One of the great ironies of the creation of Pakistan, a state whose very existence is defined by religion, Islam, is that the man considered the Father of the Nation, Muhammad Ali Jinnah, was an atheist. Before being forced into his role as defender of Muslim interests in 1930s still British India, Jinnah was a British trained lawyer, given to wearing Savile Row double-breasted suits, and who loved his whiskey, and is even said to have eaten pork. At any rate, Jinnah favored a secular constitution as was evident from the very last major speech that he gave just before his death in 1948.
My father and his generation of Pakistanis were agnostics, or at least secular. The British political commentator, socialist, journalist and novelist of Pakistani origin, Tariq Ali, who was born in 1943, confirms my experience. Ali wrote, “I never believed in God, not even between the ages of six and ten, when I was an agnostic….My parents, too, were non-believers. So were most of their close friends. Religion played a tiny part in our Lahore household. In the second half of the last century, a large proportion of educated Muslims had embraced modernity.” The later turn to Islamic fundamentalism of Pakistan in the 1970s, inaugurated by dictator, Zia-ul Haq, was well-satirised by Hanif Kureishi in his marvellous screenplay for the Stephen Frears film, “My Beautiful Launderette”; two brothers of Pakistani origin in their fifties are talking about going back to the old country, but one brother stops short this wild train of thought by saying, “The old country [Pakistan] has been sodomized by religion”.
Yesterday, I read a story that cheered me up considerably. New Delhi Television on line published a story on September 5, 2010 about Pakistani youth giving up religion. A Facebook group has been created for Pakistan’s agnostics and atheists by former Pakistani Muslim, Hazrat NaKhuda [obviously a pseudonym- the adopted surname means “no God”.] There are now 100 members. Hazrat, a computer programmer from Lahore, writes, “I used to be a practicing Muslim. I used to live in Saudi Arabia. I have done two Hajs and countless Umrahs. Used to pray five times a day. When I turned 17-18, I realized that the only reason I was a Muslim was because my parents were Muslims”. Another member, Ahmad Zaidi, wrote, “I’m an agnostic simply because I see little or no evidence for the existence of God. Some time ago I decided that I’d never believe anything unless it has a firm basis in reason and as far as I know (and I admit I know very little and that there’s much to be learnt), there’s little or no evidence for the existence of God.”
The members of the group are students, some studying abroad, but many are at the Lahore University of Management Sciences. One student, Nawab Zia, says we should ask not “how we became atheists” but “how we became believers”. He wrote, “I was a born atheist like every human being until my parents corrupted me with faith. Every child is born free and pure”. Ali Rana, who loved Islamic preacher Zakir Nair and hated author Salman Rushdie, has had a change of heart too. He now thinks Nair is an “idiot” and Rushdie a genius. Many members describe on the discussion boards how they “wasted” their years as theists.
What that famous ex-Communist, Arthur Koestler, said about communism applies also to ex-Muslims: “You hate our Cassandra cries and resent us as allies, but when all is said, we ex-Communists are the only people on your side who know what it’s all about”.