Promoters of purity

An examination of the ways in which absolutist forms of imagining purity and virtue can produce terror and authoritarianism 

Purity may be a good thing when it comes to material things such as gold or silver or diamonds. But, in the realm of cultural practices, the idea of purity is intimately linked with intolerance, bigotry, fundamentalism, and fascism. Purity is a metaphysical concept with its systematic expression found in philosophy from the time of The Republic by Plato. 

According to the argument propounded by Plato, every object in the world was an imitation (mimesis) of its divine idea and, therefore, was already inferior. Painters and poets were imitators of these imitations; hence their creative products were twice removed from 'pure reality'. 

Plato banished poets from his ideal form of government. It basically meant only those deserved citizenship who were indulging in 'ideal' activities. 

Hitler used the concept of German racial purity to kill at least 8 million Jews, Gypsies, Communists, and Poles. The victims of Hitler, after getting a state of their own, did not get rid of the idea of purity but adopted it for their own purposes. Now Israel also practices the idea of 'Jewish purity'. Anyone whose grandparents were Jewish can migrate to Israel and become a citizen. But if any citizen's both parents are not Jewish, he or she is not a pure Jew and therefore cannot marry a 'pure Jew'. The Arabs living within Israel are second-class citizens and many are also labelled as the present-absent people. They are present in the country but do not officially exist. 

Similarly, an imagined version of 'pure' or 'ideal' Islam exists in every demagogue's mind. And from Hassan-i-Sabah to Mullah Omar every 'defender' of faith believes his or her ideas of the purity of faith are the answer to the problems of the ummah. Armed with their faith in the absolute purity of their ideas, they are ready to marginalise, oppress, and kill those who do not subscribe to their way of thinking and living Islam and spirituality. The Taliban, during their rule over Kabul, created a Ministry for Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice in order to impose their culturally specific reading of the injunction 'Amar bil ma'ruf wa nahi anil munkar'. 

The Taliban interpreted this verse as their divinely ordained right to inflict their understandings of what the word 'ma'aruf' means. According to the renowned Islamic scholar Javed Ahmad Ghamidi, the word 'ma'aruf' in this injunction signifies 'universally acceptable notions of ethical behaviour' since the word 'ma'aruf' also means 'well known' in Arabic. It means the Taliban had no right to impose their own 'less known' and 'less universally accepted' notions of virtue on others. 

This kind of violent promotion of one group's ideas of 'purity' is not without its supporters and admirers. In a political space where the legal system is corrupt or only protecting the interests of the select few, it is quite easy to seduce a large number of the disenfranchised with the idea of speedy 'purifying justice'. Those who are not seduced become pretenders and sympathisers because of the fear of brutal repercussions. This was observed by the large number of people who started growing beards in order to survive with the Taliban. 

After the recent blasts at the alleged dating spots in Garhi Shahu and the burning of CDs on Hall Road, many people have started praising the courage of those who purify society of vice. The problem with this stance is that there is no end to the process of purification. The distance between the burning of CDs, the bombings of girls' schools, the barbers ordered to stop shaving men's beards, and the disappearance of TV sets is a short one. Within a short span, the process of survival through mimicry can make the whole society look like a perfectly 'purified' place. 

An antidote against this type of violent ideas of purity is to encourage syncretism in religion: the way the Qawwali works, by combining Arabic ideas with Indian and Persian musical compositions. Before Pakistan became an ally in the war to drive out the Soviets from Afghanistan, the ideas of puritanical practices were not as common in the public sphere as they are now. It seems that the American-funded proxy war was also given an ideological boost by Zia ul Haq's emphasis on piety and purity. 

If the government wants to win the war against terror (even though war itself is terror), it will have to promote hybridity, syncretism, and provide more cultural space to self-reflexive and self-critical discourses instead of the self-congratulatory and self-justifying forms of moralising diktat.

Published in The News on Sunday

dated October 19, 2008