Secularism in Pakistan

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Conflict Management & Vision for a Secular  Pakistan : A Comparative Study by Moonis Ahmar; oxford University Press, Karachi, 176 pages.

Historic Temples in Pakistan: A Call to Conscience by Reema Abbasi; photography by Madiha Aijaz; Niyogi Books, New Delhi; 296 pages.

Islam and the Secular State ; Negotiating the Future of Sharia by Abdullahi Ahmed, An-Naim Harvard University Press; 324 pages.

Critics as well as admirers agree that Pakistan could not possibly have been established but for the political skills and determination of Mohammed Ali Jinnah. Who, then, was better qualified to define “the ideology of Pakistan” but its founder, the Quaid-e-Azam? Surely not Maulana Abul Ala Maududi who opposed its establishment till the very last, only to arrive there one fine day to mess up its politics and presume to define “Pakistan’s ideology”. Nor Liaquat Ali Khan, an upright man who tried to stave off the crisis created by the adverturers Maualanas, by moving the Objectives Resolution in 1949. Had he been alive the Quaid would have shot it down. Still less qualified was Zulfikar Ali Bhutto whose Constitution (1973) used the expression “ideology of Pakistan” for the first time ever. Till his appointment as Minister in Ayub Khan’s government, he was doggedly pursuing litigation in Bombay to recover his properties there claiming to be – an Indian citizen. Least, of all Zia-ul-Haq who used Islamization to legitimize his grabbing of power. The only person qualified to pronounce on the subject was the Quaid; and he enunciated no ideology but an ideal. That ideal was equality for all and a distance between the State and religion. That was done famously in his speech to Pakistan’s Constituent Assembly on 11 August 1947. To appreciate its significance one must hearken to his record.

He told the Central Legislative Assembly when it debated the Finance Bill in March 1925 : “I once more appeal to this House, whether you are a Mussalman or a Hindu, for God’s sake do not import the discussion of communal matters into this House and degrade this Assembly, which desire should become a real National Parliament”.

On 7 February 1935, he was even more emphatic in his speech to the Assembly: “religion should not be allowed to come into politics … religion is merely a matter between man and God.” The question of communal representation in the legislatures (the Communal award) was “a question of minorities and it is a political issue”; not a religious one. So was the demand for Pakistan – a political solution to the vexed communal tangle. The Lahore Resolution of 23 March 1940, which formulated that demand, only propounded a solution; it defined no ideology (Jamiluddin Ahmed; Speeches and Writings of Mr. Jinnah; Vol. 1; p. 5).

The speech he delivered to the Aligarh Muslim University on 5 February 1938 was a crie de Coeur. It is a neglected pronouncement: “What the Muslim League has done is to set you free from the reactionary elements of Muslims and to create the opinion that those who play their selfish games are traitors. It has certainly freed you from that undesirable element of Maulvis and Maulaunas.” He made it clear that he was not denouncing them “as a whole class” but “a section of them” (ibid.; p. 43).

But, then, some might argue all this was before 1940 when Pakistan was adopted as a goal. Absolutely wrong. This is what he told the Bombay District Muslim Students’ Federation on 25 January 1943 “religion … is strictly a matter between man and God” (ibid.; p. 469).

The speech on 11 August 1947 on the historic occasion of the inauguration of Pakistan’s Constituent Assembly was in line with Jinnah’s record of over two decades. Surely this was the occasion to propound an “ideology of Pakistan”. He seized the occasion with both hands and declaimed those words which ring loud and clear to this day. “In course of time all these angularities of the majority and minority communities will vanish… We are starting with this fundamental principle that we are all citizens and equal citizens of one state… I think we should keep that in front of us as an ideal and you will find that in course of time Hindus and Muslims would cease to be Hindus and Muslims, not in the religious sense because that is the personal faith of each individual, but in the political sense as citizens of the state.” Six months after Jinnah’s death, the Assembly adopted, on 7 March 1949, the “Objectives Resolution” which referred to “the teachings and requirements of Islam as set out in the Holy Quran and the Sunnah” (Prophet Mohammed’s percepts PBUH). The first democratic Constitution established, in 1956, the Islamic Republic of Pakistan while incorporating the resolution in its preamble.

However, the oaths of office of the President and other holders of high office simply pledged them to uphold the Constitution. It was Z.A. Bhutto’s Constitution of 1973, accepted by all the political parties, which prescribed in the oath a pledge “to preserve the Islamic ideology which is the basis for the creation of Pakistan” – a blatant falsehood. As late as 14 July 1947, in his last press conference in Delhi, Jinnah had denied that Pakistan would be a theocratic state.

Air Marshal (Retd.) Zafar Chaudhri rightly remarked : “The interpretations of the Pakistan ideology have created the maximum possible differences and divisions among Pakistanis. Actually, the Pakistani ideology was invented after the birth of Pakistan. The Quaide Azam never used the word “Pakistan ideology” (Jang Magazine; 10 July 1987).”

There is, however, one very significant episode which is not remembered. It was the encounter between Governor-General Mohammed Ali Jinnah and India’s first High Commissioner to Pakistan Sir Prakasa. They knew each other well as contemporaries in the Central Legislative Assembly.

Sir Prakasa’s account in his memoirs bears recalling today. It was a grand reception in which Jinnah did not go around but sat on a sofa and received one favoured guest after another. Significantly, Sir Prakasa was the first to be summoned.

“I asked him if he would permit me to say one thing; and would not take it at all amiss. I should, I added, like to apologise to him beforehand, and would say that I desired to do only if he permitted me to do so. “Out with it”, he said; “I have plenty of flatterers. I want a friend who would speak to me quite frankly. Do say what you want to say.” I was encouraged by what he said, but was still nervous, particularly because of my position as a diplomat accredited to his State. I therefore added that I regarded myself as a friend, and that I might be assured that he would not mind. On his repeated assurance, I said – and I remember my words clearly even at this distance of time: “I know that the partition had been effected on the basis of differing religions. Now that this has taken place, I see no reason why stress should be laid on Pakistan being an Islamic State.” I ventured to go on to tell him that if there should be no talk of Pakistan being an Islamic State, non-Muslims would be assured and not be flying away as they were doing. …

“At this he said that he had never used the word ‘Islamic’. He added: ‘You are a responsible man, and you should tell me where I have done so.’ I ventured to add that only the day before, Nawabzada Liaquat Ali Khan (the then Prime Minister of Pakistan) had said that Pakistan was an Islamic State. To this he replied: ‘Have it  out then with Liquat : why quarrel with me?’ I would not give in, I said: ‘In your broadcast from Lahore on 31 August, you had yourself spoken of Pakistan as an Islamic State.’ He was quite sure that he had not done so, and asked me to let him have the original version, if I could. At this he suddenly got up. I could see he was visibly livid with rage. I was summarily dismissed. …

Next morning I walked up to the office of the Hindu Editor of a leading daily paper of Karachi, whom I knew well, and asked for the issue of early September that contained the full text of the broadcast. The Editor’s curiosity was naturally aroused, and in confidence, I told him of my interview with Mr. Jinnah on the previous evening. As is unfortunately the way of some journalists, he could not keep the matter to himself, but publicised this talk in his own way in his paper. Thereupon I had a letter from Mr. Jinnah in which he rightly complained about my giving a public report of an after-dinner conversation. I was myself rather angry with the editor, but I was helpless. I sent my apologies to Mr. Jinnah, and I also enclosed a newspaper cutting giving the broadcast.

I had studied the same very carefully. As a fact, the word ‘Islamic’ had not occurred anywhere there. The words ‘Muslim State’, however, were found at more than half a dozen places. I told Mr. Jinnah in my letter that I was sorry, I had mistaken the word ‘Muslim’ for ‘Islamic’….” (Pakistan: Birth and Early Days; Meenakshi Prakashan; 1965; pp. 56-58). Sir Prakasa professed not to understand the difference, woolly headed as he notoriously was. But to the Quaid, the difference between an Islamic State and a Muslim one was fundamental enough to tick off an old friend.

Not that Sir Prakasa himself was unaware of it. A ‘Muslim State’ is one that has a preponderant proportion of the population following the Muslim religion, as such. An Islamic State, on the other hand, would mean that the State was being governed in accordance with the dictates of Islam; and that the principles of governance enunciated in the religious and sacred book or books of the particular religion, are being actually implemented in practice. A State could thus be Islamic even if the majority of the population there was non-Muslim. What Jinnah evidently wanted was that Pakistan should be regarded as a Muslim State not an Islamic State.

Certainly, Pakistanis well understood the distinction. There existed a vibrant articulate school of secular thinking in Pakistan until Maududi and later Zia fouled the atmosphere. It exists still though less powerful than before.

In his book, The Rawalpindi Conspiracy Case, the distinguished Cabinet Secretary, Hasan Zaheer lamented that in its wake the Communist party of Pakistan (CPP) was crippled by repression. He was no Communist, of course; but if it were alive and kicking, it would have checked the rightist extreme because the CPP was secular. “It was not unlikely that it would have gained, over time, sufficient political clout in urban areas to become a minor but agriculture mainstream political party capable of playing a secular and socially progressive role to influence obscurantism and the feudal culture of Pakistan” (emphasis added, throughout). It would have been the single strongest opponent of mullahism with which the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto and Benazir Bhutto as well as the Muslim League bought peace.

Sibte Hasan, a member of the Communist Party of India, was the correspondent of the party’s organ New Age in the United States when India was partitioned. Deported back, he went over to Pakistan where he had to undergo successive terms in prison. Eventually he became a director in charge of publicity and publications of the Eastern Federal Insurance Co. Ltd. in Karachi. This gave him security and leisure enough to write. On 28 March 1976, Dawn published his article advocating secularism. In March 1986, Pakistan Publishing House, Karachi, founded by my uncle, a committed leftist, Malik Noorani, courageously published his outstanding work The Battle of Ideas in Pakistan. It was an erudite and powerful plea for secularism, published at a time when Bhutto’s repression was at its worst.

There were those like Mazhar Ali Kha, I. H. Burney and Eqbal Ahmed who kept the torch alive. Significant groups committed to the secular ideal are to be found in Lahore and Karachi; notably the doughty I. A. Rehman.

Dr. Moonis Ahmar, Professor of International Relations at University of Karachi, has written a most thought provoking book. The incisive analysis reveals much study. “The purpose of this research study is not to debate the topic Islam versus Secularism but to focus on the following arguments: 1. Secularism is not just an ideology which binds state to pursue a neutral approach on religious matters but it has a comprehensive scope which includes objective and neutral handling of conflicts, whether religious, ethnic, economic, or political. 2. Without taking the common people of Pakistan on board, the very term secularism will continue to have negative connotations. 3. Targeting the youth of Pakistan for inculcating a better understanding of secularism will help neutralise religious and ethnic extremist groups. 4. Religious intolerance and extremism will further deepen if the liberal and secular elites fail to change their approach on issues which augment poverty and backwardness. 5. Arguing that there is no major contradiction between Islam and secularism as both emphasize moderation and peaceful handling of unresolved issues. 6. Articulating the notion that secularism cannot be rejected as a Western ideology but needs to be understood as a viable mechanism for the management of conflicts in the Muslim world, particularly in Pakistan.”

The Chapter on “A Vision for a Secular Pakistan” makes a compelling read: “The vision for a secular Pakistan means an end to discrimination on the basis of religion or any other grounds for securing public and other key government positions. The only criteria to reach the higher echelons should be that one should be a deserving citizen of Pakistan who has succeeded due to pure merit and not adherence to a particular faith. Certainly, under the 1973 constitution, reserving the offices of President and Prime Minister for Muslims has not made a difference in terms of providing good governance, ensuring the rule of law and social justice. On the contrary, rampant corruption, nepotism, social injustices, and large-scale violence do not conform to the basic idea of an Islamic state. Perhaps, those countries, which are non-Muslims but where there is respect of human values and the system is just, are better off than those Muslim countries which fail to fulfil the basic tenets of Islam but are still referred to as ‘Islamic States’.”

The same commitment to the secular ideal inspired two devoted Pakistani to produce with pride their beautifully illustrated work on Temples in Pakistan. Reema Abbasi won a      UNESCO award and has written for Dawn and The Herald. Madiha Aijaz, a gifted photographer, also won awards. The author holds “A discriminatory status quo must be stirred to sanctify pluralism, diversity of citizenry and a cache of heritage such as the antiquated Hindu temples documented here. My sensibilities have been redefined Pakistan and the region, with Sufism. The subcontinent inherited Islam from the liberal, idealistic Sufis who brought an all-pervasive doctrine of Wahadat al-Wujud; of love infused with wisdom and virtue and the unity among faiths, without dimming or deconstructing spiritual structures. A self-contained belief tradition, Sufism saw divergence and unison as subservient to the same Oneness.

“Lamentably, the Pakistan context begins at partition when some six million Hindus left Pakistan for India. Almost an equal number of Muslims migrated from India to Pakistan in a climate fraught with communal tension and a strong undercurrent of distrust between the two nations. Today, on one end is the increasingly popular rhetoric of hate preached by the right wring elements on both sides; and on the other are the efforts of an apparent amelioration through dialogue, … the temples of Pakistan are so much more than mere symbols of faith for a religious minority. Not only are they vestiges of ancient lore in Hindu mythology, they also stand like warriors of time; pitted testaments of a peaceful, pluralistic past.”

That past can yet be retrieved in the true spirit of Islam. Prof. Abdullahi Ahmad An-Naim is one of the most erudite and original Muslim thinkers today. His erudite work, based on religious texts, establishes the compatibility of the secular ideal with Islam. He explains this convincingly. “Islam is the religion of human beings who believe in it, while the state signifies the continuity of institutions like the judiciary and administrative agencies. This view is fundamentally Islamic, because it insists on the religious neutrality of the state as a necessary condition for Muslims to comply with their religious obligations. Religious compliance must be completely voluntary according to personal pious intention (niyah), which is necessarily invalidated by coercive enforcement of those obligations. In fact, coercive enforcement promotes hypocrisy (nifaq), which is categorically and repeatedly condemned by the Qur’an. My purpose is therefore to affirm and support the institutional separation of Islam and the state, which is necessary for Shari’a to have its proper positive and enlightening role in the lives of Muslims and Islamic societies. …

“As a Muslim, I seek to contribute to this process in Islamic societies without implying that the issue I am discussing here are peculiar to Islam and Muslims alone. I challenge the dangerous illusion of an Islamic state that claims the right to enforce Shari’a principles through its own coercive power. But I also challenge the dangerous illusion that Islam can or should be kept out of the public life of the community of believers. …”

He went on to add these striking words: “I am calling for the state to be secular, not for secularizing society. I argue for keeping the influence of the state from corrupting the genuine and independent piety of persons in their communities. Ensuring that the state is neutral regarding religious doctrine is necessary for true conviction to be the driving force of religious and social practice, without fear of those who control the state or desire for the power and wealth they may claim to bestow. This combination should address the apprehensions of Muslims about secularism as secularization of society or hostility to religion. …

“Secularism does not mean the exclusion of religion from the public life of a society, though the misconception that it does is one of the reasons many Muslims tend to be hostile to the concept. It is of course possible to define secularism as a totally hypothetical notion of strict and systematic separation in all aspects of the relationship between religion and the state, and then to assert this narrow and unrealistic definition in rejecting any form of regulation of that relationship. That purely theoretical and polemical definition of secularism is not valid even for those Western countries commonly assumed to be secular.” I quote these words in order to dispel the false notions about secularism.

It is possible to be a devout Muslim and yet be a committed secularist at the same time.