What happens when you custom-make a country specifically for people belonging to a particular religious persuasion? Can such a country accommodate religious minorities? Is such a country destined to be theocracy? Or can it put up at least a modicum of secularism?
Pakistan came into being on 14 August 1947. It was carved out of British India for the express purpose of providing a homeland for the Muslims of the subcontinent. Despite an exodus of Hindus and Sikhs from West Punjab and East Bengal, Pakistan, especially East Pakistan, had a large number of Hindus and Sikhs. Just over a year after Pakistan came into existence, its founder Muhammad Ali Jinnah died. Jinnah was a non-practising Muslim who had managed to harness Muslim fears of marginalisation in a Hindu-majority India, to create Pakistan. Jinnah had publicly proclaimed that he wanted Pakistan to be a secular land where minorities would be safe. However, pretty soon after Jinnah’s death, Pakistan commenced its slow descent into the fire pits of Islamic theocracy and fundamentalism. However, it was not until Zia-ul-Haq came to power in 1978 that this descent gathered momentum.
Currently Pakistan is in the throes of a ‘do or die’ battle with the Taliban and other Islamic fundamentalists. After many a hesitant jab at the militants, Pakistani society mobilised itself and launched a full-scale assault at Baitullah Mehsud’s men in Swat and Waziristan. The battle in Swat is almost over, with the militants there in full retreat. The battles in Waziristan don’t seem to be close to a conclusion.
Once the militants are subdued, and I have no doubt that they will be, at least in the short term, the million dollar question facing Pakistan will be the degree of Islamisation it should permit itself. Should Islam continue to be the state religion? Should Islamic signs and symbols be so prominently displayed everywhere? Is it possible to be in a state of equilibrium where Islam plays a predominant role in everything without slipping into a state of fundamentalism? If for some reason Pakistan were to swing to the other extreme, to that of a state which is officially secular, where religion plays no role in public life, the rationale for partition would be lost. I doubt if even liberal Pakistanis want to be in such a state.
Just like Pakistan, Israel was created in order to provide a sanctuary to a specific religious grouping – to Jews. In theory, Jews are of the Semitic race, just like the Arabs. However, in reality the Jewish Diaspora scattered all over the world is composed of so many different races and ethnic groups. Though Hebrew is the official language of Israel and all immigrants to Israel are forced to learn Hebrew, Israelis speak a motley of languages. Many of the founders of Israel were not fervent practitioners of Judaism. Rather they were socialists and Zionists who only wanted to create a homeland for all those where persecuted in Europe and various other parts of the world for being a Jew.
However Israel has moved away from the socialist idealism of its founders. Ben Gurion and Golda Meir were ardent Zionists, but had little in common with the Haredim or other orthodox Jews. Currently the Likud party is in power and has the fundamentalist Yisrael Beiteinu headed by Avigdor Lieberman as its coalition partner.
Just as Pakistan is almost in the throes of a civil war, the battle between secular liberals and fanatics is on in full swing in Israel. When police in Jerusalem arrested a Haredi woman for allegedly having deliberately starved her three-year old son, ultra orthodox Jews protested in large numbers at what they termed as interference in their community. When municipal authorities in Jerusalem announced plans to keep a car park open in Jerusalem on Saturdays (when orthodox Jews observe the Sabbath), ultra-orthodox Jews protested violently, throwing stones at and clashing with the police.
As any visitor to Israel knows, the country comes to an almost complete halt for Sabbath. Any travel on a Saturday is a nightmare, except in Arab towns such as Nazareth. When I travelled to Israel last year, I had to travel from Nazareth to Tel Aviv via Haifa on a Saturday. I managed to do that through a combination on buses run by Arab bus companies, sheruts and taxis. I remember feeling a bit miffed about the inconvenience. I can only imagine how Israeli citizens who are not orthodox Jewish would feel about this state of affairs.
Orthodox rabbis have produced blacklists of music deemed unfit or non-Kosher for orthodox Jewish years.
One of the things that fascinated me when travelling in Israel was the way the same name had two or three different versions in Hebrew, English and Arabic. Kafer Naum and Capernaum are the same. Jerusalem is Yerushalayim in Hebrew and Al Quds in Arabic. Israel has now announced a plan for using the Hebrew version of place names even for signs in English and Arabic.
One of the most unfair rules followed in Israel is the one which says conversions to Judaism are valid only if they are performed by an orthodox rabbi. Therefore anyone who migrates to Israel must get a certificate of Jewishness from an orthodox rabbi. Unlike Pakistan where a victory for the forces of liberalism may be possible, Israel seems to have put itself in an unalterable trajectory towards greater fundamentalism with this rule. Interestingly in the UK, the court of appeal has recently ruled that a very reputed Jewish school (the Jews’ Free School) was guilty of race discrimination when it refused admission to a student whose mother converted to Judaism in a progressive synagogue and not an orthodox one. The court said that deciding whether one was Jewish or not on the basis of descent is contrary to the Race Relations Act.
Will Israel ever become a land where Arabs and Jews have equal rights not just on paper, where orthodox Jews are forced to keep their fundamentalist beliefs under wraps, where Arabic can be spoken freely? Will Pakistan ever become a nation where its Hindu, Christian and Sikh minorities can practice their religion without having to pretend that Islam is superior? To me, in both cases, the answer seems to be a sad shake of the head.