By Pervez Hoodbhoy
First published in The News on Sunday. November 7, 2010.
Though some Muslim scholars see no contradiction between secularism and Islam, a secular state is possible only if there are enough thoughtful people who can make it happen
Decades from now Pakistan will cease to discriminate between citizens of different religious faiths; its public schools will not poison young minds with hatred; Pakistanis will look for human qualities rather than an individuals’ religious affiliation; and the life and property of all citizens will be considered equally valuable. The concept of “minorities” shall have become irrelevant.
Today these appear to be impossible dreams. Indeed, most Pakistanis are demanding an ever greater role for religion in public life. Even as faith-based extremist movements disrupt society, the cry gets louder. For example, sharia-seeking Taliban had blown up hundreds of girls and boys schools in 2008. Although many found this distasteful, a survey, conducted at that time by World Public Opinion.org, discovered that 54 percent of Pakistanis still wanted strict application of sharia while 25 percent wanted it in some more dilute form. Totaling 79 percent, this was the largest pro-sharia percentage in the four countries surveyed (Morocco, Egypt, Pakistan, Indonesia).
More recently, a nationwide survey of 2,000 young Pakistanis between 18-27 years of age found similar data. The report says that “three-quarters of all young people identify themselves primarily as Muslims. Just 14 percent chose to define themselves primarily as a citizen of Pakistan.” This young majority feels the nation is adrift. An overwhelming number are deeply disillusioned not just by Pakistan’s present rulers, but also by what they see as major failures in governance, justice, education and science. Educated in a system which General Zia-ul-Haq had put in place, religion is a firm anchor for the clueless youth lost in a sea of distress.
But states that take religion too seriously, and which inject their young with too much of it, can be in deep danger. Attempts to make Pakistan a mamlikat-e-khudadad (theocracy) have lighted uncontrollable fires of religious intolerance. Today increasing sections of Pakistan’s population are alienated and resentful at being treated as second class citizens. Earlier on, Hindus, Christians, and Parsis were outcasts. Ahmadis followed in 1974. These groups withdrew from public life or migrated overseas, taking with them precious human and non-human resources.
But the list of undesirables expanded further and further as religious belief became more central to the Pakistani state. Many mainstream Muslims now fear other mainstream Muslims. Today, if you are known to be Shia or Barelvi, you could be endangered in many parts of the country. Pakistani Muslims now offer Friday prayers under the shadow of vigilant gun-wielding guards.
Having targeted mosques, frenzied shrine-bombers are now concentrating on holy Muslim sites across Pakistan. Scattered body limbs and pools of blood at Data Darbar, Abdullah Shah Ghazi, and the Pakpattan shrine testify to a religiosity gone mad. Although various extremist groups operating under the Taliban umbrella have accepted responsibility for the attacks, many Pakistanis still choose to believe that this is the work of outsiders. Public discussion is non-existent. Television anchors, who raucously challenge the government on trivia, are silent on this tabooed subject.
Even men like Qazi Hussain Ahmad, Maulana Fazl-ur-Rahman and Imran Khan feel unsafe from extremists, although they pretend otherwise. In spite of having declared the Taliban to be fighters for national liberation, none dared to enter Sufi Mohammed’s Swat while he was in control. In a televised interview, the Sufi had flatly declared Pakistan’s Islamic parties as non-Islamic.
But even as Pakistan’s political and religious leaders choose to deceive themselves and the public, history grimly reminds us of times when faith was allowed to run states. Look at the wars of religion in Europe, many of which came from arcane disputes over the “true interpretation” of the Bible. Hangings, murders, and pogroms were caused by disagreements over whether Christ was resurrected in spirit or form, the virgin birth versus the immaculate conception, and a myriad other point-splitting disputes.
In medieval Europe, howling mobs were easily moved into action by fiery preachers — a phenomenon that Pakistanis hearing Friday khutbas can easily understand. Driven by doctrinal differences, Catholics, Lutherans, Calvinists, and Baptists freely slaughtered each other for many centuries. In the 16th century, the Thirty-Year War between Catholic Germany and Lutherans (principally in France) left Europe awash in blood. The population of Germany was nearly halved in this period — and this was in times when weapons of war were relatively primitive!
The peace process began with secularism, which made its debut through the 1648 Treaty of Westphalia. Without it, religious wars would have consumed European societies and states. Yet, one notes that the founders of modern secularism were religious men who did not think that secularism was a threat to religion. As George Jacob Holyoake put it in 1648, “Secularism is not an argument against Christianity, it is one independent of it. Secular knowledge is manifestly that kind of knowledge which is founded in this life, which relates to the conduct of this life, conduces to the welfare of this life, and is capable of being tested by the experience of this life.”
A similar argument is possible from an Islamic point of view. Some Muslim scholars see no contradiction between secularism and Islam. They point out that the Holy Qu’ran does not mention the state (dawlah) anywhere. Although the Holy Prophet (PBUH) created the Medina state, there was no written law, much less a constitution. There was no taxation system, police or army, or mechanisms for providing amenities or education. Each tribe followed its own customs and traditions. Lacking a Qu’ranic basis for the state, Muslim rulers in later centuries would freely invent laws to suit their needs but which they would claim to be immutable truths. The clergy was pressed into service for this end.
Shall we not learn from the past? That theocracy is a dead end? Any serious move in the direction of a sharia state in Pakistan could lead to civil war. This is not a temporary difficulty but a fundamental one. Since there is no Pope in Islam, there is just no way of answering which sharia is the right one. Hanafi, Shafii, Maaliki, Hanbali? Will all, or most, Pakistanis ever accept any amir-ul-momineen (leader of the pious) or a caliph? What of the Shias, who reject the very notion of a caliphate? For those who say unity is possible, here is a simple challenge: get one religious leader from each of Pakistan’s Islamic sects. Let them sit around a table and see if they agree on any significant matter related to governance, taxes, penal code, banking, or economy.
Looking ahead: even devoutly religious people can accept that genuine faith flourishes when individuals are free to choose, without having religion imposed upon them by their government. Surely, the church, mosque, synagogue and temple all inform humans in some way. But peace and progress lie in giving Reason the stewardship in matters of science, technology, economics, commerce, trade, industry, finance, public affairs, warfare, education, research, public discourse and debate, arts and literature. Laws (personal, family, civil, corporate, criminal, international) and social ethics (including sexual ethics and morality) must be made by humans for humans. The rightful domain of religion is in personal conduct, beliefs, worship and conscience.
Pakistan’s chest thumping ultra-patriots must listen closely. The country has fallen far behind India and is high on the list of the world’s failing states. It is futile to search for tiny bits of contrary evidence, such as the increasing number of mobile phone users in the country. Except for atomic bombs — which even a wretched North Korea has succeeded in making — Pakistan’s achievements are few. This failure owes squarely to a skewed world view and wrong attitudes towards progress, ethics and morality. Even though the clergy are not formally in power, they actually run much of the show and are largely responsible for mis-educating the Pakistani mind. The longer they remain unchallenged, the more protracted our suffering.
While I am optimistic in the long run, the victory of secularism in Pakistan is assured only if there are enough thoughtful people who can make it happen. There is little danger of a religiously fractionated society like Pakistan becoming a hardline theocracy. But the clergy could continue to rule in religiously delineated communities. To the extent that this happens, our people will continue to remain scientifically and culturally backward, wallow in self-pity and drown in conspiracy theories, and have only one message for the outside world: give more.
Reason says we should follow successful states. But history has no example of a successful sovereign religious state, much less one in modern times. While Israel appears to be an exception — and is secretly envied by many Pakistanis — this success is likely to be temporary. Israel is deeply dependent upon the largesse of its patron, the United States. It also has fast-breeding, ultra-conservative Sephardic Jews who yearn for a Jewish state and want to forcibly impose their antiquated laws. They could soon overtake modernised and secular Ashkenazi Jews, forcing Israel into primitivism. Surely, it would be unwise to take this racist, religious state as our model.