The Practical Case for a Secular State in Pakistan
By Yasser Latif Hamdani
February 25, 2013
The state may enable Muslims to live according to Islamic ideals according to their own interpretation but the state has no business forcing Muslims to live according to Islamic ideals of any interpretation
A secular Pakistan is not a question of idealism. It is not even a question of countering misappropriation of the Pakistan idea. Nor is it merely about Jinnah’s vision. It is a question of foremost practical importance for this republic. Ask the people in Quetta.
We are dealing with a sectarian monster in the form of the Lashkar-e-Jhangvi. Another religious monster is the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan. These monsters have distorted Islam and destroyed Pakistan. It must be remembered that none of these groups have emerged organically. On the contrary, these militant sectarian organisations have thrived due to the patronage accorded to them by General Ziaul Haq in the 1980s. General Zia got the legitimacy for his actions in the name of Islam because the Constitution of 1973 that Zulfikar Ali Bhutto gave Pakistan has placed religion above all, which in the wrong hands (General Zia) means spawning of the hydra-headed monster that we are now faced with. It must be said here that Bhutto, though personally irreligious, deployed sectarianism in a most unfortunate way in 1974 to outmanoeuvre the mullahs.
That Bhutto himself was free of bias against Ahmadis can be gauged from the fact that he had tried to keep Dr Abdus Salam on in his cabinet and even promised him that he would undo the second amendment one day. Bhutto also wrote a letter to Sir Zafarullah in 1976, two years after the anti-Ahmadi amendment, appreciating his many services to the cause of Muslims in South Asia, most notably as the one-time president of the All India Muslim League. Yet Bhutto thought that by conceding this important point, he would out-Muslim the Islamists. He was sorely mistaken. His end should serve as an example to all those who think they can successfully ride the tiger of religious exclusivity and then manage to get off it as well.
The Constitution of 1973, the amendment of 1974 and the teeth General Zia gave sectarianism in Pakistan happened in continuity to one another. The 1973 constitution made Islam the state religion. Pursuant to this innovation, it was thought important to decide on who was not a Muslim. Finally, General Zia took this inherently sectarian constitution to its logical conclusion. It is time, therefore, to hit at the root of the problem i.e. the Constitution of 1973. It is now time to recognise that so long as we continue to search for Eldorado, the idea that the state ought to implement the faith from the top will continue to lead us in circles. It is, therefore, about time to give up this fallacious misconception and realise that Pakistan is inhabited not just by a few million non-Muslims but almost every sect of Islam, each with its own divergent and, at times, contradictory interpretations. The state may enable Muslims to live according to Islamic ideals according to their own interpretation but the state has no business forcing Muslims to live according to Islamic ideals of any interpretation. All religious questions, therefore, should be dealt with in the confines of religious places of worship and designated religious areas. No religious question should either be raised or debated in parliament or the superior judiciary of Pakistan. When a person steps into a court of law or in parliament or any other institution of the state, he should be treated only as a Pakistani and his other identities, be they linguistic, religious or sectarian, be left at the door. Furthermore, the state should protect and jealously safeguard the religious freedom of every citizen of Pakistan regardless of what religion or sect he is from within the confines of his or her place of religious worship or inside his own house. Similarly, no public gathering outside the mandated religious area be allowed and this should apply uniformly to all religious groups.
A uniform system of secular education must be introduced. Religious education should be left to mosques and households. No religious education of any kind should be allowed in school. By the same token, every citizen should be free to pursue a religious education in the seminary of his or her religious persuasion. The state’s policy should be neutral but the state must facilitate the individual citizen practise his faith. All public hate speech, intended to offend, including religiously offensive speech, should be subject to criminal prosecution but without capital punishment.
These are some of the necessary basic steps that need to be taken if our republic wants to overcome the demon of terrorism and sectarian violence. It cannot be a half-hearted measure or a compromise between the dictates of reason and demands of emotionalism and crass fanaticism. For too long the reformists have faced and appeased the religious right. Now it is time to adopt plan B. Once all these things are allowed to take root, Pakistan will manage to create a cohesive Pakistani national identity, which will be able to withstand any shock, including sectarian violence or linguistic separatism.
To put it mildly, secular Pakistan is the only way left. There is no other way, except bloodshed and more violence.
Yasser Latif Hamdani is a lawyer based in Lahore and the author of the book Jinnah: Myth and Reality.