- Created/produced/written by Wequar Azeem
PRESENTATION OF SOCIETY OF PAKISTANI AMERICAN SECULARISTS
I realize that the small group sitting here represents the best Pakistan has to offer
as a typical sampling of the educated, upper middle class (from Pakistani standards), living in the west, who understand clearly what Secularism is, its pros and cons, and how it enforces equality of rights and obligations, distribution of opportunities, and rewards of hard work on a level playing field, regardless of religion, ethnicity, gender and race. The objective of our collective exercise is to get every Pakistani to have the same clarity of concept and thus pick Secularism as their preferred choice. It goes without saying that it is a tall order. Once the whole nation is at least semi-educated, the concept will get auto-corrected by evaporation of prevalent ignorance and abundance of knowledge. However that might take many more generations. As the poet said
“Kon jeeta hae teri zulf ke sar honay tak”.
All of us participating in the discussion that follows my reading of these few pages, fully understand the concept of Secularism. But we are not a typical sample of the poor rural population of Pakistan. There, the vast majority consists of illiterate, semi-literate automatons who live in the countryside and cannot think or decide for themselves; they simply follow orders, being the lowest base of the pyramid of social hierarchy. A product of many generations ruled by feudal system. They are the great majority of Pakistan’s unquestioning and completely docile order takers. How Secularism is perceived in the developed western countries is not in the purview of this discussion. For example, in USA, secularists tend to prefer and are bound by law of the land, that their legislators and politicians make decisions for secular rather than religious reasons. In this respect, policy decisions pertaining to topics like Abortion, Contraception, Embryonic Stem Cell research, Same-Sex marriage, and Sex Education are prominently focused upon by American secularist organizations such as the Center for Inquiry. What we intend to explore is whether Pakistanis back home can be primed and persuaded to think and formulate public policies on similar lines as Secularist Americans.
The purpose of this presentation is to elicit ideas, advice and suggestions from all of you, a great sample of Pakistan’s best although a tiny minority living in the West, on how to spread the true meanings of Secularism among Pakistanis back home and to dispel the anti Secularism propaganda spread by vested interests. Those vested interests employ doctored history, misleading text books, faulty education, to strike the fear that Secularism will hurt Islam and so on. Those vested interests hide behind religious platforms of madaris, pulpit of mosques, Islamist media and religious political parties, simply to perpetuate their own domination.
Later in this paper I will try to present how Secularism is currently viewed in Pakistan, why it is so described, and what needs to be done to rectify the problem.
Being a madarsa alumnus, class of ’57 of Madarsa Islamia in Chittagong, I am deficient in English diction and composition and may need to lapse into Urdu to convey my thoughts whenever I fail, which I often do, to find the right word in English. I seek your indulgence. So here goes my presentation.
Secularism is broadly defined as the separation between Religion and State, such that the ideologies of religious groups do not feature in, or interfere with the functions of the government. The Islamic Republic of Pakistan was originally formed with the intention of functioning as a purely secular State.
Secularism is premised on the belief that within a democracy, all citizens are, and must be treated as equal before both the law and parliament, with the same rights and obligations as one another. No religious or political affiliation, or lack thereof, is to be afforded any advantages or disadvantages. These aims of secularism are executed through establishing laws and policies of such a state, that provide equal protection for all citizens, regardless of the particular religion or philosophical beliefs of any particular citizen.
Secularism Is Not
Secularism is not the denouncement, disavowal, or devaluing of religion, or religious ideas. It is not atheism, nor does it challenge the tenets of any particular religion or belief, nor seeks to curtail or restrict religious freedoms. Secularism not only recognizes the existence of (multiple) religion(s), it also hedges on the principle, that (each) religion has its own unique space, which must not overlap with the functions of government affairs. In doing so, secularism does not endorse or promote any one religion, by refraining from assigning differing values to one over others.
The Dominant Perception of Secularism in Pakistan, among the Illiterate and Semi-literate Socioeconomic Classes (Godlessness, Atheism, Anti-Islam, pro-Indian Sentiment)
The current sociopolitical environment, educational system, and (news) media industry portrays a very grim and wholly inaccurate picture of how the majority of Pakistan (i.e. mainly the illiterate and semi-literate socioeconomic portions of the population) perceive secularism. Secularism is often confused with Godlessness, Atheism, anti-Islamic, and even as pro-Indian sentiment. Many view the concept of secularism as a blatant rejection of religion (specifically Islam), under the mistaken belief that discouraging Islamic-privilege in government and law, is akin to outright blasphemy.
Roots of Misperception of Secularism in Pakistan
The misperception of secularism in the context of Pakistan, can largely be attributed to the supporters of Islamization. The beginnings of Islamization can be seen as far back as 1971, when East Pakistan and West Pakistan parted ways. In the same decade, elected Prime Minister Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, was seen bowing before pressure imposed by Islamic parties in Pakistan, which was evidenced through the ban of alcohol, gambling, and nightclubs in the early 1970s, as well as the government’s declaration of Ahmadis as non-Muslims. But the overwhelming force of Islamization was felt with the military coup of 1977, led by General Zia-Ul-Haq (“Haq”).
Islamization sought to present itself as a direct opposition of secularism, declaring it as the enemy of, rather than an alternative to the same. In doing so, particularly during Haq’s 11 year reign, it influenced the young nation’s populace, to view secularism and any resulting separation of Church and State, as a direct attack on Islamic principles and way of life. Shariah law was brought into force and enacted in place of the common law in the arenas of family and marriage laws, evidentiary procedures, inheritance laws, banking laws, and criminal laws, amongst others. This (d)evolved into a justice system that was heavily reliant on Islamic principles, and greatly rewarded those citizens that were proponents of the same. Some key examples of this include establishment of a separate Shariat Court system, the Hudood Ordinance, the introduction of criminal offences of adultery, fornication, and blasphemy, and declaring interest-income to be illegal for being un-Islamic. To further this aim, marshall law sought to control and restrict the free flow of information, opportunities, and ideas to the citizens of Pakistan, allowing only those that helped Haq to reinforce his narrowly-tailored, and utterly false definition of secularism. School text books were altered to remove that which was perceived (by Haq’s unilateral interpretation and discretion) objectionable or repugnant to the principles of Islam, the ulama was given a boost of importance and involvement to comment and influence the matters of the State, and Islamic programming was given top priority on television airtime.
But perhaps the most influential factor was the rise in the number and attendance of madarsas during this time. This gave Haq the opportunity to shape not only young minds from the outset, but also the overall mind of the young nation when it was most impressionable, to shape and influence such nation’s (mis)perception of and attitude towards secularism.
What was Jinnah’s perception of secularism and which elements wanted to defeat it (Jinnah’s address to constituent assembly on August 11 1947- entire text available on google)
In his landmark speech before the Constituent Assembly on August 11, 1947, founder of Pakistan and first Governor-General, Muhammad Ali Jinnah (“Jinnah”), touched upon various goals and visions for Pakistan, on the eve of its birth. He asserted that, “if we want to make this great State of Pakistan happy and prosperous, we should wholly and solely concentrate on the well-being of the people, and especially of the masses and the poor… If you change your past and work together in a spirit that every one of you, no matter to what community he belongs, no matter what relations he had with you in the past, no matter what is his colour, caste, or creed, is first, second, and last a citizen of this State with equal rights, privileges, and obligations, there will be no end to the progress you will make.” At the outset, it is apparent that Jinnah is a proponent of total equality amongst the citizens of Pakistan, with no distinctions to be made on the basis of religion, colour, or creed – a fundamental tenement of secularism.
He goes on to state, “in course of time all these angularities of the majority and minority communities, the Hindu community and the Muslim community … will vanish. Indeed if you ask me, this has been the biggest hindrance in the way of India to attain the freedom and independence, and but for this we would have been free people long long ago. No power can hold another nation, and specially a nation of 400 million souls, in subjection; nobody could have conquered you, and even if it had happened, nobody could have continued its hold on you for any length of time, but for this. Therefore, we must learn a lesson from this. You are free; you are free to go to your temples, you are free to go to your mosques or to any other place or worship in this State of Pakistan. You may belong to any religion or caste or creed — that has nothing to do with the business of the State.” In this part of the speech it becomes abundantly clear that Jinnah has a secular vision for Pakistan, and not only insists that religious affairs, groups, and beliefs must have no involvement in the business of the State, but also vehemently believes that separation of Church and State, if established earlier, would have become India’s biggest strength, rendering it invincible towards any nation attempting to conquer and divide it.
Finally, Jinnah says, “We are starting with this fundamental principle: that we are all citizens, and equal citizens, of one State… Now I think we should keep that in front of us as our ideal, and you will find that in course of time Hindus would cease to be Hindus, and Muslims would cease to be Muslims, not in the religious sense, because that is the personal faith of each individual, but in the political sense as citizens of the State.” Here, he envisages a Pakistan, which possesses a government and legal and justice system that is blind to the religious proclivities of its citizens, and keeps all who pledge their allegiance to such State on a level playing field. The word “secularism” may not have been uttered even once throughout his speech, but its principles resonate loudly throughout, and are undeniable.
Suggestions for Changing the Perception of Secularism among Pakistanis
Changing the perception of secularism in Pakistan is a tall order that requires long-term planning and investment. The two keys areas that will be instrumental in this, are the same areas used by Haq to spread Islamization in Pakistan, i.e. legislation and education. Legislatures will have to take on the task of repealing those laws, which are (1) overly burdensome; (2) promote any type of inequality of rights, liabilities, opportunities, advantages and/or disadvantages amongst citizens; and (3) promote or demote the agenda of any religion over another, or lack thereof. This starts with Constitutional amendments, that do away with any constitutional provisions that have been found to be contradicting other constitutional provisions, removing the ones which violate the principles of equality, fair play, and justice. Justice cannot be blind, and citizens cannot be equal, unless the laws of the land are first blind.
Finally, an educational system, that allows for a free flow and exchange of information, and mandates critical thinking is crucial. An entire generation must go through and complete the requisite education under such a system, to cleanse the polluted political palate of Pakistan. Critical thinking is particularly important because it is key for any individual or citizen to make a meaningful and informed choice, whether with respect to religion, or otherwise. And the choice to meaningfully believe and practice is at the heart of all religions, as well as secularism
- No religion should be taught as fact and no religion described as superior to another.
- Secularists support the protection of individual believers, but not the protection of their beliefs. Individuals have rights…Beliefs don’t.
- Secularists believe that the law should not restrict reasonable and vigorous criticism of religion.
- Secularists believe that the law should not prevent criticism that hurts religious feelings.
- Secularists also believe that the law should not permit incitement to religious hatred.
The ending of religious oaths as a condition of holding public sector jobs.