Voutenay sur Cure, France.
Many religious leaders in the Muslim world are intellectuals of high repute whose profound understanding of their faith is enhanced by common sense and knowledge of the world. They are not only interesting to speak with ; they can be fascinating in their explanations of the meaning of Islam and its desirable effects on international affairs. I have had discussions with admirable Islamic scholars around the globe, from Indonesia and Malaysia to Bangladesh, Pakistan, Afghanistan, the Gulf and Turkey, and rarely have these devout academics failed to impress me with the depth of their genuine desire for the world to be a better place in tranquil coexistence with other religions.
But there are many Islamic prelates whose staggering ignorance is deepened by fanatical adherence to intolerance. These warped and unfortunate beings — who, alas, have enormous influence in countless Muslim communities — are inflexible to the point of mental derangement and serve neither their religion nor their people in the manner intended by their faith. These men (and of course they are always men) are bigoted, ignorant and mindlessly savage. They (and, of course, their more moderate counterparts) are known as maulvis or maulanas and are respected in their communities because they are literate, unlike so many of the people whom they influence and deliberately keep in even worse ignorance than that which they themselves embrace so enthusiastically.
And recently one example of particularly fatuous fanaticism came to light when it was reported round the world that maulanas in Karak District in the west of Pakistan had ordered women not to go shopping unaccompanied by a male relative because “they spread vulgarity and spoil men’s fasting in Ramazan.”
To clarify this : the holy month of Ramadan, or ‘Ramazan’ in Pakistan, is a period of spiritual reflection marked in the main by dawn-to-dusk fasting. It was originally conceived as an excellent means of encouraging fat Arab merchants to slim down, as calorie self-denial is complemented by the normal regime of prayer that involves much stretching and bending five times a day. It is, or was intended to be, a brilliant combination of heavenly aspiration with worldly pragmatism. But the religious leaders of Karak, the mullahs, like so many others of their mental incapacity, decided to interpret the rules of Ramazan in their own warped fashion — and quite contrarily to what was originally intended in the religion of Islam.
So I wrote an Open Letter to the Maulanas of Karak that was published in the Pakistan newspaper The News, which does its editors much credit because my words would excite the wrath of the blinkered ignorant religious fanatics who abound in the country — and next door in war-stricken Afghanistan. (I’ve altered a few words and phrases in the interests of a wider audience who may not be familiar with some references and expressions originally used in writing for a purely Pakistani readership.)
To the Mullahs of Karak
Now here’s a brand new and exciting idea for you, maulana sahibs of Karak : why not tell the men of your district to concentrate on fasting? Why not broadcast from your mosque’s loudspeakers an order that men should not cast hot eyes over innocent women who are modestly dressed and going about their lawful business? If you think that men are so uncontrollably lascivious in thought as to be distracted by burqa-clad women in the markets, don’t you think it might be a good thing to encourage these men away from thoughts of vulgarity to those of purity?
Don’t you think it would be a brilliant idea, maulanas, to abide by the Quran and treat women “kindly” (Ch 4:19) and “with respect” (Ch 9:71)? Why do you ignore the basic tenets of your religion? Why not practise peace and tolerance? It is thanks to foolish actions and pronouncements by such as you that there is suspicion and fear of Islam in so much of our unhappy globe. Why not advocate harmony and abstain from confrontation? The rest of the world finds it very difficult to do this; but why not try to set an example to the Unbelievers by exhibiting gentle understanding rather than indulging in angry rhetoric?
What you are saying, Karak maulanas, is that you believe it is entirely the fault of women that the males of your neighbourhood are so unprincipled and devoid of moral sense that they go around seeking ecstatic pleasure from a glimpse of an unescorted black sack shuffling along a dusty track to buy a few onions from the market.
You are declaring that your district is a hotbed (sorry about the word) of depravity. You are stating that no man in your community can be considered safe from the wicked glint of eyes that can barely tell night from day after flirtation (sorry; of course I mean filtration) through a heavy cotton veil. This is terrifying. I had no idea of the penetrating power of female eyes through a burqa’s mask. It seems there is no limit to the influence of twinkling evil. But even then, respected Karak maulanas – and all the others in Pakistan and indeed the world who agree with your sentiments – do not you think there might be just the tiniest allocation of responsibility to members of the male sex (if I may use that word) in the relationship between burqa and burlesque?
You are saying that it is entirely the responsibility of the downtrodden subservient females of your paradise in Karak that your men are incapable of restraining themselves when they see – shock! horror! – a burqa-wearing woman in the bazaar unescorted by a male relative? Tell us, worthy maulanas, just why in your bazaars is a burqa-clad woman escorted by a male relative deemed unattractive to a Karak male, while a burqa-clad woman who is not escorted by a male relative is, in your words, “a source of spreading vulgarity, especially in the holy month of Ramazan”?
This is a fascinating declaration. Why, dear saintly maulanas, do you imagine that Karak women are “spreading vulgarity”? Are they prone (sorry about that word) to cast aside their stifling layers of garments in front of an onion stall and shimmy round the other food barrows, enticing innocent males into uncontrollable outbursts of non-vegetative passion? Have you ever seen anything like this? Can there have been any such scenes of excess in the tranquillity of Karak town?
Then there is your pronouncement about groups of women who have been “involved in theft and robberies” because they were not escorted by male relatives. My goodness, I can just imagine gangs of burqa-clad desperadoes sweeping through the bazaars, pinching the goods (as it were) of innocent male onion-sellers and indulging in bedlam (or worse). How embarrassing for you, saintly maulanas, that the unescorted women of your region might work such havoc.
I have two things to say in conclusion: the first is that when I told my wife I was writing this piece she reminded me of an incident in Saddar Bazaar in Rawalpindi in Pakistan over 30 years ago. An obviously educated young man looked at her with an expression that would have excited the admiration of a nymph-chasing Greek Satyr. She regarded him coolly and asked, “Would you like a man to look at your sister or mother in the same way as you are looking at me?” He had the grace to blush and turn away, confused and embarrassed. So whose fault was that, you pious maulanas?
And the last point is to say to you, smug preachers of Karak and your fellow-mullahs of intolerance in the rest of Pakistan — and all around the world — that you are a bunch of hypocrites. You do not seek to reduce poverty. You do not try to improve the social conditions in your society. You do not raise a finger in support of those subjected to injustice. You care nothing about community health. And when did you last arrange for the drilling of a well in your village to avoid the necessity for women to carry water containers to their houses a mile from the nearest mucky stream? All you care about is your image.
You should reflect on the fact that your selfish medieval attitude to women has been described very well, in that in the words of Islam : “if you hate them, it may be that you dislike a thing while Allah has placed abundant good in it.” In fact, what you cannot understand, you distrust. And what you distrust, you fear. And then you advocate injustice. It’s the coward’s way out. And I trust it will lead you to damnation.
Brian Cloughley’s website is www.beecluff.com