In his inaugural address to the Constituent assembly of Pakistan, Mr. Muhammad Ali Jinnah proclaimed, “You are free; you are free to go to your temples, you are free to go to your mosques or to any other place or 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”. It was a vision of a state where religious practice is entirely separated from the functions of state – as enunciated by the man who almost singlehandedly brought that state into existence. Mr. Jinnah knew that a clear majority of people in Pakistan at the time were Muslims. He was also well aware of the fact that almost a quarter of Pakistan’s citizens (at that time in history) belonged to various non-Muslim faiths.
Over the years, the contours of Pakistan changed, geographically and demographically. According to the latest estimates, an overwhelming majority of Pakistan’s citizens are Muslims. This has led many to question whether secularism is a viable option for a polity that belongs to a particular religion.
Secularism is not atheism
Secularism as an idea has taken some beating in the Land of Pure. It is associated with atheism, debauchery and lawlessness. However, secularism, as a political ideology has nothing to do with a particular religion. It is true that secularism arose out of the Enlightenment in Europe as a counter to Papal theocracy. It evolved into different shapes based on geography thereafter. The French version of secularism (with its basis in the concept of Laïcité) is profoundly different from the constitutionally mandated secularism in India, Turkey and the United States. The charge that secularism is akin to atheism is frequently thrown by religious commentators in Pakistan. As a result, the popular narrative in Pakistan is that secularism means going against religion (Islam) which can be a dangerous notion for anyone claiming to be secularist. This misinterpretation was done with an aim to close the debate altogether about system of governance.
The challenge for proponents of secularism in Pakistan is to demonstrate how a Muslim-majority country that was conceived to be a place specifically designed to be a ‘laboratory of Islam’ would function as a secular country.
Secularism in Pakistan – a neutral state promotes coexistence
Secularism, in my opinion, would mean coexistence, tolerance
and a confessionally neutral state in a multicultural society such as Pakistan. Even within Islam, there are different strains of thought. In fact, sectarian conflicts within Islam over the last three decades are only one of the reasons as to why a neutral state is required to mediate the different schools of thought and the conflicts that arise from within.
Moreover, Pakistan still is home to millions of people who are non-Muslim. Biased policymaking and intolerant jurisprudence has made the lives of these minorities a living hell. In the age of modern technology, people in Pakistan are still arguing over interpretation of religious texts and killing each other over it. The state has abdicated its responsibility towards Hazaras, Ahmedis, Christians and Hindus. The only way we can protect the minorities and establish a rule of law is in the presence of a neutral state.
What needs to be understood is that the opposite of secularism is theocracy, in which religious figures control the reins of government. In countries with diverse populations, the rule of one faction over the other leads to brutality and in some cases, genocide. One of the major examples of this trend can be seen in Myanmar where Buddhist monks have aligned with the ruling government to wreak havoc on Rohingya Muslims.
In Pakistan, secularism would mean respect for existing religious identities
In a country like Pakistan, secularism would not mean erasing religious identities but a respect for existing identities and no efforts by the state to impose its version of faith on its citizens. The first attempt at reversing Mr. Jinnah’s secular message was the passage of Objectives Resolution in 1949 that foreshadowed an Islamization of Pakistan’s constitution. In the 1973 constitution, the resolution was kept as a preamble but a dictator (General Zia) made it part of the main text.
The importance of secularism for Pakistan can be understood by the way it has been opposed – tooth and nail – by the religious lobby since the very first day of Pakistan’s establishment. The poorly-constructed Nazriya-e-Pakistan (Ideology of Pakistan) was supposed to put Islam at the center of our politics. Currently, with exception of Jamaat-e-Islami and some factions of Imran Khan’s PTI, no major political party is willing to defend the ‘Nazriya’ as Zia defined it – and the sooner such a poorly thought-out concept is consigned to the dustbin of history, the better.
Pakistan deserves a secular, constitutional democracy, instead of a narrow-minded Mullah-cracy.