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Pakistan: Religion and The State

Saturday 16 January 2010, by siawi2

Source: Dawn, 11 January 2010 ( from SACW, Jan 11-16, 2010)

by Iqbal Ahmad Khan

IT is not merely in Pakistan that the judiciary has adopted an uncharacteristically activist role; in other countries of South Asia too it is involved in charting new courses.

A decision taken by the Bangladesh Supreme Court a few days ago could have far-reaching consequences for the country’s politics, society and the constitution.

In fact, even beyond the shores of Bangladesh the decision could revive the contentious debate on the role of religion in the affairs of the state.

The Bangladesh Supreme Court recently lifted its five-year old stay order on a landmark high court verdict declaring as illegal and unconstitutional the Fifth Amendment to the country’s constitution. The amendment had legitimised all governments that had been in power from August 1975 till April 1979 following the assassination of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman on Aug 15, 1975.

This included the government of Maj Gen Ziaur Rahman, the husband of Begum Khaleda Zia, chairperson of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (the BNP) and Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina Wajed’s main political rival. The amendment replaced the principle of secularism enshrined in the constitution with that of ‘absolute trust and faith in the Almighty Allah’ as the basis of all actions.

Gen Ziaur Rehman also did away with the constitutional provisions prohibiting the formation of communal parties and associations. A series of constitutional amendments elevated the influence of Islam on Bangladeshi politics and society. The words Bismillahir Rahmanir Rahim were incorporated in the preface to the constitution. At a later date, during the rule of another general Islam was declared as the state religion. At no time, however, was the name of the country changed to incorporate ‘Islamic’ in the title.

The Awami League government’s move which led to the supreme court’s lifting of the stay order is a continuation of the long-standing political rivalry between the incumbent Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina and leader of the opposition Begum Khaleda Zia. Dynastic battles aside, if the supreme court reconfirms its decision (BNP has decided to challenge it), the implementation of the high court verdict could be the harbinger of a paradigm shift in the country’s political and social discourse.

According to the Bangladesh law minister the ruling means that the principle of secularism would be reintroduced in the constitution, all religion-based political parties would have to remove the word ‘Islam’ from the names of their parties and the use of faith will not be allowed during electioneering.

Apprehensive of a backlash, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina held the assurance that the words Bismillahir Rahmanir Rahim would remain in the preamble to the constitution as also the declaration of Islam as the state religion.

The territory comprising Bangladesh was once a part of Pakistan. There were more Muslims within its borders than in the western wing of the country. Yet, this religious bond was not enough to keep the two together.

The separation was traumatic. It was accompanied by death and destruction. The religious political parties in erstwhile East Pakistan were opposed to the creation of Bangladesh. Perhaps this was one factor which prompted the founding fathers to incorporate the principles of secularism, democracy and nationalism in the constitution.

Interestingly, prominent Muslim religious parties were also opposed to the idea of Pakistan and to the movement that led to its establishment. They forbade their followers from joining the struggle on the grounds that it was secular in character and led by western educated liberal secularists. In particular, they resented Quaid-i-Azam’s frequent pronouncements which left no doubt that he considered religion as something personal and not the business of the state.

In his famous address of Aug 11, 1947 to the Constituent Assembly of Pakistan the Quaid showed them the way forward. He said, “You are free; you are free to go to your temples, you are free to go to your mosques or to any other place of worship in this state of Pakistan. You may belong to any religion or caste or creed — that has nothing to do with the business of the state…. You will find that in course of time Hindus would cease to be Hindus and Muslims would cease to be Muslims, not in the religious sense, because that is the personal faith of each individual, but in the political sense as citizens of the state.â€

The Quaid never referred to Pakistan as the Islamic Republic.

It did not take the religious lobby too long to collude with civil and military officials to have the name of the country changed from the Republic of Pakistan to the Islamic Republic of Pakistan. It worked hand in glove with the military dictatorship in the brutal crackdown in East Pakistan. It became another military dictator’s handmaiden in an attempt to establish a theocratic-authoritarian state in Pakistan, completely at variance with the teachings of the father of the nation.

The disastrous outcome of this lethal combination has been the destruction of democracy and the proliferation of violent extremism. At the social level it has bred intolerance, rigidity and an anti-modernist sentiment. In combination these trends are feverishly straining at the seams of the state.

Jinnah and the other leaders of the freedom movement were wise men. They were also realistic and pragmatic. They understood what would work in a pluralistic and diverse society which formed the Pakistani nation. Instead of paying heed to their advice we courted misery (Ashura and Lakki Marwat bloodbaths) by succumbing to the agenda of religious bigots and anti-democratic forces. It is still not too late to redeem ourselves.

The writer is a former high commissioner to Bangladesh.