By Saad Hafiz
April 14, 2013
The primary eligibility criterion for electoral candidates in most parliamentary democracies is evidence of citizenship and a clean criminal record. In Pakistan, aspiring candidates appear to need a certificate of religious piety as well. The interpretation of constitutional articles determining eligibility seems more suited to candidates in a religious order, where conformity with prevailing religious ideology and practice is a necessary requirement. But politics is a secular affair, aiming to achieve distinctively worldly ends through distinctively political means. It follows that the actions of governmental representatives themselves should rely on logic and science. This necessitates that the proper standard for selecting a country’s political leadership should be effectiveness, not piousness. Evaluating a candidate’s political and leadership credentials is more important than proving that they are ‘good’ Muslims. As Martin Luther said, it is better to be ruled by a good Turk than a bad Christian.
It may be a noble idea for returning officers in Pakistan to insist that candidates also meet standards of piety, but this is impossible in a society devastated by poverty, violence, interdictions and corruption. Piousness remains a religious utopia in an impure world, where sin and hypocrisy prevail, and no one can stay immune from it. Genuine godliness and devotion are, therefore, just a myth, an inaccessible position reached only by characters in legends. Also, if exaggerated piety and religious zeal were the main determinant in steering national success, we would expect to find the least religious nations on earth to be bastions of crime, poverty and disease and the most religious nations to be models of societal health. In reality, the most secular countries — those with the highest proportion of atheists and agnostics — are among the most stable, peaceful, free, wealthy, and healthy societies. And the most religious nations — wherein worship of God is in abundance — are among the most unstable, violent, oppressive, poor, and destitute.
The broader challenge is that many Islamic societies like Pakistan are losing the battle to balance religious tradition developed in pre-modern times with the new mainly secular political, economic, and social demands of the modern world. There are few advocates for a separation between religion and the state, including the idea that religion is and should be strictly a private matter. There are some Islamic modernists who believe that Islam and modernity, particularly science and technology, are compatible, so that Islam should inform public life without necessarily dominating it. The ‘fundamentalists’ who are in ascendancy, emphasise the authority of the past and tend to call for a reimplementation of Islamic laws and norms as they existed in that past. They emphasise going back to the earliest period and teachings of Islam, believing that the Islamic tradition needs to be purified of popular, cultural, and western beliefs and practices that have ‘corrupted’ Islam. For them, the elimination of societal vice and sin remains the watchword, and pluralism and tolerance rooted in mutual respect and understanding is anathema.
The politicisation of Islam and the rise of Islamism in political and popular discourse based on conservatism and orthodoxy have long been at work in Pakistan, despite occasional periods of moderate, progressive democratic governance. The Islamist parties and the establishment have proven equally strident in their Islamist predilections, at times to the extent that there is little differentiating the two. The Islamist lobby has located itself at the forefront of major debates over religious freedoms, civil liberties, constitutional rights, the sanctity of Shari’a, and the nature and manifestation of the Islamic state. Certain contemporaneous factors like the divide between government and society contribute to the attraction of religion. Rhetoric connecting the corruption of government with irreligiousness and the widespread use of the term ‘Islamic’ together with ‘justice’ and ‘democracy’ is heard increasingly. Corruption and oligarchic control of the public sphere drives those disadvantaged by this system to look to Islam as a ‘moral’ driver in society.
These dynamics have contributed to the rise of Muslim conservatism in Pakistan in general, and impacted the nature of politics and political compromise in the country. An important result of the ‘Islamisation race’ has been the increasing alienation of Pakistan’s minorities and non-Muslim population from mainstream society that has increasingly come to be defined with decidedly hard-line Sunni Islamist referents. On the flip side, Islamist political parties continue to perform poorly in elections, most recently in 2008, garnering only two percent of the national vote. But these parties exercise inordinate influence on the legal framework and political discourse in ways that restrict personal freedoms and subordinate women and minorities.
Pakistan can also look to a vibrant civil society, generally free media, established political parties, a stronger and more independent judiciary, and a parliamentary process that is increasingly providing a necessary check on the executive. Perhaps it is time for these ‘secular’ institutions to re-assert themselves by taking effective political action and pursuing worthwhile political objectives to retake the moral ground lost to unchecked Islamism.