Secularism Debate: A fallacious binary – by Saqlain Imam

The word secularism seems to be the most contentious one in the Pakistani political culture. Anything that is anti-religion or non-religious is dubbed secular; it is understood as a Western concept with no direct connection with Islam; for example, some people might find some Christian or Judaic values or practices secular. The word is used in its smallest possible definition to the widest and wildest interpretations. But in all kinds of debates, one thing is common — anti-secular groups use religion to justify non-democratic disposition of the state.

Although when we normally talk about secularism, it means governance that should stand separately from religion or religious beliefs, in the context of the Pakistani state, and indeed Pakistani society, the concept of secularism is widely, and perhaps deliberately, misconstrued.

It must be clearly understood right from the very beginning that religion, or in this case Islam, is not the only source to justify non-democratic governance. It depends on the peculiar circumstances of a nation and which forces are trying to use religion or secularism to support its non-democratic concepts of governance. Among Muslim states for instance, Turkey’s army uses secularism to support its non-democratic role, so did Pakistan’s Army in the 1960s. Currently, the Algerian government and Palestinian Authority are using secularism to strengthen their non-democratic role in their own systems of governance.

In Pakistan’s case, the dominant argument for the non-democratic actors to influence the country’s politics and governance is religion. This is not a suitable place to go into the details of how religion’s narration replaced the secular narration in Pakistani politics, or whether there was ever a secular narration at all in the history of the people of South Asia. But the fact is that currently seculars are supporting democratic forces, while the religious forces are bent upon undermining the democratic disposition of the state, constitution and society.

Take the role of Pakistan Army; it is now known as a ‘Jihadi’ institution, its official motto is “Jihad Fi Sabil Lillah” (Jihad for the cause of Allah). Pakistan’s Supreme Court’s recent verdict on the NRO amply and loudly speaks that it wants to re-write the constitution where democracy should be subordinate to the injunctions of Quran and Sunnah. Few people have realised that it’s a step to advance General Zia-ul-Haq’s doctrine in a much bolder manner. General Zia made the “amended” Objective Resolution an operational part of the constitution through undemocratic means.

How did that happen to the extent that today we are constrained to believe that everything here in this land of pure is Islamic is not the subject of this article. Right now, the issue is not how the idea of Pakistan was conceived or what Quaid-e-Azam had actually thought about what Pakistan was meant to be. Currently, the issue is what we have been led to believe and by what means. This is not an occasion to analyse how the history has been constructed. Some great writers and historians have already done some tremendously impressive work, which, unfortunately, is rarely read by our discussants and young writers.

This is the time to suggest that the binary construction of secularism versus Islam itself is a flawed one. Relying on a very common concept of secularism — according to which the government should exist separately from religion or religious beliefs — Kosmin, Barry A writes in “Contemporary Secularity and Secularism”: “In one sense, secularism may assert the right to be free from religious rule and teachings, and the right to freedom from governmental imposition of religion upon the people within a state that is neutral on matters of belief. In another sense, it refers to the view that human activities and decisions, especially political ones, should be based on evidence and fact unbiased by religious influence.”

If we look at the practice of the first state of the Muslims, we would starkly notice that this sort of binary construction on secularism and Islam did not exist, though both, apparently opposite, concepts were the basis of the State of Medina founded by the Prophet Muhammad (Peace be upon him). The state was founded by Muhammad, not as a man but as a prophet; his dominant authority as an arbiter was established because he was a prophet, but at the same time non-Muslims were given equal rights. If we take the state that existed during the days of the prophet then the Charter of Medina should be the guiding document for the Muslims. This document, however, is very rarely quoted by our religious scholars as it could possibly be termed the first secular document of Muslims’ history.

The issue of secularism entered our parlance when we encountered modern Western discourses where church’s political power was constrained to the church only and it was made to accept the limited power of the monarch; not to rule the state with his divine rights. Instead of this, the West took up a clear concept of reasoning to govern the issues of the state. Hence, the emergence of secularism in Western politics was a victory of reasoning, and that changed the whole power structure across the world. However, the oriental societies remained anchored with their traditional wisdom; the direct consequence of this anti-secularism was their backward in all sciences.

Now the choice for the Pakistani state and diaspora is not whether Islam is our identity or raison d’être. It’s a decision about whether Pakistan needs to progress or not. The choice is between facing the world or a dead-end. One can keep Muslim identity while choosing a secular system of governance, because this would ensure the society to open ways of reasoning and progress in all fields including sciences, technology, politics, economics and the modern day challenges of futuristic technology.

With a dictatorship, even if it’s Islamic, we cannot progress, because with dictatorship the power of reasoning is doomed. In Pakistan’s context, dictatorship and reasoning cannot go together.

Some Muslims believe that by accepting the dominance of reasoning over their plethora of knowledge of Islam, they would be accepting the defeat of the Quran! It’s one of the fundamental fallacies which cropped up as a result of the fallacious binary construction (secularism vs. religion). The Quran itself asks on more than one occasion to think, apply mind and reason out. So the Quran doesn’t cap a Muslim’s mind; it’s the dictatorial undercurrents in Muslim societies which project reason and secularism as antithetical to Islam or religion. Turkey’s change towards secularism was not a revolt against Islam; it was rather against the anti-reasoning of the Ottoman Empire in the previous decades which made Ataturk and his fellows to remove the Islamic identity that had become a synonym to anti-reasoning.

Now is the time for Pakistan to make a choice, not between secularism and Islam, but between progress which comes with reasoning and secularism, and religion which is anchored in anti-reasoning concepts and dictatorial concepts of governance. Pakistanis will not discard Islam or their Muslim identity when they choose secularism; instead they would discard dictatorial undercurrents once they are secular. Their religion, Islam, will never be in danger. The decision for secularism will be made by Muslim Pakistanis, so there would be a new kind of secularism, not the one which is practiced in the West.

A hostile approach to secularism has reduced Islam to rituals and hard core system of beliefs in which reasoning and free thinking are considered anathemas. This has also placed Islam as an equivalent of several irrational systems of beliefs where human being, who is considered “Ashrafal Makhluqat” (best of the creations) in Islam, is sacrificed at the altar of the church of Islam, an institution that does not exist in the Islam of Muhammad (PBUH). However, if a friendly approach is made towards secularism, Islam can discover its potentials hidden in its practices. For instance, Hajj, currently a big ritual where millions of Muslims get together every year ends up with no concrete results for humanity!

One wonders if Muslims could hold seminars, debates and speeches on the real issues confronting them on the occasion of Hajj at Mecca, this would open up the power of reasoning and will also help Muslims across the world to contribute positively in the affairs of the world. This would not only be a fusion of secularism and religion, a logical evolution, but will also help abridge the gaps between different faiths, communities and sects at the same time. But since that fusion of secularism and Islam can possibly deprive the non-democratic forces in the Muslim societies of the power to suppress free thinking and reasoning, therefore, they would never allow it.

So if anyone wants to fight for the progress of Muslim societies, he or she will have no choice but to fight against dictators and discard the binary concept of the secularism versus religion in order to ensure the victory of reasoning.

The writer is a senior journalist.



Latest Comments
  1. omar
  2. Fahim Siddiqui
  3. Viablillerome
  4. Viablillerome