There is mass confusion in Pakistani society between the secularism and atheism doctrines. Secularism and atheism are very different doctrines and the emergence of these two happened in the past at different times. Secularism is the most misunderstood and mangled ‘ism’ in Pakistan’s political lexicon. Commentators on the right and the left routinely equate it with Nazism and Socialism, among other ‘isms’. Most people in Pakistan associate it with being anti-Islam, which clearly shows a lack of knowledge and understanding on the topic of secularism. The intention behind writing this article is to convey to the people of Pakistan that the secularism doctrine is not anti-Islam at all. It actually demands tolerance, freedom of religion and separation of state from religion.
Let us now start with brief definitions. Secularism is the principle of separation of government institutions and persons mandated to represent the state from religious institutions and religious dignitaries. One manifestation of secularism is asserting the right to be free from religious rule and teachings or, in a state declared to be neutral on matters of belief, from the imposition by government of religion or religious practices upon its people. India, France and the UK are excellent examples of secular states in the modern age. On the other hand, atheism is disbelief in the existence of the deity — the doctrine that there is no deity.
These two ‘isms’ must be disarticulated from each other for a variety of reasons. Atheism covers wide schools of thought that ponder and/or posit the non-existence of God. Among commentators there is a largely fascinating debate about when precisely atheism arose. Two renowned writers, Allen Kors and Michael Buckley, have a compelling theory: non-belief as a coherent worldview developed within Christian theological speculation in early modernity. Most historical narratives suggest that atheism was largely fuelled by the western schism of the 14th century and Europe’s intellectual experiences during the Renaissance. This historical link is difficult to discount; the former movement saw religious faith dwindle owing to corrupt clergymen, while the latter saw an increased emphasis on scientific rationality. Secularism is a doctrine that is not concerned with metaphysics. It does not concentrate on the existence of the divine realm. In other words, it is agnostic on the question of God’s existence — a question that is way above its pay grade. Secularism is a flexible doctrine, which is concerned with the relationship of the state and religion. It demands that the state should not have any religion and people can enjoy their religious traditions, culture, etc. In all regards, the state should be neutral and provide space to every citizen residing in its boundaries. Strict separatism is one, but not the only, of those positions. At its core, secularism is deeply suspicious of any entanglement between government and religion. Thus, secularism may be understood as a concept that gives breathing space to all beliefs.
In culmination, it is submitted that there is no room for discovering an iota of inherent secularism in the teachings and history of Islam. The state of Pakistan came into being on the basis of Muslim nationalism and, on record, no secular liberal speech by Jinnah is available except the August 11, 1947 one. Pakistan inherited the diseases of religious violence and fundamentalism on the day it came into being and, therefore, Pakistan is clearly disqualified for secularism from all of the deliberative aspects. Religion has become the sole identity of every citizen in Pakistan. Religion is the elementary identity of each and every citizen. It is almost impossible to find 10 to 20 people claiming not to be Muslims in the 97 percent Muslim majority of about 180 million people. The constitution does not allow the national or provincial assemblies to legislate contrary to the injunctions of Islamic sharia or courts to decide against it as the preamble of the constitution clearly forbids doing so.
The Council of Islamic Ideology, a constitutional advisory body, plays a big role in the legislative process. Besides all such legal bindings, the general temperament and psychological makeup of a Pakistani is that of a believer. Religious educational institutions in Pakistan are major manufacturers of the popular Islamic culture of society. I strongly believe that secularism is the only solution available to the state of Pakistan to get rid of all sorts of religious extremism. Hence, secularism must be embraced, not as a concept, which alienates different religions, but as one that acknowledges each to an equal measure.
During a conversation at a‘soiree’ I attended in Lahore a few months ago, I mentioned ...