Secularism: a solution for Pakistan

In Pakistan, even being accused of blasphemy is equivalent to the sentence itself, which is against the basic principle of criminal justice: ‘innocent until proved guilty’

The question as to whether Pakistan can be a secular state has been a hot topic for intellectuals and political thinkers since the introduction of Ziaul Haq’s Islamisation programme from 1977 to 1988. The question pertaining to secularism in Pakistan is an important one within Pakistan and outside the country for human rights activists and minorities residing in Pakistan. Before going into detail here it seems pertinent to first slightly elaborate what secularism is. Secularism is the principle of the 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.
The Two Nation Theory on which Pakistan was founded was largely based on Muslim nationalism. Right wing conservative entities in Pakistan place their reliance upon the theory to justify the foundation of Pakistan. To the contrary, Mohammad Ali Jinnah’s speech on August 11, 1947 hinted at the separation of religion and state, and promised equal rights to minorities. Mr Jinnah’s speech set out factors that are the fundamental components of secularism. Some commentators have said that Mr Jinnah’s speech on the floor of the first Constituency Assembly was as important as the ‘Magna Carta’. Most political players in Pakistan place their reliance on Mr Jinnah’s guidelines but a majority of them ignore the words delivered by him on August 11, 1947, which separate state and religion.
When Ziaul Haq seized power, the blasphemy laws were introduced and religion and state held together — from there, the menace faced by the state of Pakistan increased. It is not out of place to mention that the National Assembly has revisited the laws introduced by Zia but amendments to the blasphemy laws have never happened. The constitution of Pakistan and even the August 11 speech by Mr. Jinnah guaranteed freedom of religion and separation of state and religion but still minorities in Pakistan have never been given due rights. Pakistan’s blasphemy laws have been criticised as too broad, and many legal experts say they has been widely misused since their introduction in 1980. A few years ago, the then governor of Punjab, Mr Salmaan Taseer and federal minister for minorities were murdered due to their strong stance over the blasphemy laws. It is extremely inhumane to assassinate someone for having an opinion. The doors of debate, dialogue and argument should always be open in every democratic country. To kill someone is not permissible at all.
Since the introduction of sections 295 A and 295 B dealing with blasphemy, the marginalised and minorities of Pakistan have been victimised. Many incidents of blasphemy cases have come to the surface in Pakistan especially in Punjab and Sindh. In 1984, a group of lawyers filed a petition in the Federal Shariat Court (FSC) where, for the first time in its history, a woman judge had been appointed. The purpose of filing a petition was to seek an order for the enactment of the law against insulting Islam and the last Prophet (PBUH). The group of lawyers succeeded and the FSC, in 1986, introduced 295 A and B as part of the law of the state. It did not stop there — in 1990, 295 C was introduced under the Hudood Ordinance and the then law minister managed to include ‘death or life imprisonment’ for blasphemy in section 295 C.
It is fair to say that fundamentalism has increased in the last 13 years. Civil rights and liberties in Pakistan have been denied by the state of Pakistan to its citizens. In Pakistan, even being accused of blasphemy is equivalent to the sentence itself, which is against the basic principle of criminal justice: ‘innocent until proved guilty’. The FSC has recently opined that only death is the punishment for blasphemy, therefore, it has removed the ‘life imprisonment’ concept from section 295 C.  Is this fair? To me, it is unfair and is an attempt to make Pakistan a radical state where belonging to diverse faiths has no space. It is vital for the state of Pakistan to transform into a secular one because secularism is the only way available to Pakistan for getting rid of fundamentalism, extremism and religious violence. Let the individual decide which religion he/she wants to adopt, not the state dictating the adoption of Islam as his/her religion. An excellent example of a secular country is our neighbouring country, India, which is recognised as the world’s biggest democracy. In India, Hindus, Muslims, Christians, Buddhists and people belonging to other faiths are living together and, very rarely, do we hear that an incident of violence has happened except when it is triggered by the conservative political party, Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). The state of India is secular constitutionally and pays no attention to its citizens’ faith. Even the UK is an example, a country that got rid of the church’s involvement in the state and personal faith of individuals 300 years ago. France is another example too but French secularism is of an extreme nature where even wearing the hijab and/or religious signs and symbols is not allowed.
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 no secular liberal speech by Jinnah is available except for the one on August 11, 1947. Pakistan inherited the diseases of religious violence and fundamentalism on the day it came into being and, therefore, Pakistan is clearly disqualified for secularism. 
Religion has become the sole, elementary identity of every citizen in Pakistan. It is almost impossible to find 10 to 20 people claiming not to be Muslim in the 97 percent Muslim population of about 180 million people. The constitution does not allow 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 it. 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 menaces.

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