An Islamic airline has taken off in Malaysia this week. The believers catching the ride on Rayani Air expect halal meals and greater sensitivity to their religious beliefs while being 30,000 feet above the ground.

Many religiously inclined in Malaysia believe that the two recent airline disasters involving Malaysia Airlines were, in fact, divine retribution. Hundreds lost their lives in Flight 370, which disappeared without trace, and in Flight 17 that was shot down over Ukraine. The two disasters are unrelated except that both involved Malaysia Airlines.

Here in Pakistan, religious leaders often remind those affected by natural disasters that their lack of religious zeal is what made them victims of divine wrath. Numerous religious leaders have accused the victims of floods and earthquakes for straying from the righteous path.

Such reasoning begs the question:

Why are victims of such disasters the poor and landless who end up squatting at the most undesirable parcels located on the top of fault lines or flood plains?

The passengers in the Malaysia Airlines flights were not destitute. They could afford to fly. We also have no reason to believe that they were any more or less sinners than the rest of the Malaysian society.

We can only be certain about this; it was an unfortunate turn of events for the Malaysian airline victims and their loved ones.

Accidents do happen and at a much higher frequency on ground than in air. The death toll in road accidents runs into millions globally. Such accidents claim the lives of old and young, and believers and sinners alike.

Should one therefore accept religiosity to have an impact on one's safety?

I often wonder how one's religious beliefs would influence one's driving behaviour.

Would religious zeal instill a greater respect for traffic rules, or would it contribute to a pseudo sense of infallibility, making one take risks that one would not have entertained otherwise.

The public display of religious beliefs often manifests in the driving culture in Pakistan. Public transport operators on ground and in air recite prayers at the start of each journey. Some drivers hang religious prayers printed on CDs from rearview mirrors in their cars. Prayers are also printed in decorative calligraphy on public vehicles.

A few years ago, an alliance of religious parties that governed Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, banned music and videos in local and intercity public transit. Intercity transit operators, such as Daewoo, would switch off music or videos as they entered KP to comply with the provincial government's dictates.

The empiricist in me would like to determine if the drivers' level of piety impacts his or her safety record. A natural experiment could allow one to test such hypothesis. One can explore whether traffic safety improved after the KP government banned music and videos in public transit vehicles. Or one can compare accident frequency of the vehicles hanging prayers against those without prayers.

Among other factors, the religiously-inspired fatalism is also a barrier to promoting road safety in Pakistan where many believe that all accidents are pre-ordained and that human brings cannot interfere with divine plans.

A study of fatalistic beliefs in Pakistan revealed that most respondents considered road crashes as fated.

If all accidents, deaths, and injuries are fated, does it absolve drunk drivers and those who overspeed?

Writing in the journal, Advanced Health Research in September 2012, Kayani, King, and Feiter studied how fatalism impacts attitudes regarding road safety in Pakistan?

They interviewed people from all walks of life. They asked a bus driver what role, if any, do humans have in road accidents.

He replied: "We try to avoid mistakes but final authority is with God. Nothing is under human control, everything is by God. You see me, I am talking with you, and even this is not under my control. I will talk to you as much as God wants. Look at this bus, how big it is. Only God is running it and controlling it. How can a human being control it?"

I find it odd though that the same people, who believe traffic deaths are pre-ordained and absolve the guilty of their culpability, are quick to blame the poor people who perish in earthquakes and floods.

It did not surprise the authors of this study that fatalist beliefs exist in Pakistan. They, in fact, exist in most societies. What surprised them was how widespread such beliefs are.

The authors noted that "fatalism in Pakistan is a central part of systems of meaning making, regardless of education and role".

Human error and mechanical failures are behind most accidents. Drivers' and commuters' prayers might help calm their nerves. However, improving traffic and airline safety requires strict adherence to (air) traffic rules and regulations. (MURTAZA HAIDER)


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