Perspective - 360°

Is the Council of Islamic Ideology at all important?

Published Mar 23, 2015 06:15pm

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It is not easy being on the Council of Islamic Ideology (CII) these days. Everyone’s favourite advisory body is getting mauled by the press as breathtakingly backwards, a crew of cavemen that would find the Bronze Age too sophisticated. And for once, journalistic license should be welcomed. The council has been behaving badly — even by its own arcane standards.

It ruled out DNA testing as primary evidence in rape cases last September. It rejected the Women’s Protection Act in favour of the old Hudood laws, something it lauds as a major achievement on its website. And it outdid itself last month, decreeing the prohibition of child marriage un-Islamic. Any child of any age could get married, the wise men of the council held, with consummation permissible the second the minor hits puberty.

All this under the divine guidance of Muhammad Khan Sherani, a maulana from the worldly environs of the Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam–Fazl (JUIF). Sherani’s parliament profile tells us he is an agriculturalist by profession, and “completed his Dars-e-Nizami at Meraj-ul-Uloom Madrassa, Bannu, in 1962.” No other educational credentials are given, but none are required. He sits atop the heap as part of the pound of flesh the government cut out for JUIF. His influence stems from expedience, not expertise.

And while Sherani continues much of the CII’s rich traditions – that is, poorly drafted recommendations, literalist ideas and an all-consuming obsession with women – he breaks new ground trying to send the country back some thousand years. Which begs the question, how seriously should we be taking the mind-numbing CII? The council is fond of telling everyone that it is “a constitutional body” and no doubt it is. Pressured into creation in 1962 under military ruler Ayub Khan, who cared little for religion anyway, the CII derives its legitimacy from the Constitution’s Articles 228 (composition), 229 (reference procedure) and 230 (functions).

A simple scan of these functions reveals soft verbs — “to make recommendations”, “to advise a House”, “to compile in suitable form” and to hold forth on what it deems right or repugnant to Islam. So far, the CII is still toothless, but that doesn’t change the fact that it has the parliament’s ear — and it whispers often. All the more distressing to think how far a more popular CII chairman could push our lawmakers toward the council’s warped worldview, or about the damage done to citizens who consider the men of the CII pure, state-sanctioned sages.

Yet, even as a powerless, finger-pointing old crone, the CII is dangerous. So how to stop it?

It turns out the CII’s lifeblood – constitutional legitimacy – could also be poison in its veins. Article 230 of the Constitution reads: “The Council of Islamic Ideology shall submit its final report within seven years of its appointment and shall submit an annual interim report … and Parliament, after considering the report, shall enact laws in respect thereof within a period of two years of the final report.”

Considering that the Constitution came into force in 1973, the CII managed to come up with a ‘final report’ by 1996, a casual 16 years too late. Be that as it may, that means the CII has fulfilled its mandate and should go home now. The fact that it has managed an ugly afterlife well into 2014 shows both the weakness of the state and the lack of attention this republic lends to its Constitution. Law demands the CII be disbanded.

Not that previous governments haven’t tried. Men as liberal and illiberal as Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, General (retd) Pervez Musharraf and former President Asif Ali Zardari have toyed with the idea of slapping the CII down. None succeeded. The law ministry made a convincing case as late as 2010 that, post-final report, the CII was over the hill.

But the council wailed back like a stepchild cut out of the will, screaming that the same Article 230 implied permanent status for it. It was needed evermore important, quivered the CII, in deciding what was right for Pakistanis. Looks like we agreed. As a hideous child marriage bill makes it through Iraq’s parliament, days from being drafted into law, it doesn’t take much to guess what the CII may one day be capable of if left to its own devices. “Pakistan is not going to be a theocratic state, to be ruled by priests with a divine mission,” said Mohammad Ali Jinnah. It is prudent we listen.