Morality and the battle between liberals and religious conservatives

Maha shafqat khan – “The great majority of us are Muslims. We follow the teachings of Prophet Mohammed (PBUH). We are members of the brotherhood of Islam in which all are equal in rights, dignity and self-respect. Consequently, we have a special and a very deep sense of unity. But make no mistake: Pakistan is not a theocracy or anything like it.” – Muhammad Ali Jinnah


Today, law and morality are almost inconceivably held to be distinctive fields. When the term “legal ethics” is used, it usually has nothing to do with the “rightness or wrongness” of laws themselves but instead is referred to the professional integrity of members of the legal fraternity. Not only does it influence the aim of human rights but also leaves people defenceless against laws that are unjust, and consequently opens the way to a different sort of totalitarianism.

Moral law differentiates right and wrong in the free actions of humans aiming at personal development and eventually at salvation, whereas political civil law aims at facilitation for individuals to live together in harmony with justice and freedom. There should be an essential alliance between law and morality, though they do not coincide in meaning.

It is impossible for the society to exist without law and morality maintaining a balanced relationship. The expanding crisis of the modern world is rooted in the separation of morality and law and the growing distance between them. There is no society without law, only rule of the jungle.

“If there is justice and if law is based on a discernment of what is just, dialogue can begin and benevolence can appear; so we come to what is ours in common. The first form of culture is law.

Its effectiveness means that barbarism has been overcome: men have always been civilised this way”.

According to a famous social justice research, there are five psychological systems providing foundation for various moralities. They are psychological preparations for detecting and reacting to issues concerned with fairness/reciprocity, harm/care, in group/loyalty, purity/sanctity and authority/respect. Moral intuitions of the political liberals are based upon the first two foundations whereas those of the conservatives rely on all five which is why both the sides are at logger heads.

It all comes down to the fact that morals and ethics are an evaluation of what we ought to do; determining the right way to act and identifying what may or may not be wrong. Though concepts such as right or wrong tend to apply on most situations globally and so they tend to become extraneous to the social domain.

In situations where something that is wrong to A but right to B, it is perhaps debatable about the Opportuneness of that law but not its justice.

Recent examples of nations suffering from this battle of morality and religious conservatism versus liberalism not only include Pakistan but also Turkey, where religious conservatives have become the new ruling elite replacing the secular liberal elite that followed the footsteps of their nation’s modernist founder Mustafa Kemal Ataturk. Unfortunately, these conservatives are themselves morally failing as they continue doing all that they condemned before coming into power.

As seen in the recent Faizabad dharma in Islamabad, it was quite evident how these religious conservatives used the media and took the capital hostage to demonise the judiciary and intimidate the government. As Mustafa Akyol eloquently illustrates in his recent article, “The religious conservatives have become corrupted by power. But power corrupts more easily when you have neither principles nor integrity.”

In the recent battle between the state and the conservative protestors, it was clearly evident that in a country like Pakistan, even a slight distance between law and morality halts the whole country, as religion is the opium of the masses and better way to spread anarchy in the name of religion.

The argument that “there could be no morality without religion” is discarded as Mustafa Çagrici, the former mufti of Istanbul, wrote that “there should be no religion without morality”.

Unless religion is considered to be a personal matter, used as a tool for self-education and is not enforced or implemented politically or as a tool for self-glorification, there can be no solution to this battle of religious morality.

Recently a video message by Imaan Hazir Mazari, the daughter of PTI MNA Shireen Mazari, boldly accusing the army of supporting terrorists and criticising the role of the army in the Faizabad sit-in, is a significant example of the stance taken by both the liberals and religious conservatives as heaps of threats flow towards miss Mazari, but it is imperative to note that there has also been a stream of public support towards her by liberals as seen on social networking websites. No doubt her blatant criticism of the army was wrong, and it offended many citizens, especially those whose fathers and brothers have sacrificed their lives while guarding our nation, but what is right is the criticism of the failure of the government and their surrender to the protesters that took the capital hostage.

The real question is, whether morality is a key element of religion or whether religion is a key element of morality? Can the society really survive if law and morality are attempted to be distanced from each other or will the aftermath of such an attempt be worse than what was witnessed in the Faizabad dharna?

The murder of Salman Taseer, lynching of Mashal Khan, assassination of Shahbaz Bhatti and flinching support of their murderers by the religious conservatives is a wakeup call.

These flag-bearers of the religion and morality are ‘what’s wrong with the society’ as they look down on others as wicked infidels, high on their version of religion that enables them to kill, terrorise and spread anarchy in the name of protecting that very religion while forgetting that the real essence of Islam is forgiveness and peace.

If your version of religion is encouraging you to be violent, then you are misreading your faith. Unfortunately, terrorising in the name of religion and promoting ethnic cleansing and genocide is prevalent not just in Pakistan but also in Syria against the Yazidis, Myanmar against the Muslims and Pakistan against Ahmadi and other minorities. One can only hope that they sober up and witness the destruction that they’ve brought on the world.

– The writer is a lawyer, social activist, and teacher based in Turkey.

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