In defence of a secular state

Thursday, December 18, 2008
Dr Rubina Saigol

The mere mention of the word ‘secular’ immediately creates anxiety in the minds of many and defensive reactions are induced from the self-proclaimed defenders of Pakistan’s ideology and foundational theories. The knee-jerk reaction to the term obliterates the possibility of a creative dialogue on the meanings of secularism that may not be threatening to the entrenched ideology elite. The term has therefore seldom been explored in a country where the dearth of intellectual engagement precludes the potential for debate and ideological development. Ideologies do not remain static and over time they do transform and accommodate new realities. Clinging obdurately to foundational mythologies is a denial of history. Ideological transformation does not automatically lead to existential crises and possible annihilation as feared by those who argue that our ideology provides our reason for being. Change itself is often a form of preservation.

I would like to make the following points in defence of revisiting our dominant ideologies and establishing a secular state within Pakistan as one of several possible resolutions to its myriad problems: 1) It may diminish the possibility of sectarian strife; 2) It is likely to engender equality among all citizens irrespective of religion; 3) It has the potential to reduce discrimination against women; 4) It may generate greater tolerance of difference and reduce religious extremism; 5) It has the potential to counter state and non-state terror.

Before explaining each of these points, it might be useful to take a detour and reflect a little on the meaning of secularism as it is a much-maligned word in our context. Secularism is often regarded in a simplistic way as the expulsion of religion from life. This interpretation of the construct of secularism is misleading. There are many views of what the word connotes in varying contexts and each of these needs some explication.

Firstly, secularism is seen in the European context as the separation of Church and State, with the former being responsible for the soul and the latter taking care of the body. This version of secularism is rooted in European history and conflicts, as well in the European philosophical tradition of the separation of mind and body, body and soul and mind and matter. Another version of secularism is discernible primarily in the American context where religion is banished from the public sphere and relegated entirely to the private one. The state is conceived as an entity that it neutral in terms of religion and every citizen, irrespective of religion, has to be treated as equal before law. The state, as the repository of the collective will, may not make any law that is either in line with or against any religion. A third version of a secular state appears in India where again religion is banished to the private sphere and the state maintains equidistance from each religion in the interest of citizenship equality. Yet another version existed in the former Soviet Union where religion, perceived as the ‘opiate of the masses’, was actively discouraged by the state in both the public and private spheres. It must be remembered though that neither of these versions, whether in Britain and France or the US and India, exist in their ideal forms. They are aspirations reflected in the constitutions of these countries, but societies in each of these countries have exhibited deeply religious attitudes.

With the intensification of communal and religious conflicts in India, some theorists like Rajeev Bhargava have suggested that the state, instead of maintaining equidistance from all religions, must intervene more in one religion than another. Since those of the dominant majority religion may exert greater social, economic and political power, the state needs to intervene in the interest of equal citizenship, a prerequisite of democracy. This would not violate the principle of equidistance; rather it would establish that the state would not allow the followers of the majority religion to ride roughshod over those of the less powerful minority one. Equal treatment to members of all religions would be ensured precisely through an unequal level of intervention in so far as the interference is undertaken for the sake of equality of citizenship rights. However, complete non-interference by the state in religion would not be upheld as it would likely to lead to the hegemony of the dominant religious group. The overriding principle would be equality of citizenship and the intervention or non-intervention of the state would be determined by this principle.

This proposed version of secularism not only recognizes the importance of religion in people’s lives, it also underlines the responsibility of the state to protect the members of each religion from persecution by the majority. At the same time it keeps state law and policy free from the imposition of any one religion in a multi-religious state. This view of secularism can potentially protect religious minorities against systemic discrimination in a democratic state.

Another benefit that can be achieved from a state that is not defined by any particular religion is that sectarian strife is likely to lessen. When a state is religiously defined there is an attempt by various conflicting sects to try to capture state power in order to establish their own sectarian worldview. Sectarian rivalry can tear society apart leading to bloodshed, violence and terror as is demonstrable in Pakistan. When state power is not at stake, and no single sectarian version is reflected in state law and policy, the need to capture state part by fighting one’s rivals would diminish.

Since citizenship equality is a fundamental prerequisite of democracy, it cannot be attained as long as discriminatory legislation against women exists. When laws and policies cease to be derived from any particular religion and are, instead, based on the recognition of equality of all citizens, specific laws targeting the status of women have a lesser chance of being passed. Laws can then be tailored to the needs and rights of women rather than their status within a religion.

When the state ceases to either valorize or denigrate any religion and only intervenes in support of citizenship rights otherwise remaining equidistant, the opportunity to develop religious tolerance and values of mutual co-existence is greater. The state’s laws, media, education, textbooks and policies at all levels can then all be used to promote the value of ‘live and let live’. This approach in the long run can potentially reduce the high level of intolerance, extremism and violence emanating from purely religious sources.

A secular state, based on the principle of citizenship equality and equidistance as regards religious difference, can address the issue of terrorism more effectively. The policies of a state defined by religion are much more likely to generate non-state terrorism as a response to state terrorism, or in alignment with the latter, than the policies that can be pursued by a secular state. A secular state may have greater capacity to disseminate values of peace and mutual tolerance among citizens than one defined by religion.

A secular state is certainly not a panacea for all that afflicts a society. Conflicts around ethnicity, class, resource distribution as well as religion do not vanish automatically with the rise of a secular state. This is clearly evident from one look at India or the US, both deeply religious societies with strong fundamentalist tendencies. Furthermore, terrorism is also historically the product of imperial policies across centuries. The only point one wishes to make is that a secular constitution is a starting point – a mere first step in the direction of resolving the thorny issues of inequality, discrimination and extremism. Fixing Pakistan’s myriad problems will require much more than the removal of Article 2-A or the Second, Eighth and Seventeenth amendments from the constitution. However, the establishment of a single secular legal system in place of the multiple ones that now characterize our society, would release us from the stranglehold of systemic prejudices deeply entrenched in our legal structure.

The writer is an independent researcher specialising in social development. Email: rubinasaigol@hotmail. com (The News)