Feb 13, 2011

Secularism, or something like it

Would we be any less Muslim if we lived in a secular state?

By Shehryar Sheikh

It is interesting to note just how religiously (pun intended) Pakistani students are taught about Pakistani history and identity itself, their books often scattered with the slogans that begin with the question such as: “What’s the meaning of Pakistan?” Jinnah, had he heard such a definition of the state he so proudly created may well have fainted on the spot (in concert with Iqbal and the rest of his close supporters).

For a man who proclaimed with such fervour, “But make no mistake; Pakistan is not a theocracy or anything like it,” (February 19, 1948), there would be something very wrong indeed with Pakistan being defined using, verbatim, the phrase that is used to define the principal tenant of Islam. The injection of theology into the state came, the story goes, during the time of Zia and his popularly termed “Islamisation” campaign. But what has become of the status of Islam in Pakistan ever since? Is today’s Pakistan secular, theocratic, or something in between?

There are, indeed, those that would claim with pride that Pakistan is a Muslim state. Indeed, when the country has the word ‘Islamic’ in its name, the evidence seems rather damning. But what’s in a name? In its sixty years, Pakistani society has not once been able to bring itself to execute an individual for fornication, adultery, or homosexuality. Are we to assume then that Pakistani society has never committed such ‘crimes’?

That we have made a tenacious and deliberate effort to shut our eyes to such matters is significant. Pakistani society has, believe it or not, been far too humane to allow for such punishments to be dispensed to supposed ‘moral criminals’. When the video of the Swat lashings became public, there were no social networking groups to rally for the upholders of virtue as they beat a poor girl half to death. There were, however, protests across the country against such doctrines. Throughout the country, the cry of “this is not Islam” echoed in quaint harmony, in tandem with extensively branched media campaigns along the lines of ‘yeh hum nahin’. Whether the lashings were or were not justified under Islamic doctrine is debatable, but that the average Pakistani refused to accept such dogma as a social norm is clear.

Where trends of a more modern and liberal interpretation of Islam within Pakistan are abundantly clear, opposing views are all too common, perhaps nowhere better exemplified than the case of the blasphemy laws. Pakistanis are proud to claim that they would sacrifice their lives for the honour of the Prophet (PBUH), and though such claims are easily understood by the average Muslim, it remains to be demonstrated that the blasphemy laws as they exist accomplish such an end.

When this question is posed by a prominent politician, however, he is murdered. Some groups sprout up in support of the murderer. On his way to court, individuals shower him with roses. The clergy refuses to offer the politician’s funeral prayers. The civil society looks on in disbelief and disgust. Why, one may ask, in a society that prides itself on the liberalism that differentiates them from those extremists that whipped the Swati girl, is there such intolerance about a man-made law being criticised? Since when has a Pakistani begun to think of murder as, if not justifiable, at least ‘understandable’?

There’s a clear argument for the existence of a secular model within Pakistan that draws heavily on the case of Turkey. Slogans of “Where’s our Ataturk?”, however, will always meet with the same kind of rebuttal. A society where the Shariat is practised in its true essence, the argument runs, is a happy one. When we cut off the hands of a thief, he doesn’t steal again. There, you can leave your shops open wide during prayer time without fear of burglary. How does one answer such appealing social conditions? By considering the price at which they came. It’s the fundamental question of basic appeal: is a low crime rate worth moral dictation?

When the ‘third’-gender became recognised in Pakistan, I think a lot was said about just how accepting the Pakistani people could be. Though the group concerned may frequently be the subject of crass attempts at humour in popular discourse, the fact remains that the ‘highest court in the land’ was able to grant them a position that would have been altogether impossible in a state where a stricter adherence to religious doctrine was practised. More encouraging still was the relatively frictionless trajectory that such acceptance emerged through.

Whether it’s our reluctance to enforce the more severe punishments of religious law, our sympathy for Salmaan Taseer, or our acceptance of the third-gender legislation, there seems abundant proof that the Pakistani people are not nearly as great fans of the theocratic state model as one might be lead to believe by the name the state bears. There remains, nonetheless, a resilience to remain citizens of an Islamic republic. One might begin to wonder, would we be any less Muslim if we lived in a secular state?

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