Enlightened moderates, take heart! There are 18 options to choose from in the religion column of Pakistan’s new machine-readable passports.
These range from the quotidian (“Islam, Sikhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Buddhism, Zoroastrianism, Jainism”) to the curious (“Chinese Folk, Confucianism, African Ethnic, Judaism, Shintoism, Taoism, Spiritism, Atheism, Non-religionism, Other, Ahmadiyya”). That’s more religions than you can shake a papal sceptre at.
This is particularly enlightening since, according to the Ministry of Economic Affairs and Statistics web site – which cites the 1998 census – of the 132 million people in the Islamic Republic 96.28% are Muslim, 1.6% Hindu, 1.59% Christian, 0.25% Scheduled Castes, 0.22% Quadiani, and 0.07% qualify as Others. The government’s decision last March to reinstate the religion column in the new passport thus demonstrates a healthy secularism.
Most Pakistanis would agree, one hopes, that the religion column on our passports is an impertinent imposition. More relevant information could have been included. For example: blood type, person to call in case of emergency, allergies, or even favourite colour. There is no religion column on our remodelled national identity cards, why then do we need it on our passports? Because someday, somewhere, someone is going to ask us our religion, refuse to believe our answer and demand to see our passport. Our hard-to-fake machine-readable passport. That should save gents the desire to flash their religion otherwise.
There’s another barely reported change on the passport. The only English text on the cover sleeve of the passport is the name of our country. Not the official name, just Pakistan. The ‘Islamic Republic of’ prefix is there, coded in Urdu, guarded from the undiscerning eye of many an immigration officer. Before you begin to worry that’s too many changes too soon, be glad knowing that most important of caveats, “Valid in all countries of the world except Israel,” is still there. The caveat is important because it shows that, contrary to popular rhetoric, Pakistan is still being run by Pakistanis.
General Pervez Musharraf has acknowledged Pakistani people as strange, who say one thing and do another. The First Pakistani and his ministers are not immune to this discrepant bent. Last March, Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz assuaged his liberal constituency by stating that the reinstatement of the religion column would not sound the death knell of enlightened moderation: Pakistanis would have the option to avail any or none of the options on the passport. Tell that to the hardworking men at Lahore’s Passport Office.
“I’d like to avail the option given to all Pakistanis by the prime minister,” I tell my data processor, a 25-year old from Mughalpura. And what option is that, he asks politely. “The freedom to choose my religion on the new passport.” He shares the buffet of options available to me. “Put me down as Atheist or Other.” Not so fast, he tells me. “We’re going in to talk to The Bosses.”
I’m taken to a room that appears to connect all the halls in the building. The creaking wooden door gives way to a small space lit with naked bulbs suspended from the ceiling, two computers and some impressively tall machines blink and whir in the background. There are a few beaten up faces perched on a few beaten up chairs. The data processor goes up to a moustachioed man sitting behind one of the computers and whispers something. This is one of The Bosses. I am told to sit down in front of him. Thus begins the inquisition.
“Now,” says The Boss deliberately, “what seems to be the problem.” None at all, I assure him, I am simply here to exercise my rights as a Pakistani. After all, the software that the Interior Ministry is using does give me 18 options to choose from. “Bhai, this is Pakistan. Everything is made in the US by people who don’t know the country,” he informs me. “And what you mean to tell us is that you were a Muslim but are no longer one?” he asks. I could feel the temperature dropping, the underlings drawing close. “Do you know what happens to Muslims who betray their religion?” I had some idea, yes.
Would the office toughie I had brought along with me to curb the crowds speak up? Would I be able to call someone who could bail me out? Would I make it to my college reunion in the States? Would I make it outside the passport office? Perhaps this was not the place for an open-minded discussion on the freedoms supposedly guaranteed by the state. It was time to get the paperwork done and retreat to terra familiar.
Forty minutes later, after some talk of blasphemy laws, police stations and of course, the US, we’re back at the data entry station; the crowds have dissipated but I can feel stares of the righteous boring into my back. “Religion?” asks the young man from Mughalpura, deadpan. “Muslim,” I respond. “Speak up,” I’m told. Apparently that was not good enough for the whole room. “Muslim, Muslim, Muslim.” That should have everyone satisfied.
That wasn’t the end of the hurdles. All applicants must also sign on a rendition of the first kalma, the reciting of which officially welcomes one into the fold of Islam. The Passport Office’s “Declaration in case of Muslim,” is reproduced here exactly as it appears on the computer-generated application form:
I hereby solemnly declare that: 1. I am Muslim and believe in the absolute and unqualified finality of the prophethood of Muhammad (peace be upon him) as the last of the prophets. 2. I do not recognize any person who claims to be a prophet in any sense of the word or of any description what soever after Muhammad (peace be upon him) or recognize such a claimant as prophet or a religious reformer as a Muslim. 3. I consider Mirza Ghulam Ahmed Quadiani to be an imposter nabi and also consider his followers whether belonging to the Lahori or Quadiani group to be non-Muslims.
“This is ridiculous,” I tell the data processor, and he’s equally surprised by my second wind. What gives me the right to call anyone else a non-Muslim. His nostrils are flaring now. He puts a giant cross on my form and prepares to take me back inside. All I meant, I quickly tell him, was merely to ask where I should sign. We start over, again. When we come to the Declaration this time round, I have my pen ready. He curls his lip and points to the small x at the bottom of the form. This was my baptism.
The ink barely dry, I screeched off from this experience feeling the only thing I possibly could. Absolutely useless, not having been able to stand down a score of passport officers. The head swirled with engineered buzzwords that the government keeps throwing around, these bathetic non-sequiturs that ring and grate and remind us of the controversies unresolved since 1947. I felt sorry for the General who must have had to deal with something like my experience at the passport office. But then again, I only had my office toughie behind me. He has an entire army.