False Idols

by Shah Rukn-e-Alam

There is an old story about a king who, before dividing his kingdom, asked his three daughters how much they loved him. The first claimed a love deeper than the oceans, the second claimed a love brighter than the sun, his youngest and most beloved daughter however simply told him that she loved him as a daughter loves her father, no more no less. Not satisfied with the mere love of a daughter for her father, the king stripped her off her inheritance and sent her away. In the end, when it is far too late he realizes to his sorrow that he had in his desire to be worshiped pushed away his one true human connection. His tragedy lies in confusing the illusions necessary for power with the truth and it is in the nature of power that it demands deference without regard to truth, it values the symbolic over the genuine, metaphors of suns and oceans may be artificial but they maintain this illusion, but true connection, is far too honest, far too individualistic, far too real to fulfill the role of simple power projection. And in the end the king’s power dissipates, the artifice of power draws him in and his grasp on reality loosens, he confuses eloquence with genuine connection, he trusts the wrong people and dies with his youngest daughter’s corpse in his arms.

His daughter did not give the king what he wanted, the king wanted her to love him in the precise way in which he wanted to be loved, instead she loved him in her own way, and in that moment it was the lack of control that spurred the king to punish her. It was the lack of power over this human connection that offended the king, it reminded him of the limits of his power. And yet this was the most genuine connection the king had, precisely because it was not based on shallow blind worship. His daughter was not content to merely behold him as symbol of power, she looked behind the trappings of power and tried to come to terms with the human underneath and build something sincere.

But this sincerity reduced the king to a man, and men are fallible, and the trappings of destiny and power and godhood, illusions. This is an old tragedy about the desire for power, the desire to be worshiped, corrupting and emptying out honest human connection and leaving only false fragile idols that must be shielded from honest eyes lest they crack leaving only the debris of empty hubris and vanity. And like the greatest tragedies this one speaks to the human condition and it’s tragic movements repeat themselves over and over again through our histories ,historical forces, movements, religions rise filled with idealism and hope only to empty out into bureaucratic husks that demand insincere obedience and punish the truth. And as the king’s power dissipates again and again we see in history the loss of the justice and goodness that redeems power closely follow the loss of sincerity; so nations turn into ruthless empires, religions become reduced to tools of statecraft that punish the vulnerable and shield abuse, community becomes the banner of racists, the idea of the common good turns into exploitation, and national defense becomes about the imprisonment,torture and murder of journalists, minorities and dissidents.

When the Pharaohs of Egypt laid claim to unquestionable godhood, they did not want to be seen, as they were, as mere humans, instead they wished to disappear into their trappings, to become gods and lay claim to their subjects. When the priests of Abraham’s tribe demanded the unquestioned worship of likenesses carved in stone, what was being demanded was unquestioned obedience. And men like Abraham, who saw the mere voiceless stone underneath, and men like Moses, who saw in the Pharaoh his tragic misguided brother, were cast out for their sincerity.

Abraham interacted with his tribe’s religion sincerely, he conceived of an all powerful eternal god who does not set like the sun, nor fade like the stars. This process is not as unproblematic as it can seem, why could one not argue if the sun is a god that he rises and sets as he pleases and it pleases the sun to follow a pattern, similar arguments could be made about the stars and the moon. A believing priest might have argued that it is not Abraham’s place to hold god to a standard and expect that he come through. It is clear that Abraham’s process was not straightforwardly logical, it was creative, it had its blind spots, his search was messy contradictory and flawed in the typical human way. And in finding Allah he believed so passionately that he destroyed his tribe’s idols. And for his sincerity they tried to burn him. Abraham is rightly considered a protagonist of Islam, his desire for truth his search lead him to Allah and the members of his tribe who decreed that he must be burned are rightly considered villains for punishing someone who tried to tell the truth. But it is easy to underestimate Abraham’s intensity in the face of the comfortable conclusion that he found Allah in the end. Suppose he added another condition just as arbitrary as his other conditions, that god should be visible to the naked eye. His search and sincerity wouldn’t have been any less heroic, but now it would be very likely that the priesthood of his tribe and the laws, institutions and priesthoods of Pakistan would be on the same page in decrying and punishing him.

Sincerity is wild and creative and honest, and it is in the interest of cynical operators of power to fence it in, to try and domesticate it towards their ends. What these operators demand is not true belief, a true sincere relation is secondary, what matters to these operators is the obedience they can extract from the individual’s belief. And towards those ends they lie, they mislead, they scapegoat, they cover up, they use the fear of punishment, and in doing so create false idols, entities that are not meant to be truly seen for what they are, the individual must behold them, submit to them, and worship them without question. And as long as people obey, these priesthoods do not care, they do not care if people who imbue these idols with power they do not have, they do not care if the people whose hopes ride on these lifeless objects, they do not care about the people who lose themselves in the maze of lies and trappings, they do not care about the dead who saw the truth, all that matters is obedience. The individual’s journey, his search for the truth and meaning is thrown by the way side.

In Pakistan we are presented with a nation, we are presented with its institutions, and prescribed a nationalism, in a process as inane and empty as a father prescribing his daughter to love him like a god king rather than acknowledge the frail flawed human underneath. It is also a process that is tone deaf to what it means to experience a nation, what it means to experience a religion, what it means to experience an ideology, what it means to experience an institution and what it means to sincerely believe.

I sometimes think that we experience what Pakistan is so intuitively that we forget how abstract a concept it might been when we were young and how in giving up our ambiguity we lose some part of what makes a nation a nation. When we are new to the world, Pakistan is a sound, a name but, a name of what precisely. Sometimes Pakistan is a map, sometimes our village, sometimes it’s a fighter jet, sometimes it is our family, sometimes it is a history of our people, sometimes it is their lived reality, sometimes it’s an ideal sometimes, at other times it’s an anagram, sometimes it represents belonging and oneness. And as we grow up a little we might start noticing the name cropping up next to institutions; the army, the police the courts, the MPAs and the MNAs. And then in school we are taught stories and Pakistan is at the center of those stories, stories about how it came about, what the founding fathers wanted, how Muhammad bin Qasim started it all by invading Sindh. We learn about the political project of Pakistan, the different peoples of Pakistan, its rivers and mountains. And then comes the lived experience, our contact with the real, and the stories buried by our national projects.

 And then we experience how heartbreakingly, corrosively and systematically cynical and corrupt our institutions have been; we learn about the systematic mass murder and rape of the citizens of Pakistan by the army, of the cycles of unjustifiable dictatorship and American aid, of the breakup of the country.

And so every citizen of Pakistan who interacts sincerely with the nation has to deal what it means to be a citizen of this country, with its complicated history, and its institutions, they have to come to terms with their lived experience, and choose what it is the nation means to them and it is only through sincerely dealing with these questions, and the accompanying emotions that they can possibly form an honest nationalism.

And so it is so heartbreakingly cynical for the institutions of Pakistan, with their known history of self-interested abuse, to claim that they know the ideology of Pakistan, as if the ideology of Pakistan is a scientific property that can be known rather than a complex process of individuals giving meaning to their specific experiences of the nation. To claim that the ideology of Pakistan exists outside one’s subjective experience, to claim that the historically self-interested institutions of Pakistan have the right to punish those who insist upon a more sincere relationship with the nation, is not a show of piety. It is in fact an insincere anti-Pakistan power grab no less profane than Pharaoh’s claim to godhood, dressed up in a non-answer. It is profane because it is an attempt to claim that those who see the nation differently are challenging god when they are actually challenging cynical human interests. And it is insincere because it is being championed by institutions that have always been more concerned with disciplining their citizens and pursuing US geopolitical interests than with the souls of their citizens.

Sometimes it feels like our institutions would like to for us to remember our founding fathers like this, stone faced statues who have all the answers. Rather than genuinely engaging with them as the actual fallible, complex flesh and blood human beings they actually were

And it is a non-answer because it never really engages meaningfully with the individual’s experiences, whether it the feeling of rootlessness that comes with primarily experiencing those small wealthy spaces that remain untouched by the storms that fill the news, to the alienation felt by those who watch the officers they were taught to trust pointing guns at them, to the feeling of nationalism felt by those who read about the many passions and sacrifices that fed the Pakistan movement.

Religion has always possessed this subjectivity as well, dialog between God and man has always in a sense been private, because humans have always related to religious texts from the vantage of their personal experiences and individual journeys.

It is said that once Moses came across a man who was inviting God into his house in his prayers, promising that he would treat him like an honored guest. Scandalized Moses scolded the man, bringing him to tears telling him that he would bring the wrath of Allah down on himself. And for this he was reprimanded by Allah who took the man’s prayers to be a sign of touching devotion; because his sincerity mattered far more than etiquette and far more than what the specifics of one’s word’s might imply if considered through a pathological robotic lens that insists on pulling things out of context and damning the speaker for every implication. And yet when we look through the history of empires and states, and when we survey the conditions of Pakistan, we see an insistence on fear and guilt, a focus on on an opportunistic system of standardization and punishment that is all discipline and little sincerity. Empires and states have always created priesthoods that grant them the trappings of godhood, and in laying claim to godhood, weaponize religion against the sincere and the vulnerable so Daniel was sent into the lion’s den, so Mansur Al-Hajjaj was executed, so Socrates was sentenced to death, so Joan of Arc was burned at the stake, so Abraham was pushed into a fire so Asia Bibi was imprisoned and so on and so on. And it is in the light of this constant historical pattern that a simple truth becomes clear that power always corrupts religion, and that there is no greater enemy to sincere belief than a state laying claim to religion and curtailing freedom of speech in its name. Simply put empires and states laying claim to national ideology and religion are the greatest enemies of the sincerely religious and the sincerely nationalistic.

Religion is not embraced by states and empires it is deployed like a chess piece with all the cold cynicism and insincerity that the image entails. And the clergy is the means through which this wild sincere force, that gives meaning to and is given meaning to by the intense personal relation of the individual and God, is carved into a cold wooden chess piece to be deployed by base human interests. It is a process that tries to turn faith into just another trapping of power, a false idol that reliably disciplines with no regard for the way it leads believers away from sincere engagement. The Roman Empire embraced Christianity and the Catholic Church in the name of power, the Ottoman Empire deployed religion in the same way, Akbar tried to combine the faiths to make them more conveniently manageable. Consider this, the priesthoods of all these empires resisted and feared the idea of religion becoming more accessible. The priesthoods of the Ottoman and Mughal empires prevented the adoption of the printing press, the catholic church did not allow the bible to be translated. These priesthoods feared the individual’s unmediated access to God, because that would allow them to create something real and sincere, it threatened to take away the trappings of power that they had constructed over centuries. And yet we still see the reformation that overthrew the church as the moment the west moved away from religion when precisely the opposite is true. The West in fact began to move away from insincere institutions that appropriated the voice of God, towards a world where individuals could sincerely engage with faith and form an authentic relationship with God. If that freedom alienates us, it is because we have become seduced by the easy power the appropriation of God’s voice has granted men over women (just the idea of men being the ‘majazi khuda’ over women gives this cynical game away) , and Muslims over minorities; we have become used to the comfortable certainties of faith, and have learned to fear the hard work required to engage with a complex world, and we have been taught to fear a frank and sincere engagement with Allah unmediated by state supported priesthoods.

And the result is that we have become a deeply unfree people whose faith has been appropriated by autocrats who have cynically chained themselves to US geopolitical interests, and have convinced their people that American interests are Allah’s interests. Our autocrats joined the American war on communism, and called it jihad, the house of Saud funneled it’s wealth into US bank accounts while claiming spiritual leadership of the Muslim world. And the result has been a loss of substance, of true sincere belief as states and priesthoods project power and nothing else. We can see the meaningless cacophony that results, chess is banned, in the name of Allah, minorities are force married in his name, temples are destroyed, journalists whose duty is to ground us to the truth are murdered openly in embassies, the Quran is deployed in the defense of rapists, and the murderers of women, Islam is deployed in the name of dictatorship and unjust monarchy, to victimize illiterate Christian girls, to hide the murder and profiteering committed by our institutions.

This is what happens when power deploys religion. This is what happens when power over reaches and tries to own meaning that can only be realized individually. Freedom is the precondition for sincerity and power strangles the life out of it, leaving only a tyrannical bureaucratic husk that can only view the sincere individual as a challenge to its power.

Goya’s “Saturn Devouring his Son” is my favorite personification of the paranoid institutional (and human) husk that feels compelled to devour it’s sincere children

The false idol manifests itself in endless forms, in the form of the individual leader, in the form of the all-knowing intellectual, in the form of the all-knowing priest, in the form of an institution, in the form of an economic system, in the form of political ideology, in the form of religion, in the form of history, ultimately a false idol is meant to be worshiped without sincere engagement, without question and without honesty. And ultimately sincerity and freedom come from gazing unflinchingly at the truth, through the trappings of power and at the petty human interests trying to play God underneath.

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