In a country perceived to be teeming with hypocrites, the good news is, there are still enough rational voices to make a difference. The venue of this heart-warming discovery is the readers’ forum of a blog on a Pakistani news website.
The blogger is a young woman. She was touched from behind in a public bus and she figured the culprit was an old man with white beard. She did not react with hostility and the old man had the last laugh. She connects the incident with newspaper reports of ‘maulvis’ raping little children, and with her own impression of maulvis promoting disturbance and racism in their sermons, and arrives at the obvious conclusion that ‘the most respected group of people (the elderly and the maulvi) has been transformed in to the most feared one’. And by way of explanation she says: ‘When a person is given the respect that he does not deserve, this is the inevitable outcome,’ with the assurance of someone who has either been a maulvi or who has respected maulvis before the disillusionment.
The usual maulvi-bashers joined the party and added their own experiences with and views about the ‘maulvi sahib’, ‘qari sahib’ and generally all bearded men, in the forum section. A medical doctor who practices Islam and sports a shara’yee beard wrote in to say how he likes his beard but hates the word ‘maulvi’, and wished that he would be seen as a man, a doctor, and not just a ‘bearded man’. A woman blogger chided the writer for turning one man’s indecency into a charge of depravity against all men with long facial hair. Another chaffed at linking morality with religiosity. Yet another pointed out that all aged men are not dirty old men, all bearded men are not maulvi, and all maulvis are not child molesters.
Who is a maulvi anyway? Who decides who is and who isn’t?
In its original form ‘maulvi’ is the title of honour one earns after successfully completing madrassah syllabus, and a mark of respect even in secular circles where teachers and other learned people addressed each other as ‘maulvi sahib’.
In contemporary connotation, however, the term is either used for the prayer leader of the local mosque, or for a narrow-minded and intolerant person, with or without a beard. In both cases ‘maulvi’ is essentially a lowly person, held responsible for any and all ills, as in: ‘this country’s gone to the dogs because of the maulvis’. A maulvi is a man or woman who closely measures every centimeter of exposed skin to calculate the temperature of hell’s oven in which that skin will burn. Someone who’s sure of being right, always, and therefore, never willing to learn or change their views.
It’s the kind of person you cannot argue with. They are masters at the art of one-way communication, and it’s all outbound. Maulvi, as they say in Sialkot, is a state of mind and not a state of affairs. Maulvi is a quality that is independent of religion, occupation, gender, age, and place of birth. Other than the religious maulvi there is the professional soldier, the meticulous bureaucrat, the ‘progressive’ leftist, the ‘liberal’ thinker … who are all maulvis in their own way. Their truth is the only truth. They will not allow any other view or opinion to be expressed.
The non-traditional maulvis – the clean shaved, English-speaking, trouser-wearing, self-described liberals – are not easy to recognise, without the litmus test of censorship. Liberal thinking is born out of, and thrives on, plurality of opinions, expressed without fear and favour. Every idea, every view and every notion can compete for the audience’s attention and discussion. There is no room for censorship in a liberal discourse. The two are mutually exclusive; you couldn’t argue in favour of banning Satanic Verses and be a liberal. A liberal may give his view of Salman Rushdie as a pretentious writer and of his books as nonsensical prose, and still defend his right to publish and sell books, and speak in public.
The same goes for a discourse on religion, sex, gender, and everything else dubbed ‘sensitive’ in the civilian language. There are too many ‘too sensitive’ subjects and taboo stories to kill if we let individuals decide what cannot be said. It is for this reason we have institutions, and constitutions, and principles, and ethics. There is a global consensus on minimum standards and the conduct of mass media. Media content that, among other things, passes off unsubstantiated claims and blames as facts, defames, unjustly harms, spreads hatred, uses abusive language, spreads malicious rumours, or may cause violence and unrest, can be rejected, and the editors and managing producers will only be doing their professional and civic duty.
Maulvis are not satisfied with this arrangement. They don’t want to see, read, or hear some things, which is a choice they are free to make, but then they decide that it must be bad for by everyone and demand for it to be deleted, banned, killed. The literary maulvis in India successfully opposed Rushdie’s appearance at Jaipur Literary Festival this year. The leftist maulvis in Pakistan can’t stand Islam and are just as unreasonable in their hatred against religious maulvis as the religious maulvi are against them. The journalist maulvi will err seldom but always on the side of political correctness, which is a religion in itself.
The liberal maulvi refuses to hear the counter view, both from family and peers. Instead of reasoning and arguing in favour of his or her own point of view, they forcefully demand that the counter view should be stopped, banned, killed, should not be put out in public, because it will corrupt the audience. That is precisely the argument a religious maulvi relies on in favour of censorship – that audiences are innocent, naive, even stupid, and need to be protected from potentially harmful material circulated in the public sphere.
So there. The one with a long beard may or may not be a maulvi, and the well dressed and educated one may or may not be a maulvi. The appearance does not decide. Words, actions and intentions do. So then who is maulvi in the blog and forum mentioned above? The author, the journalist who decided the headline for that blog: ‘Keep your hands to yourself, Maulvi sahib’, the readers who badmouthed maulvis in liberal solidarity? Or the straight-talking, bearded, practicing Muslim?
Who is a maulvi’s opposite number, the liberal, among these characters? The objective and critical readers who pointed out the narrative’s shortcomings without malice or prejudice? Or a reader demanding this or some other piece of writing killed for being politically incorrect?
The uplifting part of this reading experience was in numbers. Maulvis had their say in the forum, though none were rabid enough to demand a ban. Rational and liberal responses were few but they stole all the attention and received likes in three digits. In other words hundreds of readers took the blogger and maulvi-bashers for real ‘maulvis’ and chose to side with the more liberal comments. As long as these voices are around, driving the discourse, maulvis won’t have their way. These are your voices. Keep them trained and keep them coming.
Masud Alam is an Islamabad-based writer, columnist and journalism trainer. He can be reached at email@example.com
The views expressed by this blogger and in the following reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the Dawn Media Group.