Religion is a force for moral good – we just need to be careful who we choose to follow

Around the world, extreme views are dominating public discourse, but moderate, brave and well-motivated voices still abound

Khadim Hussain Rizvi, head of the Tehreek-e-Labaik Pakistan (TLP), a hardline religious political party, gestures as he leads a sit-in protest following the Supreme Court decision on Pakistani Christian woman Asia Bibi, in Lahore on November 1, 2018. Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan hit out at religious hardliners and appealed for calm after extremists called for the country's Supreme Court justices to be murdered for overturning the conviction of a Christian woman facing execution for blasphemy. / AFP / ARIF ALI
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Thousands of protesters filled the streets of Pakistan's cities earlier this month, calling for the death of Asia Bibi. Key among those baying for the army and prime minister Imran Khan to be overthrown and for the ultimate punishment to be visited upon the mother of five children were the clerics Afzal Qadri and Khadim Hussain Rizvi, leaders of the far-right Tehreek-e-Labbaik party.

Both were arrested, along with hundreds of supporters, but it wasn’t just firebrand preachers who were agitating for the execution of Ms Bibi, who had recently been freed from jail by the Supreme Court of Pakistan after her 2010 death sentence for blasphemy was overturned. Several more centrist religious parties also organised demonstrations and large crowds converged on government offices in Islamabad.

Lately, religion is increasingly employed to draw political lines. Once the preserve of underground extremist groups, such as Al Qaeda, this strategy is now being employed by organisations that are more deeply embedded in society, as was exhibited in Pakistan. This raises the following question: do we still look to religious leaders to set an example and to stake out the moral high ground? Or do we look elsewhere?

The most obvious answer might be to defer to secular political leaders, but there we are left in dire straits too. Throughout history, politicians have made extremely dubious moral decisions. Around the world, the far-right is on the rise, from Donald Trump in the United States to Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil and to the Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orban.

In the intellectual arena, we have also seen other public figures – respected analysts and academics – promote the idea that the media cannot be trusted. That in turn has allowed conspiracy theories and polemic diatribes to flourish.

When all of our most trusted institutions are being called into question, what are the alternatives? We see, perhaps, an excellent reminder in the response of British civil society to the Asia Bibi affair. While Australia and Canada offered her refuge, the UK prime minister Theresa May refused to entertain the idea. However, a wide variety of faith-based and secular groups, united in the common cause of decency, have lobbied to change her mind.

In short, just because a person occupies a position of authority – be it spiritual, political or intellectual – does not mean that their ideas are good or their motives pure. However, moderate, moral and brave voices abound around the world. These are the ones we should pay heed to. And spiritual leaders still have a powerful role to play.

We can see this in events much closer to home. In the early stages of the Syrian uprisings, religious leaders took brave steps in standing up to the Assad regime and calling for fundamental rights of the nation’s people to be respected. In Egypt, we saw the same from Emad Effat, the Azhari cleric, who was shot dead in late 2011 during a peaceful sit-in. Others in Libya lost or risked their lives protesting against the regime of Muammar Qaddafi. All of them placed themselves in harm’s way for a greater moral purpose.

Muslim figures have long argued that one should enjoin the good and forbid the wrong. However, this should not be seen as an absolute rule. It comes with its own sub-clauses. One is that such moral interventions should not increase strife or conflict. If that is the likely outcome, then silence is better. In such instances, silence is not an endorsement of tyranny. Rather, it is the only way to avoid further harm. Such silence should also not be partisan. It cannot be ethical to be silent when one’s opponents are being unfairly abused, but then loudly remonstrate when an ally is targeted.

Where injustice and immoral leadership are present, active opposition to uphold the fundamental rights of people should also be pursued. Recently, the region marked the annual remembrance of the passing of Imam Hussein, the grandson of the Prophet Mohammed. Faced with tyranny in his own time, he chose to stand in clear opposition to it – and paid the price for it. As a result, centuries later, Muslims of all persuasions remember his sacrifice and his commitment to principle.

These aren’t principles limited to religious leaders – they apply to us all. Autocrats and authoritarians often adopt the facade of moral or ethical legitimacy while disseminating hateful views or pursuing violent ends. No public figure, whether under the guise of politics or religion, should ever partake in such a charade. There may be good reasons not to visibly oppose those kinds of leaders. Speaking up against the likes of Bashar Al Assad, for example, comes at a significant and substantial cost. But, by the same token, there can be few – if any – good reasons to actively support them.

There remains a need to call for an ethical code in all areas of public life. In an ideal world, we should be able to trust that our leaders act in our best interests and operate within a strong moral framework. That is not always the case, which is why it is important that we make careful choices when deciding who to follow.