Alcohol for non-Muslims

  • On article 37(h) of the constitution
The international media as well as the local liberals never tire of accusing Pakistanis of being intolerant of religious minorities and their ways of life. Last Tuesday, however, a spirit of extreme pluralism on the part of the Muslim members was on display in the National Assembly when a clear majority of its members voted down the introduction of a bill seeking amendment in the constitution making the consumption of alcohol illegal for all citizens. As it is, officially at least, all sale of liquor in the country is solely for the non-Muslims.
Article 37(h) of the constitution states: ‘(The state shall) prevent the consumption of alcoholic liquor otherwise than for medicinal and, in the case of non-Muslims, religious purposes.’ MNA Ramesh Kumar Vankwani, being of the view that alcohol was prohibited in all religions, had sought to get the qualification concerning non-Muslims and their religious purposes removed. Vankwani had made it clear that it wasn’t the consumption or sale of alcohol per se, but its justification in the name of minority religions that he found problematic. (Compare 37(h) with 37(g), which prohibits injurious drugs without discrimination.)
The issue is too complex to be amenable to a hasty verdict one way or the other. There are many aspects of it however, that must be a part of any informed debate on it. Some of which are:
1. There will be many who, as is their wont, will reject the whole debate out of hand, saying: ‘This is no time to worry about trifles, just when we are facing such huge issues.’ While this sort of reasoning sounds profound, life’s problems are not linear. The ‘huge’ problems and the ‘trifles’ (one is free to believe which problem belongs to which category) are all intertwined in this thing called life; so that one interferes with and affects the others, and vice versa. Any nation (just as any individual) needs to take them all on simultaneously.
2. Whether Christians are permitted liquor in the Scripture is an unresolved debate among the Christians themselves. ‘Jesus turned water into wine,’ says one group, quoting the Gospel of John. ‘The wine mentioned in the Bible doesn’t mean what we do by the word now,’ opines another, quoting other parts of the Bible. The issue is no closer to resolution than it ever was. The same could very well be true of Hindus and Sikhs. Was Vankwani then entitled to speak on behalf of the other minority groups (even if he was entitled to speak on behalf of the Hindus) is a question that warrants some consideration.
3. Whatever the status of alcohol in other religions, it’s prohibited in Islam. While there has been a tradition amongst the Jews (for example) of giving/selling prohibited things to the Gentiles, there’s none of that in Islam. Prohibitions are not items on an arbitrary list but are such as are harmful for man. Therefore, what’s supposed to be harmful for a Muslim is, ipso facto, harmful for non-Muslims as well. There are many Muslims, of course, who proudly say that while they don’t themselves drink, they have liquor in their cellars for the hospitality of their non-Muslims guests. This attitude obviously leaves something to be desired.
4. Ask any doctor whether it’s good for a drinker if he quits drinking. There will be but one answer. In fact, there’s a convincing case that alcohol is equally – if not much more – damaging to the body than some of the substances banned in the West. Also, relative tolerance of alcohol (compared to other recreational drugs) renders it harder to resist its use and abuse.
Ask any doctor whether it’s good for a drinker if he quits drinking. There will be but one answer
5. Islam doesn’t prohibit alcohol for reasons a doctor might do. Alcohol is not bad in the way, say, fizzy drinks or fast food is. Neither is the Western ‘solution’ of drinking in moderation, or merely refraining from driving when inebriated acceptable in Islam. Alcohol is forbidden because it impairs judgment (quite apart from its undeniable harms for the body). Asking somebody to consume in moderation a substance that itself impairs the judgment of what constitutes moderation is not a smart idea (as has been borne out by centuries of human history). Also, it temporarily insulates the drinker from his problems by taking him into a make-believe world where God’s in his Heaven and all’s right with the world. Since all’s seldom right with the world (and never in one’s own life), this makes the return to reality more and more painful with time, making the individual less and less fit for facing reality.
6. There’s no denying the curtailment of individual freedom associated with the banning of alcohol. But the curtailment of freedom is always there, whatever the legislation. To put this into perspective, the western world would never think of allowing polygyny (something their majority considers wrong), in the interest of safeguarding liberty of their Muslim minorities. One is completely free only in a jungle; in any society there’s always a tradeoff between individual liberty and the collective good as perceived by the majority.
7. Many people when they hear about liquor bans can’t help recalling Bhutto and Zia, both of whom stand accused, justifiably, of using ‘Islamic’ legislation for their political motives. This can be a major hang-up that could easily derail the debate. The problem needs to be discussed on its merits, detaching it from biases (however justified) against how politicians of a bygone era handled it.
8. The liberal credentials of a country are not always disconnected from its commercial prospects. This ethical/commercial dilemma (on a smaller scale) was faced many years ago by those who (understandably) wanted PIA to compete internationally in attracting customers. Their solution for their international operations was an exquisite blend of morality and commerce: ‘We’ll not carry liquor, but we’ll allow (even serve) it if the passenger brings his own.’ As we know, that strategy failed to make PIA the international carrier of choice. It may be that in the PIA experience there are wider lessons for the country.