The secular ideal

By Irfan Husain

As we have seen over the last 63 years since the inception of the state, religion has been used to divide and alienate one section of society from another. So whatever the chief justice might feel, a genuine debate on secularism is long overdue. – File Photo.

Recently, a reader — clearly more concerned with Pakistan’s welfare than mine — suggested that I set up a political party with the avowed goal of establishing a secular dispensation in the country.

I explained to him why this idea was quite unworkable: apart from my lack of political qualifications or ambitions, secularism is anathema to large numbers of Pakistanis who simply do not understand the concept. When this correspondence took place recently, I did not have the benefit of the Chief Justice of Pakistan’s wisdom on the matter. He was quoted recently as implying that if the National Assembly decided to declare secularism as Pakistan’s polity instead of Islam, this would be unacceptable. While this was a personal view expressed during a hearing on the 18th Amendment to the constitution, it does cast a bleak light on the larger question of the role of the Supreme Court, as well as its position vis-à-vis parliament.

As a forthright editorial in this newspaper asked: “The question is really, should the Supreme Court appropriate for itself the responsibility of determining under what system the Pakistani people want to live, as expressed by their elected representatives? Is the SC a guardian of the document, the constitution, which enshrines how Pakistanis want to organise their state … or is it an institution which determines how the state should be organised? The two are very different matters: the first places the SC as a referee, the second as a determinant of the structural design of the Pakistani state.”

This divergence of views is yet another example of the confusion that has continued to exist over the meaning of the secularist ideal. For decades now, most Pakistanis have laboured under the misconception that the term means ladeeniat, or irreligiosity. This is close enough to atheism to make politicians run for cover if the term is applied to them. The reality, of course, is very different.

After centuries of bloody warfare among various sects of Christianity in Europe, the idea of separating the church from the state came to be accepted, and was enshrined in most constitutions in the West. This did not mean that people stopped going to pray or lost their faith in God. What it did mean was that the law was no longer based on the tenets of Christianity, but reflected a manmade code of conduct.

Has this sea change made the people living under a secular dispensation more lawless? Not according to numerous surveys that measure law and order and the quality of life : countries like Canada, Sweden, New Zealand, and other western societies fare far better than nations who base their laws on religious or ideological dogma. The difficulty in implementing a faith-based code lies in its rigidity. Thus, for communists, Marx’s edicts, pronounced in the middle of the 19th century, had the force of timeless, unchanging law. This is equally true for those who seek to enforce a code that held sway centuries ago in today’s completely transformed world.

Another problem is that under religious law, minorities inevitably get short shrift. Despite the rhetoric about them being treated as equal citizens, the reality is very different. Consider the newspaper reports about a group of Ahmadis trapped in the floods in Punjab being denied relief goods by the administration, as well as by the local maulvi, as an example of the actual position minorities have been relegated to.

Turkey is a good example of a secular state where a mildly Islamic government has been elected repeatedly. There is no contradiction between the religious beliefs of the members of the ruling AK Party and the secular foundations of the Turkish state. While there has been some friction with the generals of the powerful military, the country has made great progress over the last decade. Millions of Turks observe the tenets of Islam without feeling they would enjoy more freedom of belief in a theocracy.

Somehow, many Pakistanis have come to believe that they are better Muslims than those living elsewhere. This arrogant attitude belies a deep insecurity that is the hallmark of recent converts. They forget that ultimately, it is for the Maker to decide who is a good Muslim and who is not. Indeed, we have allowed clerics to hijack a religion in which there are supposed to be no mediators between the believer and his God. This group of professional ulema has branded secularism as heresy in a bid to retain its lock on all matters relating to the faith. They have also used their monopoly on Islam to grab political power; indeed, this is their true goal.

Whatever they might say, I have many friends, Muslims and non-Muslims alike, who are firm believers in the teachings of the religions they were born in, and yet adhere closely to the principles of secularism. The truth is that while Europe has been largely cleansed of the terrible cancer of sectarian wars, many Muslim countries remain locked in conflict.

Unfortunately for Pakistan, Jinnah died before he could mould the new state in his secular vision. His successors were too weak and too willing to compromise with the religious right to assert the principles of Pakistan’s founding father. An increasingly assertive Jamaat-i-Islami spearheaded the drive to Islamise the country, and apart from the periods under Ayub Khan and Bhutto, there has been a steady shift towards fundamentalism. And even these two were not above using Islam when it suited them. Things have got so bad that secularism is now considered a term of abuse.

Currently, there is no debate on the direction the country should take. Almost by default, large numbers of Pakistanis assume that because the Indian subcontinent was partitioned to make a homeland for Muslims, we should automatically become a theocracy. Nothing could be further from the goal of the creators of Pakistan.

As we have seen over the last 63 years since the inception of the state, religion has been used to divide and alienate one section of society from another. So whatever the chief justice might feel, a genuine debate on secularism is long overdue.

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