The Dire Need Of Reading Voltaire In Pakistan

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On Sunday, law enforcement officers in Hyderabad stopped a potential lynching by dispersing a hostile throng seeking access to an imprisoned Hindu sanitation worker suspected of blasphemy.

According to media, police and Rangers employed overhead fire and tear gas to disperse the mob that had gathered to lynch the accused in several parts of the metropolis of Sindh.

In Pakistan, dogmatism,  illiberalism, and hate crimes are increasing at an alarming rate. Assaults against activists and journalists, as well as accusations of sedition, are an attempt to silence the voices of freedom. This climate of dread encompasses university professors and students, whose job need them to freely think, reason, and rationalise.

The marginalised messiahs, social reformers, and various types of gurus generated by Pakistani society were unable to transcend the circumstances and communities to which they belonged. After achieving independence, the government attempted to modernise its institutions and society without influencing the people’s beliefs.

 This is the reason why governmental institutions are failing and people are reverting to their previous restrictive habits, whether they are based on gender, religion, superstition, or a narrow version of nationalism.

Religious intolerance is on the rise

Religious intolerance has unfortunately been on the rise in Pakistan for almost 30 years. It appears that more and more individuals are choosing to follow religious leaders who just focus on the rituals of Islam and do not educate their followers on the religion’s social teachings. In this way, the general public’s understanding of religion is quite simplistic.

Unfortunately, this has led to a decline in the number of people who see Islam as a source of virtues like universal love and compassion.

There are also others who accept the portrayal of religion by extremists and hence reject religious ideals. Another cause for alarm is the ensuing polarisation of the populace.

Pakistan has been fighting terrorism for quite some time now, and during this time it has become abundantly clear that religious extremists were trained in madrassas to bomb places like mosques and churches, and even to commit suicide in an effort to kill as many people as possible. It was discovered that those detained at these camps knew very little about Islam.

These suicide bombers were totally brainwashed, and they were taught to despise all other religions and religious groups. However, not just individuals who attended such madrassas are filled with such hostility; universities and modern businesses have also shown evidence of comparable perspectives on life and society.

 In practically every aspect of life, an alarmingly high percentage of people tend to judge others based on their caste, sect, or creed rather than their inherent humanity. This puts religious minorities in a very precarious position.

A politicised Pakistani society, a system of education that fosters hatred, and a laws that Muslim majorities exploit against other minorities for personal vendettas are further reasons why things have gotten worse over the past few decades.

Reading Voltaire is the need of the time

There is a need in modern Pakistani society for a philosopher on par with the Frenchman François-Marie Arouet, better known by his pen name Voltaire, who effectively destroyed dogmatism in Europe. Despite being sent into exile, imprisoned, and having his many publications banned by theocrats, he campaigned against religious prejudice and injustice.


The French Enlightenment can trace its roots back to Voltaire. They say that with Voltaire, France started to think critically.

A lot of what Voltaire said about the deadly results of religious intolerance was based on his observations. Unlike Nietzsche, he did not hold the view that “God is dead,” but rather he adhered to a form of deism or rational religion that had nothing to do with classical metaphysics. He despised religious extremism, idolatry, and superstition, and he found it repugnant to contemplate that people would kill one another for a difference in religious belief.

He had a deep admiration for what he saw as England’s multicultural spirit, in which people of different faiths could go about their daily business together without incident and then retire to their separate homes at night. He had an abiding hatred for clerics who manipulated naïve followers for personal gains.

Voltaire disliked the Catholic society of his day in France and argued that a unified faith would lead to tyranny. He praised the religious diversity and social harmony that existed in England. He also disapproved of contemporary French patriotism because he believed it encouraged international hostility.

The Philosophical Dictionary: An eye-opener

Voltaire satirically claimed that a Gini had taken him to heaven in his Philosophical Dictionary. There he saw bones and body parts of those killed for religious reasons. He found the bones of the twenty-three thousand Jews who had danced before a calf, the twelve million native Americans who had been massacred because they were not baptised, and the Christians who had slaughtered each other over theological debates.

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How he would characterise the current Pakistani population, which regularly resorts to lynchings and mass murders, is anyone’s guess. He did, however, express some regard for Muslims in particular, stating that although they occasionally committed the same atrocities, but when one expressed pity for them and paid tribute, they forgave.

In the story, Voltaire encounters a number of philosophers, including Socrates, and learns that Socrates was murdered by a priest-led conspiracy because he worshipped a universal god rather than the divine Mercury, Moon, and Venus. Voltaire is shocked to learn that philosophers have been murdered so frequently.

Voltaire then tells the tale of Numa Pompilius, the second king of Rome, and how he taught a barbarous and warlike people the virtues and the love of God, and how, after his death, the Romans forgot both of these lessons.

Voltaire Meeting Jesus

Voltaire then encounters a man in the book who is bleeding, has swollen feet, a perforated side, and his ribs flayed with whip wounds. Voltaire questions why he was given this treatment. Whether he had, like Socrates, refused to acknowledge the divinity of Mercury, Venus, and the moon? Or did he intend to introduce them to a different religion?

The man says that is not how it worked out. He was a lifelong temple-goer and was circumcised; his message was simply to love God and your neighbour as yourself. Check to see if I introduced a new religion to them. And then they murdered me.


Finally, Voltaire inquires as to whether or not the man instructed them to establish peace through the use of arms. The man said that he had instructed them to bring peace rather than a sword.

Pakistanis have lessons to learn from Voltaire

According to Voltaire, once fanaticism has perverted a person’s intellect, the illness is virtually incurable. A person with such an infection is likely to kill anyone who disagrees with them. The philosophical spirit, which controls men’s habits and stops the disease from spreading, is the only treatment for this ailment. Religion and law cannot effectively combat the spiritual blight.

Voltaire actually claimed that religion is poison to the brains of diseased people rather than nutritious food. Religion has the power to advance civilization and knowledge throughout the world, yet it can also drive people to murder one another.

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In a Catholic city, Voltaire once rescued a man who was about to be executed by judges motivated by religious intolerance. He took action by distributing leaflets and writing letters to the government. Courts in Paris eventually overturned the verdict. Here, Voltaire demonstrates how philosophers who are also willing to take action can sway public opinion with their views.

In the struggle against religious intolerance, fanaticism, illiberalism as well as in defence of reason, multiculturalism, and free speech, Voltaire’s legacy continues to be outstanding. After two centuries, the influence of his ideas on French culture was still evident when French President Charles de Gaulle declined to place Jean-Paul Sartre under arrest for his involvement in the 1968 insurrection, stating, “You do not arrest Voltaire.” Voltaire’s example is a great one for Pakistan to follow.

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