Piety on somebody else’s expense

  • On Hajj subsidy and the like
Imagine somebody asking the government (or anybody else for that matter) for money so that he could do charity. You would laugh, wouldn’t you? And yet, a similar subsidy is expected in the case of Hajj; and all hell breaks loose if it’s not given. As was seen once again on the media as well as in drawing rooms across the country starting last week, when the federal cabinet approved the Hajj policy for year 2019 while rejecting a proposal for a subsidy put forth by the ministry of religious affairs. A man demanding government subsidy for his pilgrimage is a classic example of a desire to go to paradise on government expense. And considersing where the government collects its resources from, this piety is on the general public’s expense.
This sort of entitlement comes in other guises as well. Too many religious people (although by no means all of them), either want others to work for their salvation; or want something else in addition to the ultimate prize of paradise. In the public domain it’s the very same attitude that results in laws such as the Ehtram-e-Ramazan Ordinance, where the righteous are effectively saying that while we won’t eat or drink because of our piety, nobody else should either. In society in general, this attitude manifests itself in the form of a superiority over ordinary mortals that is felt – or at any rate projected – by our pious brothers and sisters. Without putting it into words, they demand (by their demeaner) that over and above the undoubted fruits their righteous deeds will yield in the hereafter, they should be put on a special pedestal during this earthly existence too. It’s this attitude that makes some pious people so insufferable from the point of view of sinners. Ultimately, it’s these zealots – and not the so-called enemies of religion – who pose the greatest threat to religion; at least when it comes to its appeal for the intelligent people.
Coming back to the issue at hand, the Hajj is a purely religious activity. It’s not like zakat, which has a secular equivalent in taxes, and which is collected by all states, and for very good reasons. That’s why laws subsidising this or that thing can make sense – or not, depending on the subsidy. What justification is there to subsidise a purely religious activity, done (in theory at least) to please God, and which is not even mandatory unless one can afford it?
India has suddenly become the great example for these pro-subsidy campaigners. The story of Hajj subsidy – as well as subsidies on Hindu pilgrimages offered by many states in India – is an interesting and long one; the mere outline of which merits at least one separate article. Suffice it to say here that if one were to suggest a similar subsidy to some other religious group in Pakistan – Christians’ pilgrimage to the Vatican, for example – I have a feeling that it may not elicit nearly the same amount of sympathy from the very same people who are inconsolable on the Hajj issue.
In true Pakistani tradition, the ‘arguments’ denouncing the federal cabinet’s decision not to grant the subsidy range from the particularly silly to the totally irrelevant
One important point needs to be made here because the debate is such as very likely to cause misunderstanding: By no means am I arguing here that the majority (in any country) is not entitled to make laws, which sometimes affect minority religious groups as well. That comes with the democratic territory. The ban on polygamy in the west is a familiar example. My point here is: what justification can there possibly be for subsidising out of public funds a purely religious activity, which by the concerned religious group’s own admission isn’t even mandatory unless one has the requisite funds of one’s own? Doesn’t it defeat the very purpose?
In true Pakistani tradition, the ‘arguments’ denouncing the federal cabinet’s decision not to grant the subsidy range from the particularly silly to the totally irrelevant.  For example, ‘the government is encouraging cinemas and entertainment and discouraging Hajj’ (the less said about this the better), and ‘the government keeps the pilgrims’ money for extended periods in order to profit from it’ (which nobody can defend, if true; but which is a textbook non-sequitur). All this hue and cry is also in keeping with another well-established Pakistani tradition: A marked tendency on the part of our countrymen to be concerned to the point of obsession about things that are not mandatory and ignore the things that are.
Finally, one can’t help referring to the expression which was famously made part of the political discourse by the now government, but which has gained much more currency in a sarcastic sort of way (thanks to the current opposition) to criticise the government: There was no such thing as Hajj subsidy in the Reyasat-e-Madina. Therefore, if the government has decided not to give one now, at least on this issue it’s standing on solid ground.