Pakistan’s Hindu community was all set for its first, official place of worship in the capital territory. Planned on a 20,000 square-foot site, work began on erecting the boundary wall, soon after the ground-breaking ceremony. Just as the bricks were done drying off, however, construction came to a halt.
What happened in between?
Officially, the Capital Development Authority (CDA) claims construction was taking place without an approved building map. Yet, a senior official states it might have been the first time this requirement was actually put into practice. Ordinarily, owners construct boundary walls while building formalities are ongoing, the official remarked. Peek beyond the bureaucracies, and we heard Pervez Elahi’s more overt opposition – declaring the construction contrary to ‘the spirit of Islam’.
Following severe censure from clerics in JUI-F, and other affiliated seminaries in Islamabad, the PTI-government jumped out the driving seat, letting the wheels slowly roll into the Council of Islamic Ideology (CII). Currently, construction is at a standstill. For now, we await the CII’s opinion on whether state funds can be disbursed for the temple.
Jurisdictional questions relating to the CII
One might ask: is state allocation for mosques subject to the same process of scrutiny? Under its constitutional function, the CII, widely – and rather narrowly – renders advice on whether or not laws, both proposed and enacted, are ‘repugnant’ to Islam; the question of the CII’s jurisdiction to advise on non-legislative matters is, however, entirely suspect.
But limitations aside, what business does the CII have advising the government on constructing places of worship – that too, of religious minorities? Pretty much none, apart from catering to the insecurities, and fragilities of certain power groups in this country that hold a monopoly on religion. But this is a story we hear all-too-often. In this case, surely there was governmental intent. Then, why the ping-ponging?
Perhaps a dive into context might explain. Politically, the PTI-government finds itself torn: appeasing religious hardliners on the one hand and legitimizing its diplomatic assault on Kashmir, on the other. Viewed from that angle, halting the construction of a Hindu temple doesn’t tie in well, at least globally. Yet, the opposition is fierce, and the government, unable to shake it off. A volte-face would mean national embarrassment and too high a price for the government to pay. Throwing the ball in the CII’s court, on the other hand, might just buy some much-needed time to start over.
Today, however, the politics are largely irrelevant; certainly not as irrelevant as Jinnah hoped Hindus and Muslims would be – in the “political sense as citizens of the state” (during his address to the Constituent Assembly) – but enough to return to more urgent concerns of the day.
How does state-sponsorship of religion undermine governments?
Impact-wise, the financial enmeshment of religion, and the government have fissuring effects. In societies where religious diversity and consequent hostilities exist, the balance between religious freedoms will always be uneasy. Placing state power, and tax-money behind a particular religious sect does no favours. In fact, it elevates the predominant religious ideology at a state-level, disenfranchising less-powerful, non-mainstream sects, creating pressure on them to conform. As long as governments refrain from financially backing certain religious segments, however, that balance is maintained.
In the United States, the argument that citizens should not be forced to pay taxes for propounding religious beliefs has found more force. There, the Supreme Court prohibited state-funding of religious establishments – including places of worship, religious institutes, and schools. Writing for the majority, Chief Justice Burger outlined the effects of state-aid: corruption – as religious establishments scramble for governmental largess, and a deterioration in government. How does the state-sponsorship of religion undermine government? Political differences widen – increasingly on religious lines, intensifying polarization, and heightening the mischaracterization of political arguments, which often end up carrying colours of religion.
State funding for minorities
As for us – the horse is already out of the barn. We know the state routinely funds, directly or indirectly, Islamic establishments – including mosques and madrassahs. For example, in an opinion authored by Justice Jawad Hassan last year, the Lahore High Court held every Muslim citizen had a fundamental right to offer prayers while traveling on the newly-built Lahore-Abdul Hakeem Motorway. And it was the State’s duty to provide this place of worship. In forming its opinion, the court drew in from constitutional guarantees of religious freedom. Specifically, our constitution provides the freedom to profess, practice, and propagate religion. For religious minorities, this social covenant is fortified by guaranteeing equal protection, and treatment: both from the law, and, inevitably, from the state.
In that vein, when a government financially throws its weight behind a particular religious segment, but not any other, where do freedom of religion, equality in treatment and protection stand? To contextualize, what does it spell when the PTI-government caves into pressure, brazenly discriminating in the grant of state-funds to religious minorities, by subjecting them to never-before-enforced laws, and a religious body that has not one member representing that minority? Those freedoms and guarantees of equality stand violated. Our constitutional principles of equality and freedom of religion have long been in tension. And they will continue to be as long minorities don’t receive state-funding.
On a more individual level, the calling-in of red-tape to put a pause on construction is an all-too-familiar sight. It is the same, rampant intolerance that assumes a new form each time. Sometimes, it surfaces in the fine-print of building laws; at other times, it’s simply a bullet. How are we to legitimize our advocacy against the persecution of Muslims in Kashmir or Gaza, if we fail to acknowledge the industrial-level discrimination that occurs on our very own soil? These are urgent question we must ask. We must learn from the many lessons of tolerance our Holy Prophet (Peace Be Upon Him) preached.
As for those objecting the use of state-funds for minorities, I ask of them to try and rationalize their logic – particularly in the face of those religious minorities, whose tax-contributions continue to support the faith we practice, mosques we pray in, and the schools we send our children to.
Rafae Saigol, a lawyer and published author, practices in Lahore. He holds a Master of Laws from New York University. He tweets at @RafaeSaigal. The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Global Village Space’s editorial policy.