Sep 1, 2010

"No contradiction between secularism and Islamic humanism"

-- Prof Iftikhar Malik, leading historian and Senior Lecturer,

Bath Spa University

The News on Sunday: Ziauddin Sardar, in one of his articles, has quoted you as saying that "secularism comes not at the expense of religion but as a method for reinterpreting and revisiting religion itself". Would you like to elaborate?

Iftikhar Malik: I do not believe for a moment that we will ever see a post-religion world despite all the skepticism shared by a wide variety of people including Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens and others. In countries like Pakistan, both religion and secularism need urgent revisits per se so as to seek a fresh and conducive interdependence between the two instead of seeing them as eternally antagonistic paradigms.

In other words, Islamic humanism based on unfettered tolerance and respect for all kinds of human ideas does not need to conflict with an all-tolerant secularism where religion is not denied its due existence within an individual space but without assuming any vetoing or hegemonic role. In Pakistan, Jinnah, Iqbal, Faiz, Ameer Ali, Manto, Nazrul Islam, or the early Sufis were secular Muslims who never denied their Muslimness nor did they ever see Muslim secularism as something oxymoronic. I guess this is the only way forward to escape intra-Muslim violence that we are confronted with all over the Muslim world. We can definitely flourish by banking upon Muslim humanism and by liberating both Islam and secularism from their ritualistic and hegemonic rigidities as two poles apart.

TNS: Scholars adhering to the ideology of Pakistan discourse, people like Sharif al Mujahid, dismiss the assertion that Jinnah wanted a secular Pakistan. Secularists, on the other hand, see great value in Jinnah's August 11 speech as the key to constitution-making and defining the polity in the new state. Would you agree that Pakistan movement did not address this crucial question of what kind of state will Pakistan be and the Aug 11 speech was indeed a "remarkable reversal"?

IM: The freedom movement in India retained several parallel trajectories, which were mutually competitive and all of them kept changing and evolving with time. Not only the Muslim League but also the Indian National Congress and all other regional and religio-political parties underwent the same processes. The League was mainly concerned with the collective welfare (identity cum parity) of the Muslims and had even accepted an all-India framework as provided by the Cabinet Mission in 1946. Jinnah's idea of Pakistan and Hindustan as two post-colonial entities was quite different from what we have been witnessing since 1947 on both sides. The Nehruvian secularism and the Jinnahist representation of Muslim modernism had several things in common but atavistic forces on both sides find faults with both of them. The political and economic considerations for the respective communities in pre-1947 India as upheld by Jinnah and Nehru should not blind us to their honest and shared idealism for a post-British sub-continent. The religio-political parties on both sides have every right to pursue their politics but the deliverance for the most plural and populous region like South Asia lies in equal citizenship where instead of a theocracy, the state provides equal space to all its citizens which will guarantee an enduring peace. I fully agree with Asghar Ali Engineer's reconstruction of this discourse that combines the best of Islam and secularism. Jinnah's creed as articulated in his historic speech is not a negation of Pakistan as an ideal, though in reality it did cause discomfort to authoritarian and intolerant forces both within the state and society, especially under Gen Ziaul Haq.

TNS: Do you think this contradiction defined the creation of a separate state for Muslims, despite Hamza Alavi's assertions that the Pakistan movement remained committed to secular ideals and that Pakistan was created for Muslims and not Islam?

IM: Separation here meant sovereignty and economic empowerment and not a cultural or historical divide. Alavi, on the one hand, assumes proponents of Muslim 'separatism' to be a middle class trajectory, which was strictly interest-based. Nothing wrong with that and the modern state building and even the entire project of modernity is all middle-class enterprise and some historians even believe that Islam was an urban and middle class trajectory in its classical era though Ibn Khaldun thought the other way around but that was in a different context. However, on the other side, the problem with Alavi's premise is that it presupposes salariat to be an already entrenched reality which it was not because it was not an industrial society as such, plus the rural, land owning groups did play a crucial role towards the end by supporting the Muslim League in 1946. In addition, any historical development, especially the creation of a state -- the fifth largest in the world -- cannot be explained in the context of a single-factor explanation. Like Jinnah, I find no contradiction between secularism and Islamic humanism, though I am aware of the fact that it is not so simple. (I do take aboard the thin but immensely significant difference between Muslim and Islamic.) We need to liberate Islam from its insidious reductionism to a mere religion only focused on ritualism, rote knowledge while being suspicious of arts and mundane excellence.

TNS: What about the role of the Objectives Resolution in shaping up the later political developments and precluding the possibility of Pakistan ever becoming a secular state?

IM: The Objectives Resolution was a quick fix amidst harrowing problems at the time of Pakistan's inception. It can be removed from the constitution or may be worded in a larger Jinnahist vision. We do need to tell ourselves that there are seven million Hindus and that many Christians who are fellow Pakistanis and must have equal rights in every realm.

In the same vein, women, smaller sects and ethnic groups all deserve equal rights and also the protection both by the state and civil society. Any rewording of the Objectives Resolution on these lines without being exclusive should not bother anyone and our parliament may be well-poised to initiate such a powerful statement of intent in our constitution.

TNS: Would you agree that in Pakistan, the dominant military and religious lobbies have fed on each other both to keep their hold on the strong centre and to the detriment of ideals like secularism?

IM: In a simplistic way, yes. But then, even parties like the MQM, Muslim League and the PPP have often worked in cahoots with both the Army wallahs and Allah wallahs. I guess politics is the name of 'possibles' and thus changing alignments and so on should not bother us at all. But it is true to accept the fact that forces otherwise having fewer chances to bag more than a few seats in the assemblies would certainly opt either for street agitation or would be more at ease in collaborating together or with the generals. The MQM, according to their dominant thinking, was manhandled by the Army in 1992, but then they worked with it all through the Musharraf years and have even developed a nostalgia for it. The ANP and Sindhi nationalists were always critical of Punjabi army but need it all the time for their protection in Swat, Fata, Karachi and everywhere both during the turbulence and then amidst the floods and other natural disasters. Still, this does not mean that the organs of the state should go beyond their constitutional writ. I think with more education, alert judiciary and vocal media we are already seeing the evolution of an argumentative Pakistani and that gives quite a bit of hope, though it may equally spawn cynicism. This argumentative Pakistani got rid of Musharraf and put the highest judges back in their seats so we should not underrate his/her power.

TNS: What are your views on Pakistan where the absence of secularism has not produced a tolerant state and society, where the role of mullahs is accepted and where no single interpretation of Islam will satisfy the entire population? Does secularism provide an answer given its peculiar conditions?

IM: It is too early to get dismayed though challenges abound for Pakistan. Either we will rediscover our inner strengths or we may have our doomsday. I hope we rediscover ourselves and go for a humanist version of Islam and a more accountable system, which will certainly come from this democracy even if its critics may call it a sham democracy. I guess we need to go slow and the debate and dialogue must go on among ourselves. I do hope that our intellectuals and ulema think of larger and substitutive discourse away from rejection and instead see Islam and secularism not at daggers drawn rather quite similar in their intents and contents.

-- Farah Zia

(The interview was conducted via email)

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