What would ‘secularism’ mean in Pakistan?

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.
Changed contours
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.

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AbdulMajeed Abid

I am a medical doctor by profession, specializing in Pathology. I have been writing about Pakistan's political history and Islamism since 2011. I was the Assistant Editor for Pakistani blogzine, Pak Tea House for a couple of years. I have written for various Pakistani publications (both Urdu and English) since. My writings can be accessed at 1. https://nation.com.pk/Columnist/abdul-majeed-abid 2. https://dailytimes.com.pk/writer/abdul-majeed-abid/ 3. http://www.thefridaytimes.com/tft/author/abdul-majeed-abid/ 4.https://www.dawn.com/authors/500/abdul-majeed-abid

35 thoughts on “What would ‘secularism’ mean in Pakistan?”

    1. It was a pet project of Mr. Anthro Panthro (Akbar S Ahmad). It started because of a jealousy that arose after the global success of the film Gandhi (by David Attenborough). The film itself is a surreal production with a case being held in the hereafter and Jinnah is supposed to defend his life. Stanley Wolpert’s book is a much better work on the life of Jinnah.

  1. I largely agree with your ideas and Ayub Khan tried something like this when he changed the name of the country from the “Islamic Republic of Pakistan” to the “Republic of Pakistan”. He fancied himself a bit of an Ataturk. Unfortunately, that didn’t last long.

    Orthodox Muslims would counter your argument by saying that Islam is not a religion but a way of life that governs all social behavior that a Muslim is supposed to engage in. So a country that is 97% Muslim should be ordered in such a way that laws are not against Quran and Sunnah. Secularists will have to come up with a good argument to counter this objection. Good luck.

    1. The notion that Islam is a ‘complete code of life’ arose in the 1920s to counter the communist propaganda. Despite its a-historicity, it is a popular myth and thus, potentially insurmountable in terms of rhetoric. I argued that due to different sects of Islam, a neutral state is necessary, which in my opinion can only be possible under a secular order.

      1. Wherever it arose from, this is what Orthodox Muslims believe. Islam is not a “mazhab” but a “din”. Pakistan is a majority Sunni state. You are going to have to come up with a better argument to convince people for the need for a secular republic. I wish you luck.

  2. There are Muslim majority countries like Iran and Malaysia that have nonsecular political systems, but do far better in maintaining peace and promoting development. I believe that the UK is still not officially a secular country. There are plenty of other examples: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Secular_state#Ambiguous_states

    Pakistan’s problem is rule of law and a failure to create an industrialized economy, secular, nonsecular is really not the issue.

    1. Vikram, Malaysia, Turkey, UAE, Qatar are good examples of successful developed first world OECD countries today.
      Iran’s economy boomed under the Shah until 1973 and has done poorly since then. If Iran had competent government since 1979, Iran would be a developed first world OECD country today. By the same token if India was ruled by Modi/Vajpayee like governments since independence, India would be a developed first world OECD country today. For that matter if Pakistan were ruled by a Modi like government since independence, Pakistan and Bangladesh would be a developed first world OECD countries today.

      Kabir, you can substitute Lee Kuan Yew governance if you prefer. Competent governance is the point.

  3. I think rule of law and religious majoritarianism are two separate issues and both need to be dealt with. Vikram is right that the UK still has the Church of England and the Queen is the head of that church, but the Church of England is not imposing its values on the entire citizenry of the UK. Blasphemy is no longer a capital crime in the UK (correct me if I’m wrong). In Pakistan, just simply being accused of blasphemy can get you killed. That is before the police shows up or any judicial process is instituted.

    Religious majoritarianism is not good, particularly for minorities.

    1. I would say that rule of law will effectively make majoritarianism impotent. I think the secular/non-secular orientation matters at the genesis of a nation-state, but I think this becomes less important as time goes on for most countries. With time, all sorts of dependencies and links are created within the territory of the state, stories evolve, which supersede any other form of national identification. At this point, people just want their property and life to be safe guarded.

      The problem in Pakistan is that the low level of industrialization is inhibiting the development of inter-territorial links. For example, there are just 17 flights per day between Karachi and Lahore, whereas the Mumbai-Delhi route is the third busiest in the world with 130 flights per day. And this is in addition to the large number of trains that link Mumbai and Delhi.

      1. Rule of law has not made majoritarianism impotent in India.

        This is a South Asian problem. I think it is inherent when one country is divided into two on the basis of religion. No matter how “secular” India is on paper, any reasonable person knows that Hindu majoritarianism is alive and well. Pakistan is of course an “Islamic Republic”.

  4. A state religion is a great way to bind people who don’t belong together. The UK has both the monarchy and the anglican church, so in terms of legitimacy and authority they are mostly covered. Winning wars is good. (Scotland and presbyterianism is a thing I know)
    In Pakistan, I don’t think the commitment to state islam is about individual piety, but an understanding (on some level) that its necessary to hold things together. And I think Indians are onto this too. The Hindutva people aren’t particularly pious either, its just that they understand that national integration will never truly consummate unless some symbol of legitimacy manifests. The cult of personality of individual leaders can only last so long in multi-ethnic systems.
    Expecting the masses to view parliamentary republicanism as sacred is sort of far-fetched in the short run, I think the levels of corruption we see are symptoms of that. A new myth-making would be necessary, perhaps based on the mahajanapadas of antiquity, to make it a matter of cultural honor to exalt republicanism.
    Back to Pakistan, I don’t think its about religion, its about empire. Its too big and diverse for ethnonationalism. Its a multinational state like India, and their external and inner conflicts are based on inheriting large pieces of empire that they never “earned”. No one really runs the show anymore so to speak, so a lot of conflict and mobilization of interest groups is the norm as there’s a lot at stake.

    1. Pakistan is not a “multinational” state. There is only one nationality–Pakistani. Punjabi, Pakhtun, Sindhi etc are ethnicities, not nationalities (there is a difference). They are regional identities. All are citizens of one unitary state–the Islamic Republic of Pakistan.

      Islam was always present in Pakistan’s self-definition since the country was created as a homeland for British India’s Muslims. After the loss of the Eastern “wing” in 1971, it was considered necessary to double down on state-sponsored Islam in order to prevent any other province from breaking away. Whether this is a good strategy or not is a different debate.

      As for who “runs the show”, Pak Army is firmly in charge of everything that matters. Anyone who lives in Pakistan knows that. They let the civilians build motorways and metrobuses. That keeps them happy. The Army runs security policy and foreign policy. Seems to work for Pakistan so far…

        1. You are technically correct, but the provincial identities are still not “nationalities”. If they are nations, they should have their own nation-states and Pakistan should not exist. That is not a possibility most Pakistanis are willing to contemplate. We need to get beyond “Punjabi”, “Sindhi”, blah blah and start thinking of ourselves as Pakistani first. This does not mean that one should not have pride in one’s local culture but also develop a sense of civic nationalism.

      1. “a large body of people united by common descent, history, culture, or language, inhabiting a particular state or territory”, this definition of nation is an immediate result. Are the Baloch not a nation? The Sindhis?
        I’m not speaking of how the of the Pakistan state defines its citizens, but how the social sciences and political philosophy do. In the same way as above, the Kurds are a nation, the Catalan people, or Tamils, or Kashmiris, ect ect.

        1. There was a huge debate on the Tamil people wikipedia page regarding the use of the words nation/stateless nation to describe them, and the eventual consensus was that Tamils are a Dravidian ethno-linguistic group.

          The only reliable survey I have come across of the nationality of Tamils in India indicated that 92% of them identified as ‘Indians’ before Tamils. Numbers for Nagas were below 50% though.
          It was in this paper: https://scholar.google.com/scholar?cluster=17264270072614326713&hl=en&as_sdt=5,44&sciodt=0,44

          1. You’d be surprise at how many people in rural south india, as recently as 20 years ago, did not know what India was, or just possessed the vaguest concept of it. I find the idea that 92% of Kannada or Telugu people consider themselves Indian-first suspect, let alone Tamils. Outside of english language mediated social environments, showing piety to central government symbols like the indian flag reduces considerably. Anyone living in Bangalore for instance will attest to how commonly the Kannada flag is displayed on auto rikshaws and the the rarity of seeing the indian flag. In more educated environments people will be reserved to express these opinions, but I have seen it even in men who’ve served in the armed forces.

          2. Yes even I thought as much.. India & Pakistan are fairly new nation states overlaid on much older identities..

          3. girmit, like I said that is the only reliable, rigorous evidence that I could find. I am not sure showing a Karnataka flag implies displacement of the Indian flag.

            I am sure that the people voting in the Central and state government elections know the difference, and know what their participation in the election process implies. In places like Kashmir, where Indian nationalism is absent or subdued, one sees reflection of this in voter turnout in lok sabha elections, and the substantial crowds seen at Ranji and national football league games.

        2. Baloch and Sindhis are ethnicities. The nation is Pakistan. Baloch and Sindhis carry Pakistani passports. Some Baloch do want out and want a nation of their own.

          Some Kashmiris (perhaps most) feel they are a nation and want out from India. The Catalans certainly feel they are a nation and want out from Spain.

          Nation necessarily implies nation-state. These are related terms in Anthropology but are not the same. I took an entire course in college called “Anthropology of Ethnicity and Nationalism” and we hashed all of this out.

          If we agree that the Baloch are a nation than Balochistan should be a country. In that case, Pakistan will lose 50% of its landmass. You can see why this idea makes Pakistanis deeply uncomfortable.

          If Punjabis are a nation, then why are we divided over two nation-states?

          1. Nation doesn’t imply nation-state, in fact the term nation-state exists to qualify that distinction. And etymologically, nation derives from the latin root “nat-” for birth, and suggests race and lineage, not borders, government and institutions. Long before europe organized itself into nation-states, in the pre-westphalian period, there were emergent nations contained within monarchical polities.
            For the sake of this current discussion, I’m agnostic to what should or shouldn’t be. Multinational states/empires, monarchies, whatever, aren’t inherently illegitimate. Pakistan may yet make a strong case to hold on to Balochistan even if there is a consensus that the Baloch are a nation. They can propose that Pakistan is an authentic super-nation. But the different linguistic provinces of India and Pakistan can most certainly be thought of as nations and greater than just ethnicities.
            The Punjab is a territory with unique customs, a language, and a distinct history. They are a linguistic group comprising many ethnicities, like Jatt, Arain, Rajput, Brahmin, ect. They aren’t a group of gypsies, or itinerant traders with scattered settlements in another linguistic region. That Punjab is split into two implies the existence of multiple nations within Punjab, like Ireland and many others.
            The ability to distinguish between nation and state is crucial. This is not about what passport you carry, hundreds of thousands of palestinians carry israel passports, ditto for kashmir and india, kurds in turkey, ect..

          2. Pakistan is like Britain; a state of nations.. however I would argue that the Punjab and Sindh are more like Cornwall (Duchy), Northern Ireland (status undefined; rump of the Kingdom of Ireland) and Wales (Principality) than England or Scotland (Kingdoms, whose Union form the United Kingdom)..

          3. In the modern world “nation” implies “nation-state”. Again, this is all covered in basic courses on the anthropology of ethnicity and nationalism. Ethnicity is a much more precise term for what Punjabis, Sindhis, etc are.

            I would not give the example of Palestinians carrying Israeli passports, given that Israel basically stole Palestine from under the Palestinians–the natives of the land. West Bank Palestinians carry Jordanian passports. That doesn’t make them Jordanian. If and when the State of Palestine is established, all these Palestinians will carry Palestinian passports.

            There will be no further division of Pakistan, no matter what the Baloch may think. They can define themselves as a “nation”. As far as the majority population of Pakistan are concerned, they are a provincial group and they are represented in their province. Do they need a fairer deal with Islamabad? Yes. Are they going to leave the Islamic Republic and deprive us of 50% of our landmass? No way in hell. Iran is also not going to let Iranian Balochistan go, so this is all a non-starter. Balochistan is also not a Disputed Territory unlike India-held Kashmir.

          4. Furthermore East Bengal was a 1,000 miles away and the Indian army was instrumental to that Independence saga.

            If Bengal had been continuous to Pakistan it may have well turned out very differently..

          5. Sometimes nations don’t have countries; Kurds & Berbers.

            A nation most usually maps onto language, religion etc..

            Pakistan derives it’s legitimacy as the Urdu-speaking nation. If Pakistan were English, Hindi or Punjabi speaking there would be no Pak..

          6. Zach, yes the Britain/Pakistan analogy works in a way. Britain has a celtic fringe, Pakistan has an iranic fringe. Protestantism (in the past) and Sunni Islam are encoded in the national identity. Urdu hasn’t displaced other languages yet, as English has, but it is indisputably the language of the state.

    2. Yes.

      Pakistan is a multinational empire, as is India.

      In South Asia, Bangladesh is the only true nation state, the kind Garibaldi would recognize.

      (Some Punjabis think Pakistan is a nation state. No non-punjabi thinks so).

      1. I think one has a tendency to overplay ethnic rift in Pakistan; at the elite level, Pakistaniness trumps all ethnic parochialism..

  5. “Pak Army is firmly in charge of everything that matters. Anyone who lives in Pakistan knows that. They let the civilians build motorways and metrobuses. That keeps them happy. The Army runs security policy and foreign policy. Seems to work for Pakistan so far…”

    Serious question. Why would anyone think de facto GHQ Deep State influence and partial rule has “worked” for Pakistan. It isn’t as bad as it could be, but that isn’t that a low bar?

    To be clear India has her own problems. British rule, big government socialism, license Raj continued through the colonization of the Indian mind 1947-1991. In some ways it still continues. This explains the horrendous economic performance in India 1800 to the early 1980s.

    1. Pak Army running security policy while the civilians run “governance” seems to have kept Pakistan relatively stable. It allowed the first democratic transfer of power from the Zardari administration to the Sharif administration. Nawaz has been removed (by the court not the Army) but PML-N is still in power. There was no military coup.

      Military coups and suspension of the Constitution are a bad thing. Hopefully, these won’t happen again. The Army now doesn’t need to rule directly.

      The governmental structure of Pakistan is a matter for Pakistanis to decide. You are free to think whatever you like, but we are free to ignore you completely.

      To be clear, Pak Army’s foreign policy is deeply problematic. But the reality is that civilians are never going to be trusted to make any decisions that impact security interests. That’s just not how Pakistan works.

  6. “Pakistan derives it’s legitimacy as the Urdu-speaking nation.”

    Why foist this on Sindhis and Pashtuns ? And why would they consent to this definition of Pak nationhood ?

    1. Mate, do you even know any Pathans or Sindhis (Muslim ones)?

      Data is important but so are anecdotes. It’s quite difficult to take opinions on Pakistan from someone who has never been to it..

      1. Those were genuine questions. Why would an Urdu based nationalism be acceptable to these groups ? Pashtuns, I can kind of understand, via Pakistan they get access to the sea and jobs in the military. But for Sindhis, Pakistan, even without the Urdu imposition, has little to offer.

      2. “It’s quite difficult to take opinions on Pakistan from someone who has never been to it”– Well said.

        Pakistan derives its legitimacy from Islam and then from Urdu. Urdu is the lingua franca that allows me to go to a bazaar in Peshawar and conduct business. It allows Pashtuns to come to Karachi and conduct business (by some estimates Karachi is the third largest Pasthtun city–I read this somewhere but can’t remember where exactly).

        “Sindhis” were ruling Pakistan for a while. Who do you think the Bhutto dynasty were? They still rule Sindh.

        Frankly, Punjabi should be the State Language of Pakistan, but since the country’s creation was due to the Ashraaf from UP, we’ve got Urdu.

  7. There u have it vikram, pakistan derives its legitimacy through islam. And u have rather than accept post mughals acceptance of Islam being the fountainhead to accept and create pakistan, instead went down route of racism,language, ethnicity, economy instead. Problem with intellectual types is that they think argument is the be all and end all of everything. That is why business can offer an effective alternative. many businesses are created based on arguments of success, not all of them succeed. only few do. same for ideologies?. It is time to accept that islam happens to be the supra narrative , ideology over other narratives and ideologies for many muslims.

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