By Saad Hafiz
It is an irony that the world’s great religions speak of caring for the sick, the poor and the orphaned, of eradicating poverty and illiteracy, and of practicing mercy and goodwill towards fellow humans, yet these traits are often more evident in the world’s least religious states. In fact, secular states today are faring much better on nearly every single indicator of well-being imaginable compared to the most religious nations on earth. Coupled with strong democratic structures, secular societies protect their citizens from the authoritarianism that is characteristic of religion when it has temporal power. In contrast, oppressive religious states and conservative religious scholars have colluded to produce certain interpretations of religion that represent serious impediments to human development, particularly when it comes to freedom of thought, accountability of the ruling authorities and women’s participation in public life.
See More: ‘Islam is in danger’ and ‘pure’ Islam must be protected at all costs from heretics and corrupting western influences. | A war of narratives
Generally speaking, the good citizen of a secular democracy is allowed to be skeptical, informed, willing to think and evaluate, and be open to new information. In comparison, a good citizen of religion needs to be credulous, obedient and willing to swallow whole a philosophical system without asking any questions. Despite the undeniable reality of success of secular societies, developing states, particularly those in the Islamic world, continue to protect and strengthen the role of religion in the public sphere. In these states, religion is considered the necessary glue for keeping society together and secularism a danger to societal well-being. Furthermore, religious lobbies actively denigrate and equate secularism with godlessness and evil.
See More: There are analysts who argue that Muslims are not ready for democracy and that elections would only translate into victory for hardline Islamists. The facts tell a different story. | Living with political Islam
Historically, the secular versus religious debate has been characterised by significant polarities. In his classic Reflections on the French Revolution, Edmund Burke argued that religion was the underlying basis of civil social order. Voltaire, the celebrated Enlightenment philosopher, argued that without theism society could not function; it is necessary for people to have “profoundly engraved on their minds the idea of a Supreme being and creator” in order to maintain a moral social order. Alexis de Tocqueville similarly argued that religious faith is “indispensable” for a well-functioning society and that irreligion is a “dangerous” and “pernicious” threat to societal well-being, and that non-believers are to be regarded as “natural enemies” of social harmony. In contrast, the attributes of Indian (and modern) secularism have been best described by P M Bakshi, former member of the law commission, and by S Radhakrishnan, a former president. Bakshi, in his book, The Constitution of India, says the following about secularism: “The state has no official religion. Secularism pervades its provisions, which give full opportunity to all persons to profess, practice and propagate a religion of their choice. The Constitution not only guarantees a person’s freedom of religion and conscience but also ensures freedom for one who has no religion, and it scrupulously restrains the state from making any discrimination on grounds of religion.” Radhakrishnan, in his book, Recovery of Faith, explains secularism in the country as follows: “When India is said to be a secular state, it does not mean that we reject the reality of an unseen spirit or the relevance of religion to life, or that we exalt irreligion. It does not mean that secularism itself becomes a positive religion or that the state assumes divine prerogatives….We hold that not one religion should be given preferential status.”
See More: In the closed, fearful world of Islamic discussion, a discourse on these issues is considered offensive, dangerous or both. | A time for introspection
In Pakistan, judges of the Supreme Court (SC) recently tried to determine whether or not parliament could declare Pakistan a secular state and under what provision of the law could a constituent assembly be formed. From the secularism and religious perspective, Pakistan is definitely a study in contrasts. The country was founded on the basis of Islam, yet a tiny minority clings on to the idea of a secular state purportedly advocated by the country’s founder, M A Jinnah. Islam, as the official religion, enjoys preferential status and discrimination on grounds of religion is codified. Also, free expression, diversity and secular values are an anathema to many influential sections of the state and society. However, unlike other Arab and Muslim countries, the higher courts, civil society and elected politicians play an active role in society. Moreover, in the past, democratic parties have successfully resisted obscurantist forces that have tried to impose an autocratic Islamic state.
See More: Part of the problem is that, in Islam, it is not the religious message that promotes the faith into the halls of political power as in Judaism and Christianity; it is an original state of political and military strength that promotes the religious message. | Islamic reformation
Despite a hopeful democratic record, Pakistan today is battling for its very survival against a murderous ideology based on hatred and conservativeness operating under the banner of Islam. Thousands of Pakistanis have been killed or bereaved by religious violence. Vested interests have exploited sectarian and ethnic fault lines to preach hatred and intolerance. Persons accused of apostasy and blasphemy, often falsely, face persecution and death. The country’s madrassas (Islamic schools), described as centres of “ignorance and illiteracy”, produce human drones pursuing a death quest in the name of jihad. It is difficult to imagine any solution to extremism in Pakistan that may be couched in terms of pure religion or moderate religion. Blaming dictators and extremists may be a convenient option; unfortunately, the problem runs much deeper than that, as some have started to realise. A key element in dealing with the existential threat from religious extremism is to constitutionally exclude Islam from politics and civil affairs. Sadly, such a proposal is seen by many Pakistanis as a betrayal of Islam and the country’s religious origins.
See more: Islam is no different because, like all other beliefs, it is a spectrum and can be manipulated to its extremity for the sake of power. | Religious Absolutism