Raza Habib Raja
While going through the various blogs and some English newspapers, at times one gets rather misleading impressions about secularism in Pakistan. One of the foremost impressions is that a reasonable number, if not majority, is secular in Pakistan. But even more misleading impression is that some of the mainstream parties are secular ( or quasi secular as some of the PPP loyalist journalists tend to use the term) and so is their vote bank. I have also heard that masses since they have generally voted for PPP, ANP and MQM , are somehow or the other “secular minded”.
The UNFORTUNATE reality is that in a country like Pakistan, no MATERIAL and INFLUENTIAL, institution is secular. That is a fact. Our courts, our establishment and even the liberal parties are not secular. Secularism exists but only in fringes.
Frankly the case of secularism has never been presented in an effective manner. 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.
Even now when the anti blasphemy law is under spotlight, its opponents are not PUBLICLY opposing it in the mainstream media because of it being against the philosophy of secularism. The major thrust of the argument has not been whether a religion inspired law has no place in our society but rather that the law is contradictory to the real Islamic “spirit”. To weave arguments around secularism in mainstream media is almost impossible and even if done would be counterproductive as far as repealing the blasphemy law is concerned.
I remember two years ago a lot of hue and cry was made on Chief Justices remarks expressing ‘concern’ about Parliament passing a constitution which would make Pakistan a secular republic. Supporters of some mainstream liberal parties wrote passionate articles in which they were critical of the Chief Justice and also reiterated their stance on the ‘reactionary” lawyers’ movement. What I really find laughable is that while being critical of the judiciary, they conveniently forgot that in all probability, this parliament or for that matter any parliament, will not legislate to remove religion from the affairs of the state in the first place. And they also forget, that decision to fuse religion with state was taken by the parliament and unanimously vide 1973 constitution.
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 MQM, 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.
Judiciary of course is ideologically Islamic and is openly courting the hardliners and passing judgements which only appease them. In fact from ideological point of view, this Judiciary is perhaps the worst Judiciary in the entire history of Pakistan.
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. The approach is more focused on reinterpretation of religion rather segregating it from the affairs of the state.
I can fully understand this approach because frankly this is apparently the only pragmatic approach. 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. 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.
In a country like Pakistan, where establishment institutions are ideologically religious, secularism has to evolve from liberal discourse on religion. Without that tradition, it won’t just materialize from thin air. Even in western countries, secularism has evolved out of a liberal discourse on the nature of religion and its place in their lives. Unless and until that critical discourse initiates, frankly there is no hope. And right now even conditions for that discourse do not exist and unless all the likeminded unite and push for it, the status quo will be maintained.
At times, an incidence happens, which brings the country into such a negative spotlight that a huge majority of people are forced to have a relook at the status quo. For those who have read the book, The Honor Code: How Moral Revolutions Happen”, by Kwame Anthony Appiah ( modern day philosopher and teacher at Princeton), they will know about his persuasive argument that at times moral revolution happens when a negative tradition or law finally conflicts with modern times in such a way that the community feels that its honor and respect is being violated due to the existence of that negative tradition. It is that instance when tradition/custom or law simply breaks down. The latest case involving a poor 11 year old christian girl has put even religious conservatives on the backfoot. First time I have seen they actually coming out to support her. Even they have started to realize that things are really now casting a very negative shadow on Islam.
I am all for putting old age Islamic customs under heavy criticism by those who can. It will at least put many of the moderate Muslims under moral pressure and they will realize that perhaps these customs and time trapped laws are giving their religion a bad name and violating its honor. Path to secularism will be through this.