Is Religion still the opium of the masses in Pakistan?

"Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people." Karl Marx

[Please Note: This blog is just a discussion and not reflective of the writers’ personal religious views]

Institutionalised religions can have major social impact in societies, for good or for evil. This blog is not concerned with discussing the “religious” aspect of religions, but only with considering their impact on society. The social impact of religions is generally more to do with its institutional form rather than the “religious” aspect of religions itself. Generally, it is the poorer societies that have the greatest proportion of the population following institutionalized religions. Therefore, religions tend to have a greater social impact in poorer societies, where they tend to be supported more strongly by the majority – one religion predominates and has substantial effect on the governance of the state.– either the religion controls the government or the government uses religion as an opiate in a majority-poverty society to influence them. When Karl Marx stated that “religion is the opium of the masses”; he was perhaps referring to the abovementioned features existent in the state of Pakistan today – there is a majority following of institutionalised Islam and there is an abject condition of poverty prevalent in the state.

If religion can be equated to a drug, let us first determine why people resort to opium in the first place. A person may take drugs under peer pressure, to get rid of unwanted physical pain, to calm down, be happier or is simply bored. However, the widely associated reasoning for taking drugs is to gain a temporary escape from one’s problems, pain, feelings or emotions. Is religion then a temporary escape from reality whereby men create illusionary contentment about their prevalent condition of misery or a condition that requires illusions to self-deceive one into believing the uprightness of their objectives? In this sense religion only helps men escape into a world where they have a ‘sense of belonging’. Religion then is, perhaps, the self-consciousness and self-esteem of man who has either not yet won through to himself, or has already lost himself again as stated by Karl Marx. In this perspective, a religion like institutionalised Islam that promises a “better afterlife” helps the poor to live with their poverty, exploitation and government oppression so the poor tend to more strongly support religion, and governments in poor societies can tend to encourage or use religion to help maintain social control.

The bitter truth then conceivably is that Islam today in Pakistan is no more a sense of spiritual connection with the Creator, but rather a politicized phenomenon with a hidden conflict between the ‘haves’ and ‘have-nots’. The ‘haves’ in Pakistan are those in places of authority who have the state in their hands as an instrument of oppression so as to control the ‘have-nots’ and thereby indulge in practices of corruption. In this process the rich have become richer, as we have witnessed, and the common people no longer have access to the basic necessities of life as the welfarist phenomenon in Pakistan has become extinct. Institutionalised Islam is therefore the next available option to fill the gap that the failure of the Pakistani state has created. It has become the opium of the masses as it provides an alternative to the deteriorating condition occasioned by mismanagement in governance of the state. Poorer societies are more inclined towards institutionalised religions for the simple reason that they serve as a point at which the outcry of the common people are heard so as to relieve them of their stresses and despondencies, which the state has created or refused to solve such as lack of access to basic necessities, health facilities, unemployment etc. It is therefore not unusual to find the ‘have-nots’ resort to ‘madrassas’ that provide welfare, counselling, prayer and service communities today; performing the functions originally assigned to the state of providing the basic necessities of life: ‘roti, kapra aur makaan’ (food, clothing and housing). Unfortunately, the institutionalised religion in Pakistan has been used to promote evil rather than good - the ‘madrassas’ have promoted radical extremist activity in Pakistan under the banner of “religion” and “welfare”.

In the context of Pakistan, Islam was and is still today the opium of the troubled masses. However, it appears that institutionalised Islam has merely served as a temporary medication to the disease of oppression and poverty. Historically an oppressed minority condition in pre-partition India led the Muslims to drug themselves with the religious-opium while institutionalised Islam in the form of ‘madrassas’ today tends to fill the gap the failure of the Pakistani state has created. Until Pakistan remains in a condition of poverty, institutionalised Islam in the form of ‘madrassas’ will continue to influence the majority of the masses negatively, that is, ‘have-nots’. While the ‘haves’ so far have chose to turn a blind eye to ‘have-nots’ for temporary gains, it is perhaps time for them to realize that the same institutionalised religion can serve as an ally of the government if revolutionized or reformed strategically with balanced interests and promulgation of modern Islamism; else a majority force so destructive in nature will rise very soon that it will probably endanger the existence of Pakistan. The need of the time is to create economic alternatives for common people of Pakistan and ensure a smooth transfer from a condition of illusionary religious existence to economic reality and if such a shift can be achieved through institutionalised religion, it is perhaps not a bad idea to make use of it.

By Sana Hameed Baba