COMMENT: Is secularisation of Pakistan possible? —Yasser Latif Hamdani
Secularisation and state secularism, however, are distinguishable. The former is an evolutionary process and the latter a constitutional expression of the state’s impartiality to all religious considerations
In view of the Constitution of 1973 and the many authoritative pronouncements of our judiciary regarding Pakistan’s status as an Islamic state, it is logical to question whether secularisation of Pakistan is possible. Opponents of a secular Pakistan claim that since the state itself was founded in the name of Islam, secularisation is antithetical to it. This post hoc view on the raison d’etre of Pakistan is inconsistent with the historical facts leading to the partition of India and should have been void ab initio. However, the enactment of the 1973 constitution has given it the cover of legal fiction, i.e. Islamic ideology, which is said to be the grundnorm of the state.
Our stock myth is that our society was largely moderate until it was radicalised by the state’s Islamisation in the last few decades, when the reality is the opposite. The state’s Islamisation 1970s onwards was a faithful reflection of the bigotry that was ingrained in our society. The famous Munir Report in 1954 details instances of religious extremism and fanaticism not just in the early years of the new state but also during the British Raj. Parties like the Majlis-e-Ahrar, who paradoxically wanted a united India under the banner of the Congress Party and were dead set against the creation of Pakistan, had been involved in numerous incidents of religious violence in Punjab against Ahmedis, Shias and non-Muslim communities. The urban centres of Punjab had witnessed religious violence between Hindus, Sikhs and Muslims since the early 1900s. The decade of the 1920s saw further deterioration of the communal situation, where firebrand Muslim and Hindu orators were at each other’s throats in public and involved in the so-called ‘pamphlet wars’. The Ahrar particularly benefited from the Shahid Ganj dispute in the 1930s politically.
Similarly, the anti-Ahmadiyya movement started by the Ahrar was wildly popular in Punjab. Ahrar had used the anti-Ahmadiyya movement both before and after partition primarily to attack the Muslim League that allowed Ahmedis to be members of the party. Shias were also attacked, especially because the key leaders of the Muslim League were and historically had been Shias.
The Punjab Muslim League was not blameless either. In the 1946 elections, it too sullied its good name by resorting to abrasive religious rhetoric against the Unionist Party, which on its part also utilised clerics to denounce Muslim League leaders as kafirs (infidels). After partition, Punjab Leaguers actively encouraged the Ahrar against the central Muslim League leadership in Khawaja Nazimuddin’s tenure. All this is documented in the previously mentioned Munir Report.
The key difference is that Pakistani leaders before 1970 — more or less unanswerable to the electorate — were better placed to withstand populist sentiments. Very logically, the necessary empowerment of the common people that accompanied Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto’s rise to power also meant those in power could no longer afford to remain ambivalent to the ideas of these new participants in national life. Therefore, since the 1970s, Pakistan has seen a more vocal religious right with greater mob support. The ill-advised Afghan jihad and the state’s co-option of the Islamist sentiment to create warriors of Allah added to this radicalisation.
Now 30 years later, we bear the full brunt of this vicious cycle but at the same time, arguably Pakistan has simultaneously experienced secularisation at a very fundamental level. Commercial and economic considerations are beginning to trump religious ones. For example, women from all backgrounds are becoming part of the workforce as economic hardship forces the lower middle classes to seek two incomes instead of one. With women out of the chador and char devari (four walls), the Mullah, who practises control primarily through the regulation of women’s clothing and conduct is becoming powerless.
There are substantial indicators of secularisation of not just the mainstream of society but also its Islamist fringes. Committing themselves to the 1973 Constitution, most religious parties have been forced to check their more extremist rhetoric, though by no means is an Islamist party like Turkey’s AKP, which accepts separation of mosque and state, in sight. To a lesser degree, however, Pakistan’s Islamists have been forced to operate within the confines of the constitution, which while professing a great deal of commitment to Islamic ideology remains nevertheless a democratic constitution. Those religious parties have given up — at least in their rhetoric — the idea of a pan-Islamic caliphate or even a Pakistan-specific one. Instead of religion, they are forced to emphasise issues such as inflation and the economy. The flip-flop of Maulana Fazlur Rehman on NATO supplies further underscores the fact that other than the flowing robes and beards, there is hardly anything that distinguishes run-of-the-mill politicians from the religious leaders when it comes to power politics and crass opportunism.
Does this necessarily mean that Pakistan will become a secular state in the near future? No. In fact, to the glee of our anti-secularists, there is still occasion for the country to shoot itself in its metaphorical foot, repeatedly. Secularisation and state secularism, however, are distinguishable. The former is an evolutionary process and the latter a constitutional expression of the state’s impartiality to all religious considerations. On a long timeline though, things cannot remain constant. Historical trends afford evidence of eventual acceptance of secularism in other religious states. It is very likely our posterity will also make a decisive break with ‘ideology’ and make Pakistan a normal democratic state sans hyphenation of any kind, because progress and the onward march of humanity is unstoppable. If Pakistan’s raison d’etre was the material progress of its people, as I believe it was, then it shall be realised only when a paradigmatic shift — a Copernican revolution of sorts — is brought about in the discourse on religion’s role in Pakistan.
The writer is a practising lawyer. He blogs at
hhtp://globallegalforum.blogspot.com and his twitter handle is @therealylh