It is the same story every year. There is something about Valentine’s Day and young men and women exchanging red roses and balloons that threatens cultural purists in Pakistan. In 2016, Mamnoon Hussain, then Pakistan’s president, urged its citizens not to celebrate Valentine’s Day because it was part of Western culture, and not Islamic. He made these comments on the death anniversary of Sardar Abdur Rab Nishtar, a Muslim League stalwart who was a prominent leader of the Pakistan Movement. Ironically one of the oft-repeated accusations by Islamic scholars and religious leaders against the Muslim League and the Pakistan Movement for nationhood was that it was not rooted in Islamic culture. They accused both of adopting notions of nationalism and nationhood, which did not have an Islamic origin but were imported from the West.
In 2017, it was the Islamabad High Court’s turn to speak against Valentine’s Day. It instructed the Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority, a government body, to stop the promotion of Valentine’s Day on television. In 2018, it went a step further, asking for all signs of Valentine’s Day to be removed from public spaces. This led to absurd scenes of police officials chasing balloon and flower vendors around Islamabad. The High Court judgment was delivered by the maverick Justice Shaukat Aziz Siddiqui, who a few years ago was an activist of the Jamaat-e-Islami – a socio-political religious organisation – and who also contested an election as their candidate.
The Jamaat-e-Islami has been against the celebration of Valentine’s Day for a long time, and has celebrated February 14 as Haya Day for several years. The word “haya” can be translated into “honour” or “shame”.
But then, under its founder Maulana Maudadi, the Jamaat had opposed Muhammad Ali Jinnah and the Pakistan Movement too, calling nationhood a western concept. After the creation of Pakistan, they began calling for the Islamisation of the country’s laws. This dream was fulfilled under Zia-ul-Haq, who ruled Pakistan between 1978 and 1988.
Thus in a few years, from being opposed to the very creation of Pakistan, the Jamaat found itself at the vanguard of dictating to the State what is and should be acceptable culture. Interestingly it was able to do this through its nuisance value, without having any serious electoral presence.
Coming back to Justice Shaukat Aziz Siddiqui, there are several narratives that suggest that he garlanded Mumtaz Qadri soon after he assassinated liberal politician Salman Taseer in Islamabad in 2011. In a strange twist of events, Siddiqui was also one of the judges to uphold Qadri’s death penalty in 2015. Qadri was executed in 2016.
Since the creation of Pakistan, following the lead of the Jamaat-e-Islami, several politico-religious parties and organisations have mushroomed and have also vociferously and sometimes forcefully expressed their opinions of what constitutes Pakistani culture and what does not. However, what is lost in this simplistic bifurcation of “us” and “them” is the acknowledgement of the symbiotic relation that existed and continues to exist between “us” and “them”. For example, the majority of the puritan movements that have over the years criticised the corruption of Pakistani values and culture – such as the Jamaat-e-Islami, the Tableegh-e-Jamaat and the Deoband Movement – are themselves product of the western, colonial experience.
Take the Deoband religious movement for instance. According to Pakistani historian Dr Tahir Kamran, who has studied its rise in the late 19th century, its madrasa, which was established in Deoband, in Uttar Pradesh, was inspired by colonial schools and colleges. It was organised in a manner that borrowed heavily from the British education system rather than the traditional Islamic madrasa system. The madrasa’s curriculum was set up by professionals, and the organisation was affiliated with colleges and held regular examinations just like colonial institutions did. The curriculum itself promoted a literalist reading of Islamic scriptures, moving away from popular, devotional shrine-based religion, which was syncretistic in nature, and was more attuned with “our” cultural values.
The Deoband movement gained much prominence among the urban working and middle classes in Punjab. In the aftermath of the Soviet-Afghan War (1979-1989) and with the influx of the Saudi petro-dollar, the movement gained considerable popularity in Pakistan – it easily aligned with the religious outlook of the Salafist Saudi Islam and the political and religious ideology of the Jamaat-e-Islami.
Similarly, a man inspired by the Deobandi interpretation of religion founded the Tableegh-e-Jamaat – a movement headquartered in Lahore that now has a national outreach.
In contemporary Pakistan, these organisations now dictate the narrative of what Pakistani culture is and not. These voices find much more sympathetic ears all across the country, starting particularly after the Islamisation of Pakistan’s educational curriculum under Zia. This is because this narrative is easily absorbed by journalists, bureaucrats, police officials, lawyers and judges – all of whom have been educated on this curriculum.
Like the colonists before them, these organisations end up imagining culture and societies as static and fixed with no sharing and borrowing. The irony remains that the very institutions that today argue for returning to this so-called “pure” form of culture are a product of cultural borrowing and sharing.
So perhaps 50 years ago Valentine’s Day was not a part of Pakistan’s culture. But that does not always have to be true. There would be no notions of Pakistani nationhood or even the contemporary interpretation of Islam had there been rigid boundaries between cultures. It is time now to acknowledge the fluidity of culture and abandon mythological concepts of an imagined culture. Let people celebrate Valentine’s Day. Let it become part of our culture.
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