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Can Pakistan become a Secular State?

Wednesday 8 February 2017, by siawi3


Can Pakistan become a Secular State?

May 14th, 2015

Raza Habib Raja

In Pakistan and in fact most of the Islamic world, the very concept of secularism is completely misunderstood. Somehow the concept has been thoroughly confused and amalgamated with Atheism in Pakistan. An overwhelming majority of politicians, and even intellectuals, often try to defend themselves when “accused” of being secular particularly on mainstream electronic media and Urdu print media. To declare oneself as a secular is considered equivalent to being considered an atheist in the public imagination.

The entire atmosphere is riddled with severe misconceptions about secularism. Due to fear of being branded as “Atheist” and anti Islamic the word secular, in both letter and spirit, is virtually absent from the discourse.Even those who understand that secularism is fundamentally different from atheism often raise the question: “what good is secularism?” and “ All we need is the right interpretation of religion”

What these “reinterpretation” folks fail to understand is that there are often multiple interpretations of religious text and while at individual level, one has the option to choose one over the other without infringing on anyone’s freedom, laws have to be uniformly applied across the board. So if we want to base our laws on Shariah, eventually we will have to privilege one interpretation over the other since law cannot be selectively applied.

Since one interpretation has to be preferred, the question arises that which one? Frankly since laws once implemented affect all therefore it is impossible to favor one over the other without causing acrimony.

Besides horizontal differences (for example between Shiites and Sunnis or Brailvis and Wahabis), there are also substantial disagreement between so called literalists and reformists.

Since many a times some Islamic laws come under criticism for being harsh, some who claim to be progressive have this point of view that we could have current laws modified according to some liberal interpretation of religion.

To a certain extent this reinterpretation approach is understandable because frankly this is apparently the only one available. But here the issue will be no less problematic because Pakistan simply does not have a tradition of liberal discourse on religion. In fact liberal religious scholars virtually do not exist. Those who were talking of renaissance, like Javed Ahmed Ghamidi, have been forced to relocate. Some of their colleagues, like Dr Muhammad Khan, have been killed.

Right now the discourse is dominated by ultra conservatives no matter what school of thought they may belong to. How are we going to make sure that “liberal” version will be acceptable to all? Who can guarantee that ultra-conservative version does not win?

Another issue would be to intellectually justify as to what criteria to use to reinterpret. Mind you reinterpretation has to be consistent to be convincing as pick and choose policy won’t be convincing.

A secular state by being religiously neutral will actually be beneficial to all as it won’t impose any kind of version over another and would actually allow freedom to various sects.

And the fear that secularism would eliminate religion completely from the public sphere from population ( some religious people have this fear and they oppose it because of that) is actually unfounded. A secular state does not mean a secularized society. Here I would like to distinguish between the two concepts of secularism and secularization. Former is the separation of state and religion whereas the latter is the process by which religion loses its overall significance in society. Two are related and yet distinct.

Secularism does not essentially result in a secularized society. Turkey can be cited as an example where constitution embodies secularism but the society is still not secularized. A secular state, at least theoretically, is religiously neutral and does not try to infringe the religious freedoms of the religious lot. So fears that secularism would lead to elimination of religious freedom or even loss of significance are largely misplaced.

And yet due to all the misperceptions, the case for secularism is virtually absent from the discourse. Even those who are fairly progressive generally refrain from making such a case. Consequently there is no wonder that the appeal for secularism is virtually nonexistent in the society.

Those who have belief in secularism generally try to present it as Jinnah’s vision for Pakistan. The central idea is perhaps the fact that since Jinnah is extremely revered and if the population becomes convinced that he wanted Pakistan to be secular then it would pave the way for the separation of religion from state.

However, this approach will not work mainly because despite the fact that Jinnah was indeed secular, the public has always been fed that creation of Pakistan was for implementation of Islamic law. Even during times when Jinnah was alive and Pakistan movement was unfolding the public perception of Pakistan was not that of a secular state. Perhaps Jinnah was also cognizant of that and hence immediately before creation of Pakistan made that famous 11th August speech in order to remove the confusion. However, he did not live for long enough to actually ensure that Pakistan’s constitutional framework was secular.

After his death, it has all been downhill. Pakistan has treaded along the path its elites and in fact even masses wanted it to.

I have heard a number of times that representatives reflect the will of the masses and in fact this is projected as the strongest defense of democracy. But following this logic, the 1973 constitution, which was unanimously passed, only reflects the will of the masses. Mind you democracy is not always liberal and that is why innovations like first amendment exist in American Constitution which tries to protect freedom of speech, secularism and the minorities. This protection would even supersede any decision taken by the majority in the parliament if it is in contravention of the aforementioned principles. Although in theory, American constitution can be changed but in reality it is almost impossible for it requires 2/3rd majority in both houses followed by ratification by the state legislatures.

So what about the political parties? A political party is secular if it openly denounces fusion of religion with the matters of state and that has to be part of its manifesto. In democracies, political parties have to openly debate and therefore there is no concept of closet seculars. Even if you cannot publicly call yourself as secular (as some point out that in Pakistan it would be impossible to), you still have to adopt secular approach (at least show progression towards that end). Yes if you do not legislate to induce more Islam in the matters of the state, while keeping silent about the existing status, this would perhaps qualify you as a moderate party, not a secular party. Parties like PPP and ANP can be called liberal and moderate parties but it is difficult to call them secular. Secular credentials reflect through a party’s actions as well as statements and if a party has actually legislated to make Islam a state religion, and subsequently done nothing to repeal it, then frankly claims by a small group of its supporters about its secularism are simply not valid. Eventually a political party speaks what its vote bank wants it to speak. The vote bank of almost every party is religious though with varying degrees and unfortunately wants religion in the affairs of the state. They may not be voting clergy into power but frankly they are also not raising enough voice to separate religion from state.

And by the way, lets not forget that second amendment which declared Ahmedis as Non Muslims was passed by the parliament and chiefly by the party which in Pakistan’s context is liberal and is the most favored by the minorities. Not only that it passed it, but its leader tried to use it for political mileage by repeatedly telling huge crowds that his party had solved the “90 year old problem”.

When even liberal parties are not secular, there is absolutely no way that conservative parties can be. PML N and PTI, particularly the later, likes whipping up religion for political rhetoric. It is a reactionary party which will be one of the worst nightmares if elected into power.

If anything as urbanization grows in Pakistan, frankly the fusion of religion with politics and worst still with the state craft is going to increase even further. Till now the relatively lower level of urbanization and predominantly rural nature of politics (which is centered around local issues at the constituency level) has to some extent controlled the religious influence in politics. With the increasing urbanization, the structure of the society will evolve in such a way that it will be more vulnerable to increasing role of religion in culture, beliefs and politics. When that happens, secularism which is underpinned by the idea of separation of religion and the state will become even more elusive. Political parties, including “liberal” parties will also start moving to the right and there are indications they have started to.

Eventually, in a democratic system the state and it’s modus operandi will reflect what the population wants to it to reflect. In Pakistan, like it or not, population wants religion in the state. And with secularism being interpreted as some kind of “atheism”, the separation of religion from state, although a very noble idea, is becoming nearly impossible with the passage of time.

In country where the general populace is of such character, the alternate would be a top down approach which can either be through a populist leader with sway over masses or through establishment institutions. And here also the leader or the institution has to “act” secular without actually declaring itself as one. In Pakistan, no leader has dared to do that and in fact the one who was most popular, ZAB, was in many ways originator of the present state of affairs. In fact ZAB manipulated religious sensitivities for gaining political mileage and after him, Pakistan has seen popular leaders like Benazir and Nawaz Sharif, but both of them did not take any material step towards removing religion from state. Nawaz Sharif obviously caters to conservatives and therefore it was highly unlikely for him to take any step but even Benazir despite being personally liberal and secular could not take any concrete step towards this objective. One cannot blame Benazir as by 1990s too much ground had already been ceded to the quest of a “true’ Islamic state.

And as far as other “pillars” of state are concerned, the situation is even worse and one cannot expect any hope of secularism from them or even progression towards that end. Ideologically armed forces are geared to hold up Islamic values as well as Pakistani nationalism in terms of their orientation and identity. This ideological orientation, designed chiefly to ensure internal cohesiveness and combating zeal, is also identical with the general state nurtured ideology which tries to negate ethnic plurality. So whenever army is in direct power its ideological thrust amalgamates with and in fact reinforces that of the broader state’s cultivated ideology. In fact, with every army rule, we regress as far as secularism is concerned. Pakistan is not Turkey and even Turkey had transformed only because of the humiliation of the first world war defeat which had thoroughly discredited Caliphate. The unique circumstances and presence of Ata Turk combined to enable Turkey emerge as a secular republic. The armed forces there are virtually indoctrinated in secularism unlike our armed forces which are completely opposite. There will be no “soft’ revolution in Pakistan.

At best Pakistan can become a “moderate” country. Yes, but perhaps in a very long run when modernization eventually renders religion irrelevant in every aspect. But as Keynes famously said: “In the long run we are all dead!”