State and religion

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Wednesday, January 07, 2009

In his column ‘Islamic or secular Pakistan?’ (Jan 2), Dr Muzaffar Iqbal presented an argument which suggested that the legalisation of prostitution and legislation regarding the industry is somehow akin to legislating in favour of murder, theft etc. Not only is this argument completely fallacious in its comparison, it ignores the reality of the suffering of prostitutes in their current situation. Since legislation to protect the rights of this specific group does not exist, they are mistreated, abused, victimised and, when seeking aid, face the severest form of social ostracism (ala the viewpoint expressed in Dr Iqbal’s column). As long as this industry remains active outside the legislation of the state of Pakistan, there is also clear danger about the spread of sexually transmitted diseases such as HIV/AIDS.

To sum up, Dr Iqbal’s desire to keep prostitution illegal essentially ensures that this country’s sex workers are left vulnerable to real crimes against them (physical, sexual abuse, salary exploitation etc) and that those citizens who do use this industry are left unprotected by the state. This example leaves no doubt in my mind that the country should be run on secular principles, while religion should serve the people in their personal lives. If engaging the services of a prostitute is a sin, then our Islamic ideals should prevent us — but that does not mean that if prostitution is a reality in our society, we should ignore it and allow criminal acts to take place.

Jahanzaib Haque

Thursday, January 15, 2009
This is in reference to the ongoing debate on the role of state and religion and, in particular, Omer Bin Zia’s recent letter which ended by stating, “our laws need to be guided both by our ideals and social realities”. I think we can collectively agree with this statement, but the difference between my argument in favour of legalising prostitution and Omer Bin Zia’s against such legislation in Pakistan is clearly a case of putting religious ideals first, and social realities a distant second.

If such a trend persists then it is problematic for the state in many ways, perhaps most importantly with regard to minority groups whom, as Omer Bin Zia has shown, are allowed to be sacrificed for the sake of what the majority (‘greater society’) believes. It is injustice built into the system, perhaps best reflected by how physical and sexual abuse against prostitutes highlighted as criminal acts is deemed a ‘narrow viewpoint’ by Mr Zia. It is not a narrow viewpoint so much as a basic viewpoint, and to suggest rehabilitation of these groups as a solution is to deny the complexity of matter at hand, which is the crux of the problem. Where is the historical precedent for a society without the existence of ‘the world’s oldest profession’ either legally or illegally? How long was such a society sustained and maintained? What socio-economic conditions push someone to sell their body for sex? Has setting up laws which make prostitution illegal really brought an end to the industry? So which laws are alien to the culture in this case?

Rather than arguing towards compromise, I suggest that this dialogue is actually offering our society a choice between two fundamentally different viewpoints. On the one hand we have secular governance which is not (as popular opinion supposes) anti-religion, but merely keeps religion out of state affairs, laws and other state institutions, and on the other hand we have religion-based governance which places specific, immutable ideals before all else, including (in this case and others) injustice and human suffering.

So as to the question of what benefits legalising prostitution provides the greater society, the answer is: by protecting the rights of everyone, down to even the last man, you have protected the rights of every man.

Jahanzaib Haque


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