By Zubeida Mustafa
THE SIUT’s Centre for Biomedical Ethics and Culture (CBEC) holds interesting forums periodically where renowned scholars are invited to address the members. Since ethics is a wide-ranging subject the thought-provoking speeches on a variety of subjects delivered there provide the audience some issues to chew upon.
In July, Dr Arifa Syeda Zahra, who teaches history in a Lahore college, was a guest of the CBEC and the point she drove home very forcefully and convincingly was that those who destroy history do it with the purpose of erasing the collective memory of a people. The idea behind this act of vandalism is to pre-empt change, which Dr Arifa Zahra describes as the most difficult process in individuals and societies.
Her hypothesis very appropriately articulated in chaste Urdu laced with pun and humour was that history is the tool that allows us to distinguish between good and evil in the past lives of a nation. This process of analysing past successes and failures is essential to facilitating changes in the present.
This is not happening in our case because those controlling the destiny of Pakistan will not allow it to happen. They are so focused on religion that they distort past records and entangle people in frivolous debates on rituals to divert their attention from substantive issues.
Thus a big lie exposed by Dr Arifa Zahra concerns the so-called ideology of Pakistan that has been used by many an unscrupulous leadership to enable it to exercise control via religion. The conventional belief that has been relentlessly promoted is that the slogan ‘Pakistan ka matlab kiya, La illaha il-Allah’ (What does Pakistan mean? There is only one God) was the battle cry of the Pakistan movement. Dr Arifa Zahra’s contention is that research into history has conclusively proved that this slogan was an invention of the Ayub era in 1968 and has ever since been presented as a fact of Pakistan’s history.
When all laws are supposedly based on religion, such leaders come to enjoy unlimited powers by virtue of their becoming judge, jury and executioner all rolled into one by arrogating to themselves the power of interpretation and implementation.
They create a kind of comfort zone for themselves into which they trap the simple people. Nobody wants to step out of it to face an uncertain future. Who has not seen the blatant misuse of religion for committing the most heinous acts? They go unchallenged.
This falsification of history has provided the right-wing orthodox champions of Islam sufficient ground to build their ideological castles that are actually like castles on the sand.
Accordingly, the belief was fabricated that Pakistan was created to enable Muslims of South Asia to build a separate state for themselves in which they could create a theological structure with an Islamic system in vogue.
Dr Mubarak Ali, another historian who mourns the wrongs done to history, holds a similar point of view as Dr Arifa Zahra. He writes: “Our state uses the subject (history) for its own political and ideological interests. It is claimed that Pakistan came into being as a result of an ideological struggle. Therefore, the official purpose of history in Pakistan is to legitimise the state’s ideology and write history within a framework that suits the ruling classes.”
That would explain why we are not able to find solutions to our numerous problems. It makes us resist new technology — vide the moon-sighting debate that has become an annual feature of our lives and the Council of Islamic Ideology’s refusal to accept DNA testing as primary evidence in rape cases.
We refuse to show tolerance and compassion to ‘others’ because our view of religion has to be conformist. It is not inclusive and pluralistic. We do not inculcate the spirit of inquiry in our children who are discouraged from thinking lest that causes them to ask the wrong kind of questions that could ‘weaken’ their faith.
Another role of history, as identified by Dr Arifa Zahra, is in preserving our socio-cultural values and norms. People’s collective memories help them to distinguish between good and evil in society. The process of sifting wheat from chaff determines our preferences and forms the basis of our moral heritage. If collective memories are erased or distorted people are deprived of a tool to measure the good and bad experiences of their past.
In such circumstances, ethics faces a tough challenge. In numerous discussions at the CBEC, sensitive issues, especially those pertaining to medicine, have come under debate such as life and death, organ sale and transplantation and palliative medicine. With technology making rapid strides and communication injecting new ideas into society instantaneously, new ethical codes need to be devised.
One still remembers the struggle the Transplantation Society of Pakistan had to wage against some unscrupulous urologists promoting the organ trade in the country. They took their case to the Federal Shariat Court taking the plea that the Transplantation of Human Organs and Tissues Ordinance violated the tenets of Islam. It was the enlightened judge, Justice Haziqul Khairi, who ruled against the organ traders.
History can provide guidelines, but only if it is honestly researched and written with integrity. It is difficult to devise any ethical code without reference to the past especially the culture, moral values and beliefs prevalent in a society during different eras.