Jinnah: Secular or Islamist? – By Dr. Niaz Murtaza

The controversy about Jinnah’s vision for Pakistan rages on. Did Jinnah want a secular or a Sharia state? The two sides buttress their arguments by quoting his words selectively. Liberals quote his August 11, 1947 speech which says, “You may belong to any religion or caste or creed – that has nothing to do with the business of the State”. Furthermore, his broadcast to the Americans in 1948 said, “Pakistan is not going to be a theocratic state—-to be ruled by priests with a divine mission”.


However, the same speech also stated, “I do not know what the ultimate shape of this constitution is going to be, but I am sure that it will be of a democratic type, embodying the essential principles of Islam”. Another speech says, “There are people who want to create mischief and make the propaganda that we will scrap the Shariat Law. Islamic principles have no parallel”. What should one surmise from these seemingly contradictory speeches? I am a proud liberal secularist. However, being one means analyzing reality objectively. In doing so, I find more in his speeches to warm a conservative heart than to delight a liberal mind, though the scales are not decisively tilted towards conservatism.


Nowhere in his speeches is there a clear statement saying “I want a secular Pakistan”. The 11th August speech promises religious freedom. It does not define the state’s ideological moorings. The American speech discounts a theocratic, priest-run state but not one with an official religion run by commoners. Thus, it is a stretch of liberal imagination to claim that he bequeathed an unambiguous secular legacy.


Neither is the Sharia option crystal clear within Jinnah’s speeches. He presents essential Islamic principles as an inspiration but nowhere does he specifically speak of amputating limbs or discounting women’s testimonies at the hefty rate of 50%. Moreover, as psychologists confirm, actions reflect intentions better than words. What do Jinnah’s actions as GG reflect? True, he had just a year at his disposal. However, while secular constitution-making is a tortuously long process, Sharia-inspired constitutionalism should not be so, for as Sharia supporters maintain, it is all there, fully understood and agreed upon universally by Muslims, waiting to be applied. Moreover, he could have banned liquor and night clubs, and enforced the veil, compulsory prayers and flogging by the mere stroke of an administrative pen, as the Taliban did. Thus, it is a stretch of conservative imagination to claim that he bequeathed an unambiguous Sharia legacy.


His true intentions seem to lie in between—to base the constitution on broad Islamic principles, e.g., justice, but to have the details decided democratically. This last point raises the important issue of whether it is even worthwhile trying to read Jinnah’s mind, for he was Pakistan’s founder, not its owner or a prophet. Sixty-three years after him, the primary basis for fixing the nation’s ideology should be democracy rather than archeological expeditions into his mind.


What does the collective Pakistani wisdom desire? In surveys, Pakistanis favor Sharia; in elections, they reject the religious parties promising it. However this choice is not an endorsement of secularism (which means separation of state and religion and not agnosticism), for a secular Pakistani party will fare worse than religious parties. Hence, ironically, Pakistani democratic choices reflect Jinnah’s position (confirming his genius as a politician in touch with people’s mood despite his cerebral demeanor): a constitution with Islam as the state religion but not one based on detailed Sharia laws. Thus, most Pakistanis believe in an Islamic interpretation that mandates certain timeless essential principles but gives people the flexibility to craft details according to changing circumstances utilizing the powers delegated to them as vice-regents rather than one that demands puzzling clerical obedience from the meticulously and proudly created lone intelligent species. Pakistanis recognize the disagreements which will surface in applying detailed laws from a distant era at the hands of the fallible mortals that even the best of us are and in the absence of the towering figures from that era.  Most Pakistanis have also carefully noted Quranic injunctions about the absence of compulsion in religion.


If these less than secular inclinations still depress secular souls, it is wise to remember that ideologically pure agendas can only be implemented under totalitarianism (with, of course, disastrous results). Liberalism mandates democracy along with its messy politics. Politics is the art of recognizing the possible, the chore of building large coalitions and the will for compromising on non-essentials. Is a state religion an unacceptable deviation from liberalism? Several liberal states, even Sweden, have state religions. Religious beliefs even affect specific laws infrequently among them, e.g., the Irish abortion restrictions, instigating counter-movements. Thus, the focus must be on specific laws rather than aspirational preambles. This may help build much larger coalitions than the secular platform, whose mere mention unfortunately repels moderate Pakistanis, sometimes towards extremism. Clearly, that goal should remain a long-term aspiration. However, the practical calculus of coalition-building reveals that a secular Pakistan is a more distant dream than a Sharia-run one presently. But the achievement of more immediate and important goal-posts may expand the menu of possibilities subsequently.


With respect to specific laws, Pakistan’s situation is neither perfect nor horrific. Democratic mechanisms have thwarted several misguided legislative attempts. The senate rejected Nawaz Sharif’s “khilafat movement”, courts scuttled the Hasba law and assemblies defanged the dictator-era Hudood laws. These successes should serve as inspiration for developing large coalitions around other issues. Incrementalism must be the guiding principle, keeping in view the sensibilities of the majority. Those who are optimally ahead of the thinking of their societies become successful statespersons. Those whose thinking is too far ahead of their societies end up becoming (at best) heart-broken, brooding philosophers, the worth of whose wisdom is discovered by their societies posthumously, long after their death. All societies need both.


Viewed so, Jinnah’s seeming contradictions become less baffling—the nuanced speeches to different audiences and the transformation from the dashing, handsome lawyer who left a dinner party in a huff because even the British criticized his wife’s liberal dress to the Quaid-e-Azam who disowned his daughter for marrying her mother’s co-religionist. As another latter-day mercurial and articulate Pakistani politician faced with similar dilemmas reminded us constantly: foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of small minds.


The writer works as a Research Associate on political economy issues at the University of California, Berkeley. murtazaniaz@yahoo.com. A shorter version of this article recently appeared in Dawn.



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