Lifting the Ban on Alcohol in Pakistan
Weekly Pulse
May 25-31, 2007
Some weeks ago, Maulvi Abdur Rashid Rashid Ghazi, the chief cleric of Lal Masjid/Jamia Hafsa, declared to enforce state prohibition on the illegal sale of alcohol in Islamabad, citing government failure to do so. His religious militia has followed on his words in at least a couple of instances, including the kidnapping of Anti Shamim who allegedly ran a brothel in a residential area next to Melody Market and the ransacking of a few DVD-CD shops in the Capital area.

Ghazi’s declaration on the illegal sale of alcohol in Islamabad did lead to stricter policing on the matter, and an illegal jihadi display of power is still awaited. For now, the custodians of two controversial madrassas in E-7 sector and Aab-Para area are busy beating, kidnapping and releasing policemen.

It’s been decades and even centuries when stuffs like alcohol, however hazardous and immoral their use and impact may be, stopped being an issue for most of the world. The real issues for much of the world are poverty, disease, hunger, freedom and democracy. Are we living in a different world? A world where issues which should not be issues are made to be real national issues? Instead of settling our volcanic social, economic and political issues, we continue to drain our precious time and energy on what should essentially be a non-issue—and one that has really sharpened our national duality.

A Hypocrisy Par Excellence

A hypocritical situation, if not tackled in time, tends to become more acute. Amid many others, one such hypocrisy pertains to the consumption of alcohol. For the last 30 years, there has been a state ban on the public sale and consumption of alcohol. However, during the same period, the illegal sale and consumption of alcohol has shown a steady rise. A recent study on the subject suggests that per capita consumption of alcoholic drinks has crossed one litre in 2006.

Any legislation that does not reflect ground reality becomes outmoded. Therefore, the ban on the sale and consumption of alcoholic beverages that the Bhutto government had imposed to appease religious clerics in 1976 has almost become irrelevant in 2007, when several restaurants in Islamabad have begun serving alcoholic beverages, even though these are mostly brought by their customers.

Another stark instance where ground reality refutes legal ban is Karachi, which now has many fully functioning wine shops that are open well into the evening. There was a time when diplomats in the Federal Capital would serve alcoholic beverages to guests at their national day receptions only if such receptions were held at their official residences or embassy compounds having diplomatic immunity. Now whenever such receptions are held even in Five Star hotels, a corner serves as a bar, where one is free to get a bear or a glass of wine, whisky or vodka.

Then you see political leaders, bureaucrats and people belonging to local gentry drinking openly at private dinners or parties. At the weekend youth parties in Islamabad, it is not unusual to find hundreds of spirited male and female youngsters drinking alcoholic beverages and dancing on Western tunes. Tales of alcoholic consumption by the country’s top leadership are many, even though I do not personally believe them.

National Debate on Alcohol

It is not that the “Enlightened Moderation” has led to such an acute dichotomy between a continuing state ban on alcohol, on the one hand, and its growing illegal sale and public consumption, on the other. Even back in the late 80s’s or throughout 90’s, whenever the relatively liberal regimes of PPP came to power, the vibrant youth and serious drinkers felt freer to approach bootleggers and have fun with the drinks. The situation during the present reign of rulers, which is popularly perceived to be liberal, has almost been the same.

No surprise that a couple of months ago, an MP from the ruling party had the guts to stand up during the proceedings of the National Assembly and make a case for new legalisation on the sale and consumption of alcohol in the country. Arguing in favour of whitening Pakistan’s large black market in alcohol business, the said MP stated that the country had a very high number of hard drug addicts and that alcohol could be used to wean these addicts away from these drugs.

Moreover, the same issue has cropped up in civil society debate with some arguing for legalisation so that the government can through taxation enhance its revenue generation. Contrary to proponents of lifting the ban on alcohol, who are just trying to debate the issue so that a national consensus for or against the ban on alcohol can be created, Maulvi Ghazi and his religious militia are hell bent upon violating the writ of the state and use force illegally to ensure the implementation of a state legislation on alcohol.

Learning from Others’ Experience

In the 1920s, the United States had also adopted a Prohibition Act, banning manufacture, sale and transportation of intoxicating liquors. But it failed to produce any results, and the ban was lifted within a decade. Many other countries adopted similar legislations, but they eventually did not work. I remember India’s Andhra Pradesh state government of Chief Minister Rama Rao, who was a legendary hero of Telugu movies, had made a similar attempt back in mid 90’s. We personally witnessed how the step proved counter-productive within months, and the said ban dad to be lifted then.

The track-record of the Muslim world has been somewhat similar. Turkey, Malaysia, Egypt and Indonesia are influential Muslim countries, but their governments place no ban on the sale and consumption of alcohol. But this has not made their Muslim citizens less Muslims. In fact, all of these countries, especially Egypt and Turkey, have been able to attract millions of Western tourists, adding to their respective foreign exchange earnings. Living in the Turkish world for a number of years, I realised how valuable a tourist industry can be for a Muslim country if it does not make alcoholic sale and consumption a national issue. In fact, after seeing the success of world tourism in Dubai—which is the most liberal of the emirates in the UAE, the authorities in Abu Dhabi have started to open wine shops, bars and discos to attract foreign tourists.

The situation in conservative Muslim countries such as Saudi Arabia and Iran, on the other hand, displays the same hypocrisy as that of ours. Contrary to the clerics of Iran and aware of the strict legal consequences, the Iranian people have found ways of fetching and consuming all sorts of alcoholic beverages, which are illegally available in Tehran and almost all major cities or Iran. In fact, the first thing that you notice among the Iranians travelling abroad is their passion for doing whatever the regime denies them.

The same is true of the Saudis. In March 2006, Saudi newspaper Okaz reported that as many as 20 people died after drinking poisoned cologne in the cities of Makkah, Taif, Medina and Riyadh, and 40 other people were also admitted to hospital in critical condition. In Pakistan as well, we often come across newspaper reports of people consuming sub-standard or even poisonous liquor, with some even losing their life or eyesight as a result.

Did Prohibition Work in Pakistan?

Millions in Pakistan are addicted to heroin. The events in Afghanistan of the last 30 years may be the cause of the introduction of this dangerous drug at this gigantic scale in the country. However, we need to ask ourselves whether the prohibition on alcohol also contributed to this malaise. To those who can afford to but alcoholic beverages from the illegal market at much higher prices, there is no problem. The real problem is for the commoners who have limited resources or are fearful of the legal consequences of buying or consuming alcoholic beverages.

The case for prohibition on alcohol in countries with conservative social setups, or whose political systems are led or dictated by religious zealots, is generally grounded on some moralistic concerns. That such a ban would help reduce or eliminate crime, rape, prostitution, drug addiction and other irreligious and immoral activities. Did the 1977 Prohibition Act accomplish such goals in Pakistan? Are we morally less corruption? Has the business of prostitution been effectively checked? Are fewer women being raped or gang-raped in the country?

My friend Ismail Khan provided a frank answer to these questions in a recent news column, by saying the ban has miserably failed. According to him, smugglers, criminal gangs, and black marketeers are the biggest beneficiaries of the ban and are making billions of rupees in this tax-free illegal trade. The handful of licensed liquor producers such a Murree Brewery cannot meet the ever-growing demand in the country, and the covertly operated private distilleries pose bigger threats to human consumption due to their unhygienic and substandard quality.

Ismail further argued: “This black market alcohol industry has created new avenues for corruption and bribe opportunities among policing institutions. The biggest loser has been the state treasury—which gets ripped off of major revenue in taxation and duty. There is no doubt that the use of alcohol is un-Islamic and cannot be encouraged but one cannot say the same for taxation on the use of alcohol—a business that exists and is in fact flourishing outside the taxation net. Business, as they say, does not follow ideology. It can be regulated but cannot be prohibited as it makes its own way.”

I would make an additional point here: people tend to go for what is denied to them. Prohibition on alcohol therefore may actually lead to greater consumption of alcohol. This may explain why liquor consumption in the country has gigantically increased in the last 30 years since its banning in 1977. Restricting something that has public demand or desire does not work in the end. The lifting of the ban on alcohol may actually reduce its growing consumption because then alcohol will become just another item that people are free to purchase.

Benefits of Lifting the Ban

What is argued above is a rational account of the ground reality in the country, which, like Saudi Arabia and Iran, contradicts state legislation on the sale and consumption of alcohol. Pakistan is blessed by the mountains of Himalayas, and, like Turkey and Egypt, it can attract millions of tourists each year of restrictions on the manufacture, sale and consumption of alcohol in the country are lifted. Western tourists come to relax in an environment that is socially peaceful and naturally beautiful. The Year 2007 is marks the year of Tourism for Pakistan.

If that factor alone does not provide the rationale for relaxing state restrictions or lifting the legal ban on alcoholic manufacture, sale and use, five additional factors should:

One, the step will add considerably to the country’s tax base by disallowing black-marketeers and smugglers to illegally profiting from this under-hand business. Two, it will significantly bring down the number of heroin addicts in the country. Three, it will make a positive impact on an otherwise socially and politically tense environment, where people, instead of release the negative energy, continue to accumulate it—with the end result being greater criminalisation of society.

A forth positive impact of the lifting of such a ban or at least relaxing some restriction on the matter is that such as step will help us address at least one acute dilemma or hypocrisy in our national character. Finally, and this is more important, the likes of Maulvi Abdul Rashid Ghazi, the cleric from Jamia Hafsa/Lal Masjid, will be discouraged to issue declarations of enforcing a state law, which, in their perceptions, the government has failed to implement.