Secularism: A concept most misunderstood! – by Dur-e-Aden

It is almost a sin to mention the word secularism in Pakistan. Suddenly you are bombarded with labels of being pro-western, anti-Islam, ashamed of your values, threat to identity of the nation, as a result of which you are not a true Pakistani or a good Muslim. People associate secularism with the images of clubbing, partying, drinking, promiscuity, prostitution, broken family structure, mental diseases and all other ills that are associated with western culture. The idea being that when these societies moved away from religion, they became materialistic and lost their sense of morality, as a result of which they are suffering from these social disasters today.

It is very true that religion is an important source of morality. Some of our basic senses of right and wrong come from religious teachings whether it’s respect for human life, caring for the poor, modesty and respect in personal relationships or refraining from materialistic pursuits of the world; these are very important and valuable concepts that help to build up the character of a person.  The misguided idea however, is that to build such a character among people, religion has to be a part of the state structure and imposed on people forcefully. Muslims who demand a religious state forget to notice that it is actually Muslims who prove this idea wrong that secularism is a threat to your religious values. For example, there is a large number of Muslims who live in secular western societies where Islam is not part of the state, yet they don’t do any of the things that are common place in those countries and which we think are not “our values.” Even though Islam is not a part of western governmental structure, this doesn’t mean that it is a threat to the beliefs of Muslims living in those countries.

This is a very important point that people need to understand. Secularism merely means separation of church/mosque and the state. In other words, your state and its institutions don’t adhere to a religion. It certainly doesn’t mean that you yourself have to leave your religion. In fact, in a secular society, you will have more freedom to practice your particular interpretation of a religion which is very much limited in a state where anyone ideological religion interpretation is part of the state apparatus.

Let’s talk about Pakistan. Here we have Brelvies, Deobandis, Imamis, Ismaelis, Zikris, mystic Sufis, Wahabis and Ahmadis. Now if we want to make Pakistan an “Islamic” country, this means that Islam has to be a part of the state and all its functions, from education, to laws, to foreign policy, to treatment of minorities etc. Now which version are we going to adopt? (Especially when even within one version, there are disagreements. Not all Hanafis agree on everything, neither all Shafi’s). Moreover, what gives one particular version the right to impose itself on others? (I am not even talking about non-Muslim minorities here, just talking about divisions within Muslims). May be if we agreed on what “Islam” is, the argument to make Pakistan an “Islamic” country would be stronger, but considering the diversity that we have within Islam, incorporation of religion with the state is only going to increase resentment among the groups who would be left out, and sectarian violence by those who would consider their version right and others’ wrong.  We have already experimented with this bloody business during Zia years when one ideological interpretation of religion became part of the state and now that cancer has engulfed our society.

Secondly, the moral degradation of western societies is not a result of secularism. It’s a result of abandonment of religion or other sources of moral ethics in their personal sphere as well, something that we don’t have to worry about. It is because in our society, along with all the modernity, religion is still and will continue to be a very important part of our everyday lives. That is why I think that secularism would be perfect for our society as even though we may differ on complex matters regarding interpretations, there are a lot of commonalities that we take pride in by calling them “our values.” Moreover, if you look at Pakistan today, it’s not an “Islamic” country in the full sense of the word (whatever that means in the first place?). Despite the inclusion of certain religious clauses, our laws are largely secular and so is our society in their everyday lives. We have people wearing niqabs and people wearing jeans, we have women running for Parliament and stay at home mothers, we have people with beards and those who are clean-shaven, we have people listening and performing music and those who tend to refrain from such activities.  Now I am pretty sure none of these classes of society would want their way of life to be banned, and that can only happen in a secular society.  Otherwise, if you have one religious interpretation guiding the lives of people who come from diverse social and ethnic backgrounds, result will be chaotic. People don’t really like much interference in their personal lives and state should be concerned with matters that affect the society as a whole.

Now getting back to “our values” which are always so threatened, I just want to give one example, let’s take drinking. Majority of the Muslims don’t like the idea of legalizing alcohol as it is clearly prohibited by Islam. However, if you want to make a law regarding its prohibition in the country, you can and should make other logical/valid arguments as to why it is harmful, because it causes addiction, drunk driving accidents, can be a cause of increase in domestic violence/abusive families etc. Moreover, other countries ban drugs too depending on how much harm they will cause to a society so there is no clear cut line as to what drugs should and shouldn’t be legalised. As far as minorities are concerned, if they are not discriminated on other more important basic rights, they probably won’t mind as they also understand that sometimes majority considerations are important in order to avoid conflicts. For example, when Muslims live in other countries that do sell alcohol, they might not fully agree with it they have to accept the decision of what the majority wants.

My point here is certainly not to say that minority voices are not important or that they should be ignored at the expense of majority. I just want to point out a political reality. Even the most liberal/modern/secular societies haven’t been able to completely remove the influence of religion on their political decisions. It is a thing that people take seriously and you cannot completely erase its influence in the public sphere especially when adherents of one particular faith have such a vast majority (97% Muslims in case of Pakistan). The point that I want to emphasize is that when majority won’t see their values being compromised, they won’t see minorities as a threat and this will stop strong anti-minority feelings to be developed.  As a result, more important issues of minorities can be brought to forefront and resolved. Moreover, generally I have observed that minorities in Pakistan don’t have a huge list of demands and I think that they do understand that being in a Muslim majority country, certain practices of Muslims will affect their public life. Still, all minorities want is to be treated equally with regards to other citizens and not discriminated in their day to day affairs on the basis of their identity.

This thing can be seen in the West as well that when certain Muslim practices are suddenly seen as a threat to modern, liberal values, it only ends up increasing discrimination against them; whereas Muslims normally just want to have the freedom to go about their everyday lives without being hunted on the basis of their identity. There are certain policies in the west that clearly run against Islamic principles/values, but even if those Muslims disagree with them, changing them at the state level is not a part of their agenda. Politics is a business of compromises as you can never make everyone happy. Using this analogy, I think that minorities in Pakistan would prefer that we give them complete freedom in their private sphere and treat them as equal citizens with regards to fundamental rights that everybody should be entitled to including the right to vote and run for office and have a voice in making of policies. As a result they would also accept and realize that sometimes national policies might be more influenced by majority demands than that of minorities, even when minority voices are listened to and accounted for.

A secular, democratic state is what our founders thought Pakistan would grow up to be when this country was born. When our grandparents migrated from across the border leaving everything behind, they came to be a part of the country where in the course of time Hindus would cease to be Hindus and Muslims would cease to be Hindus, not in a religious sense, because that’s everyone’s private matter, but in the political sense, as citizens of the state. A country where everything is being blown into pieces and whose countrymen are always so ready to be at each other’s throat is not the land of pure that was formed after years of struggles. Just as people were united for the formation of this country despite many different ethnic and religious identities, that unity is now needed more than ever to sustain it which belongs to us, all of us, irrespective of our religion, caste or creed. That was the Pakistan that Jinnah gifted us, and that is the Pakistan that we have to get back. It’s ours and God willing, it will remain ours.


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