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Victory of religious control

By Saad Hafiz:

The unequal battle between the depleting ranks of secularists and the growing band of Islamists in Pakistan is all but over. The dream of a progressive, democratic and pluralistic society is in tatters. It appears that secularists could only take comfort from one speech by Mr Jinnah, which lent support to a secular society, while Islamists could count on decades of constitutional accommodation and appeasement.

The Islamist camp has also been boosted by the democratic and military leaders who have used Islam for political gains. Their contribution to the development of an obscurantist and sectarian society is no less than that of the orthodox clerics. Liaquat Ali Khan, the first prime minister of Pakistan, considered among the secularists, sponsored the Objectives Resolution under the pressure of the clerics. This happened immediately after the passing of Mr Jinnah, who had laid down secular guidelines in his speech to the Constituent Assembly. In the following decades, there was a conflict between the secularists and the clerics. This conflict made the task of constitution making difficult, particularly since the Bengalis wanted to keep some secular clauses like joint electorates. Under their influence, a compromise constitution did come up in 1956.

In line with the Objectives Resolution, the preamble to the 1956 constitution spoke of Allah as having “sovereignty over the entire universe”. It spoke of authority exercised by the people of Pakistan as being within the limits “prescribed by Him as a sacred trust”. The preamble spoke of all laws of Pakistan conforming to the Koran and the Sunnah. Muslim scholars had been urging that all legislation be null and void that contravened, in letter or spirit, Islamic law as laid down in the Koran. They had been urging that the powers of government be derived from, circumscribed by, and exercised within the limits of Islamic Sharia law alone.

In 1962, martial law was replaced by a second constitution, with the preamble to the 1956 constitution remaining in place to appease the Islamists. The 1962 Constitution introduced two Islamic institutions, namely the Advisory Council of Islamic Ideology and Islamic Research Institute. The alienation of the Bengalis and the corruption of the generally secular General Ayub’s regime brought another martial law headed by General Yahya Khan, who ordered general elections in the country, which resulted in the total defeat of the fundamentalist parties. Balochistan and the Frontier provinces backed the secular parties. It was under their influence that Pakistan got a somewhat balanced 1973 Constitution with cosmetic and vague Islamic content. Mr Bhutto under pressure from the Islamists soon started to tinker with it. His end came at the hands of the very obscurantist elements that he tried to appease.

General Zia took over after deposing Mr Bhutto. In a self-serving referendum, the people of Pakistan were asked to endorse “the process initiated by General Muhammad Ziaul-Haq, the President of Pakistan, for bringing the laws of Pakistan in conformity with the injunctions of Islam as laid down in the Holy Quran and Sunnah of the Holy Prophet (PBUH) and for the preservation of the Islamic ideology of Pakistan, for the continuation and consolidation of that process, and for the smooth and orderly transfer of power to the elected representatives of the people.” General Zia, through a rush of ordinances, also changed the basic laws of the state. Hudood and blasphemy ordinances changed the political culture of the country. Pakistan was on its way of becoming a theocracy.

Benazir Bhutto and Mian Nawaz Sharif who came after Zia did little to reverse the tide of fundamentalism and the exploitation of Islam for personal benefit continued. In fact, the emergence of the Taliban and profusion of the fundamentalist elements were the landmarks of their rule. When General Musharraf took over, he started projecting a secular and liberal image for himself by praising Kemal Ataturk. The orthodox clerics reacted against it and the concessions on relaxing the blasphemy law were quietly shelved.

The imposition of one vision of the ‘good’ on others who may not share it is almost complete. This is indeed antithetical to the notion of a democratic system that protects individual and minority rights. The main fault of organised religion is the reliance on violence rather than on the trust in its own truths. Secularism is not a renunciation of religion, but is a recognition that violence and state-sponsored force should not be the mechanism to spread any ideology. Religious control will inevitably lead to despotism, not democracy, because it privileges power over reason. This should have been reason enough for opposing the efforts of Islamists to enter and seek to seize control of the state and the political marketplace. However, a clear unified lobby who are strong proponents of religious domination, and who provoke attacks on those who value their own autonomy and political choice, are in the driver’s seat. On the other side, there is just a silent populace that has lost its nerve through decades of internal harassment by the ruling forces aligning themselves with the fundamentalists. This one-sided struggle assures victory for those elements that want to ram through their agenda of religious control of state and society.

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