So any attempt to make laws to empower women, protect minorities from the misuse of blasphemy laws, or give rights to transgender people without the prior approval of the ulema will lead to chaos.
Amid this chaos, there are campaigns on social media and on the streets of Pakistan in defense of Islam. My American friends are always puzzled to ask how is it that Islam in the only Muslim nuclear state with over 96% Muslim population can be threatened. For us, however, this is not surprising; The Muslim vanguards have always defended an interpretation of Islam that best serves their interests.
The practice of not giving free will to women, transgender people, or even other Muslim co-religionists has been around for a long time in Muslim history. Initially, there was a debate about whether humans are created with free will or whether their destinies were predestined.
The Umayyads were early strong proponents of compulsionism, who established it as “state-sponsored orthodoxy”. Scholars like Ghaylan al-Dimashqi who dared to challenge this orthodoxy were brutally executed. Turkish writer Mustafa Akyol explains in Reopening Muslim Minds: A Return to Reason, Freedom, and Tolerance why the Umayyads needed to promote compulsionism. Because of their “corruption, nepotism, hubris and Arab supremacy, the Umayyads have made many enemies… [to counter it] they needed all the support they could get – and there was no better support than God.
Akyol rightly argues that “unlike predestination, the belief in free will led to the questioning of political authority”. Later, several Muslim leaders who objected to humans having free will and exercising it to challenge political authority found God to be a powerful supporter to justify and defend their illegitimate rulers. Islamic history confirms that the debate between champions of predestination and defenders of free will is, and always has been, a political debate.
One of the most effective political strategies employed by autocrats was to keep large segments of society disempowered through religious means. For example, it was a political decision, although based on theology, to oppose the printing press during Ottoman rule.
Muslim societies delayed the establishment of printing for three centuries. In 1500 there were 10,000 to 15,000 books produced by European presses and about 15 to 20 million copies of books. Muslim societies, on the other hand, were busy figuring out whether or not the printing press was Islamic.
Ahmet T. Kuru writes in his book Islam, Authoritarianism and Underdevelopment: A Global and Historical Comparison: “The real reason for the Ottomans’ delay in establishing a printing press was the opposition of the ulema, which was rooted in their desire to preserve their monopoly of education and scholarship. In the same book, Kuru presents his theory of the alliance between the ulema and the state, which explains the rise of authoritarianism and underdevelopment in Muslim-majority countries.
In Pakistan, recently, the Punjab Curriculum and Textbook Board (PCTB) formed a Muttahida Ulema Board (MUB) committee “to review every book, including those in science and mathematics”. MUB members recommended that the board exclude words such as “interest” and “margin” from math textbooks. Some of them also issued instructions that “diagrams or sketches in biology textbooks showing human figures ‘without clothes’ should not be printed, which might otherwise exacerbate ‘immorality in the field of science’. ‘education “.”
Similarly, in 2016, the Council for Islamic Ideology (CII) proposed an esoteric “model” draft law on the protection of women, which allowed a husband to “lightly” beat his wife “if necessary” and prohibited gender mixing in schools, hospitals and offices. What should concern us is not the medieval understanding of the world of our ulema, but their monopoly over state institutions, that is, education.
Opposition to the Transgender Law stems neither from hatred of transgender people nor from fundamental Islamic principles, but from a perspective of political power. The idea of giving agency to individuals will cause them to question the authority of the state as well as that of the ulema.
For the religious class to seek unconditional support to maintain its supremacy, it is imperative to have a submissive, completely devoid of agency, community of “faithful” believers. This is also a reason why traditional modes of education and some non-traditional modes of education in Muslim-majority countries place greater emphasis on respect for authority. The underlying objective is to obscure the expected and desired ‘Islamic Enlightenment’.
For example, Kuru explains in his book that in Europe the role of the printing press was important in the creation and dissemination of ideas that eventually laid the foundations of a new world. He writes: “Printing presses also contributed to the Protestant Reformation by distributing texts critical of the Catholic Church. The Scientific Revolution produced new knowledge and insights into the human body and nature, and challenged established Aristotelian and Catholic notions.
Producing hollow men or zombies creates an unhealthy society by making it less developed and more violent. John Stuart Mill said: “A State which eclipses its men, that they may be more docile instruments in its hands, even for beneficial purposes, will find that with small men no great things can really be accomplished. .
The government of Pakistan has already announced an amendment to the Transgender Persons (Protection of Rights) Act 2018, which means that said clause will likely be removed from the law. However, this new law has provided us with some interesting takeaways.
First, it is not the law that can change our complex policies, which are sometimes a matter of religious orthodoxy. Second, the denial of agency to individuals is a greater theological and political challenge than a legal one. A set of legal changes will not address the underlying cause of the ongoing opposition to individual rights.
To counter it effectively, the Ulema’s monopoly on education and scholarship must be challenged by a vibrant civil society and public intellectuals. This implies that the revolution against religious orthodoxy must start from the universities of Pakistan, not from the floor of Parliament.
The author is Presidential Graduate Research Fellow at San Diego State University in the United States.
Posted in Dawn, EOS, October 9, 2022