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EDITORIAL: Egypt’s Al-Azhar University, one of the world’s most eminent seats of Islamic learning, has done what the Pakistani government should have done a long time ago and warned against fatwas banning polio vaccination in the country.

After a meeting of the university’s grand imam with Pakistani Health Minister Abdul Qadir Patel in Cairo, it described the vaccine as a “religious, medial and humanitarian duty” and also rightly stressed that preventing treatments that are beneficial for children, such as polio, is in fact “prohibited by Sharia”.

The minister was briefing his hosts about the aftermath of the floods in Pakistan, where the fact that Pakistan is one of only two countries still struggling to contain the poliovirus must have come up, and the university must have felt obliged to intervene in whatever capacity that it could. This space has long argued that the number-one reason for the presence of the virus in this country – the only other country is Afghanistan – is the absence of an overarching national narrative.

The state puts together polio vaccination teams every year, even provides them security, yet every time it encounters the same kind of resistance from residents. Brainwashed and often intimidated by local clerics whose sermons dub polio vaccination as un-Islamic, for some reason, they prefer to let their children run the risk of catching the deadly virus than upset the clergy. That is why vaccination teams and their security staff are regularly shot at, even killed, and the virus keeps multiplying. This year alone there have been 19 new cases.

It’s not just polio vaccination that local mullahs have problems with. For, there are sermons aplenty in regions formerly occupied by local variants of the Taliban. From listening to music to even shaving off beards, almost everything has been radicalised and prohibited as somehow interfering with the basic tenets of the faith.

Lately, some clerics have threatened authorities in areas of Gilgit-Baltistan (GB) with serious action, even violence, if women are not stopped from going to public places like parks, calling this practice un-Islamic as well. And it’s a shame that each time government representatives, who are tasked with implementing the writ of state, buckle under pressure and choose not to provoke extremist elements even as they go about invading people’s private lives and homes in the name of religion.

The Pakistani government has kicked this particular can down the road for far too long. And the result is unprecedented radicalisation of society. It’s a shame that regressive elements among us can use the religion card to drive away progress; even when it comes to the welfare and wellbeing of their own children.

Left unchecked for so long, it’s not surprising that these elements have already become entrenched in our society. And while a prominent university in a faraway land like Al-Azhar must be credited for taking this bull by the horns, the government must realise the damage that its own inaction has done to Pakistani society. There is still no cohesive national narrative that should come before polio vaccination teams are put together each year and effectively sent to their deaths.

After all, people have not been led to believe that hurting their own children is the right thing to do in a short span of time; that too in the light of religion. It shows just how long the state has stood idly by as extremists took over parts of the country, at least as far as the dominant societal narrative is concerned.

If authorities still fail to wake up to this reality, they will have only themselves to blame as the whole country is overrun by fanatics. There are plenty of such examples not far from our borders; if only we care to watch and learn.

Copyright Business Recorder, 2022

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