Being secular and a Muslim – By Aneela Babar

By Aneela Babar

IF Pakistan had an annual Eid address to the nation, much like the Queen’s Christmas address, the president would not have been amiss in quoting her in referring to the past year as Pakistan’s annus horribilis.

As Pakistanis at home and overseas witnessed the bloodshed that has engulfed their country, they wondered how long will be the wait for dawn to break? In this era of globalisation some have attempted to articulate the tragedy befalling our nation this Ramazan in the very New York-words of ‘Pakistan’s 9/11’, however it is very clear that the crisis that faces our country is one unlike any other.

So, at such a difficult time in Pakistan’s history as we are battling numerous domestic and international crises, would it be a case of misplaced priorities on my part if I revisit the long-debated argument on whether it is possible to be secular, Muslim and Pakistani today?

I am confronted with the same barrage of queries every time there is an act of violence in our part of the world, “do many Pakistanis want to be fundamentalist?” Every time I fumble to explain that it is just not religion but a smorgasbord of ethnicity, history, deprivation and location that drives some to violence, so yes it still remains pertinent to return to some debates that we have long abandoned.

It is not that our leadership has abandoned these questions, in fact it is the first exercise that any Pakistani head of state undergoes to exhibit the ‘urbane face’ of Pakistan to the rest of the world. It is the sign of the times and the deterioration of the quality of our leadership that these attempts have corroded from Jinnah’s astute observation of the difference between a country for Muslims that maintained a secular spirit and an Islamic nation that was a theocracy per se. This as elaborated in his much quoted address to the Constituent Assembly when he asked of us to embrace our freedom to frequent our places of worship in the new state of Pakistan and told us how our caste, religious or ethnic affiliation was outside the purview of the state.

It is our misfortune that in more recent times our leaders have shown less imagination. So for President (then Chief Executive) Pervez Musharraf a ‘secular Muslim’ meant posing with his pet dogs. This to assure the world that unlike other military men who took to wooing the clergy to bolster their popular support, this general could afford to be a bit daring.

President Zardari might have thought he could accomplish it by conducting his charm offensive in New York. That his attempts towards being the sophisticated man about town became the stuff that enrages women everywhere and that makes late-night talk show hosts rub their hands in glee is another story.We have suffered the lack of a coherent debate on this issue because for one we have absorbed an authoritarian and one-dimensional narrow definition of Islam. For another there has been state control of any kind of dissent towards the ‘official definition’ of Pakistani Islam, whether it has been the particularly Wahhabi shades of the ’80s or the post-9/11 diktat that today we are all Sufis.

This has coincided with the religious extremists controlling any available platform to conduct such a debate. For instance, what would one mean by a secular Pakistani? This is crucial, for religious elements in Pakistan read secularism as ladeeni (having no belief system at all).

In today’s times we have to lower our expectations of the Pakistani public’s perception of secular Islam, suffice to say it would be enough if they interpret it as not approving acts of violence in the name of defending their Muslim brethren.

There are many voices, especially amongst young Muslim men that I encounter in my classroom lately, with their own common-sense perception of what being Muslim means. They are of the thought that being violent or militant comes naturally to Muslims. Hence the urgency to bring to their attention alternative spaces and definitions where one can be both a good Muslim and non-violent and identify an ethic of self- reform that makes legitimate other readings of Islam.

Amartya Sen’s work on inter-communal dialogues in the recent past has shown that “tolerance towards diversity of opinion was not alien to the South Asian region” (this is Sen, 2005 in The Argumentative Indian). Episodes where our leaders have sponsored and supported dialogues to address difficult problems of religious upheaval should be dusted off the cobwebbed library shelves and be shared with the larger public.

Even if they are the ubiquitous tales of Akbar’s “pursuit of reason” rather than “reliance on tradition” and his “visionary insistence on the need to have conversations and interchanges among holders of different convictions”. (All this as Sen impresses on us in a time when “Giordano Bruno was being burnt at the stake in Rome for heresy, in the public space of Campo dei Fiori.”)

However it was the father of our nation who impressed upon us in his much-censored and diluted address of 1947 how he believed that: “History shows that in England conditions some time ago were much worse than those prevailing in India today. The Roman Catholics and the Protestants persecuted each other. Even now there are some [s]tates in existence where there are discriminations made and bars imposed against a particular class.

“Thank God we are not starting in those days. We are starting in the days when there is no discrimination, no distinction between one community and another, no discrimination between one caste or creed and another. We are starting with this fundamental principle that we are all citizens of one state.”

Words to remember and stand by in the long, difficult months ahead as we turn upon particular ethnicities within our nation accusing them of sponsoring violence, accuse a particular class and ‘liberal ideology’ for being the bane of all our woes, and emulate an ostrich head in the sand in our declaration that abandoning a particular alliance will resolve our current woes. Yes, an absence of the background noise of drones might simplify our conflict but it is not the only solution. May we be blessed with wisdom and prudence today and tomorrow. (Dawn)