Is there room for secularism in Pakistan?

Published: September 26, 2012

A more enlightened and prosperous Pakistan will emerge when state institutions are strengthened and tools like democracy and secularism are adopted. PHOTO: FILE

Each time China is mentioned in Pakistani media, the notion ‘all weather friend’ comes up. We look to China with respect, their economic growth and political might with awe, and their investments with huge gratitude. However, we still refuse to implement the system of governance which has secured it its strength.

When the current Prime Minister Raja Pervaiz Ashraf recently paid a visit to Saudi Arabia, he repeated the old mantra that Pakistan and Saudi Arabia are two countries but one nation. His predecessor Yousuf Raza Gilani said that Turkey was a guiding star for Pakistan when his counterpart Recep Tayyip Erdogan visited Islamabad.

Yes, gratitude and respect is a part of diplomatic tradition. It is surely evident that a better living standard in these countries compared to that of Pakistan becomes the dream to reach for, but how out of touch can our political leaders be? At one side they are wishing for the same kind of institutions which have given Singapore, Malaysia or Turkey an economically strong middle class, while on other side promoting policies which oppose the same development.

Turkey has just managed to rid itself from a politicised military in a process to strengthen democratic institutions. Even though there is a religious-conservative political party in power, it agrees to a secular constitution and even advises the Arab Spring countries not to be afraid of secularism in the constitution-making process. Its civil law is based on that of Switzerland and its penal code is borrowed from France.

In Pakistan, the word ‘secular’ is shunned and is put together with la-deeniyat (being anti-religion).

Let it be made clear: secular states come in many forms.

China, for example, suppresses religion and has a secular outlook, but it is not democratic. A secular state which is additionally democratic, ensures that it does not suppress or promote one set of beliefs over the other. Secular states are hence not anti-religion, they are religiously neutral.

Another quality of secular states is that the society has the freedom to remain religious or cultural in its right sense ─ the state will not intervene. Social revolutions, reforms or revival movements come from the society and not from state administration.

In practical purposes, a secular state will be influenced from a majority religion and culture but only in a normative sense; for example, virtues and values to promote progression or identity. That’s the reason why, in Europe, Christian holidays are public due to a Christian majority population and history. It is also why Eid will continue to be national holiday, as will Mawlid, Ramazan or Ashura. Pakistan used to have public holidays for other religions as well in the 60s.

Some argue that God Almighty is Sovereign and thereby a secular state transfers sovereignty from God to humans. This notion is too refutable as the Sovereignty of God is untouchable and it cannot be revoked.

God has given human beings free will. This means we have the right to choose between right and wrong, and the right to rule the earth is in accordance to human-constructed systems.

Now that is exactly what an administration of a geographically separated territory is; it is a system which is created by man. Involving God-given faith in a man-made system will surely create an ugly output. History tells how such utopian systems failed when prophets were no more present to be omnipotent and guided by Divine Will.

Pakistan has fragile institutions which need to be strengthened. The overall mechanics used in these institutions are a Westminster-styled democratic elected parliament, Montesquieu’s separation of powers, Islam’s heavy emphasis on equality and justice, and to gather strength from diversity. The latter two are the least in effect.

Turkey follows a strict nationalistic ideology. One flag, one people, one nation is chanted. That is effective to form a strong connection in between the people and the state, but is also challenging because, in reality, the country has tonnes of different ethnic and sectarian groupings, and Turk-centricism has only succeeded because the recent military presence in politics.

Pakistan is also diverse and cannot continue to treat its people as being subject to established parameters of nationalism. State ideology is linked with one set of militaristic nationalism combined with Sunni puritanism. Majority of citizens do not adhere to such a description ─ they follow a centuries-old understanding of tolerating differences.

Indonesia on its side has adopted the indigenous developed state ideology dubbed ‘Pancasila’. It consists of five points;

1. Belief in one God

2. Just and civilised humanity

3. Unity of state

4. Democracy

5. Social justice for all.

It has worked to a certain degree especially when all of these principles are in place. Pakistan covers many of these parts in its constitution of 1973, but the amendments and exceptions remove the same given rights and guidelines.

Singapore has a flag with five stars which symbolise democracy, peace, progress, justice and equality. Our flag‘s crescent and star symbolise progress and light. These five combined will function as description of the unclear understanding of ‘light’.

Pakistan is rich on diversity. One can write pages upon pages about the different types of people, culture, religion and sects its inhabitants have. Learning from history – especially the tragic Bangladesh debacle – we should use more energy on finding strength in diversity than forcing one artificial identity.

Hopefully a more enlightened and prosperous Pakistan will emerge when state institutions are strengthened and tools like democracy and secularism are adopted, with the inclusion of equality and justice in the very spirit of constitution and legislation.

For all this, political mobilisation is needed. It is up to our masses (youth especially) to encourage their respective political parties to lay emphasis on this point. Important change in direction is needed.

Remember, politicians will come to front these demands when they become huge enough to form sizeable votes.

This post originally appeared here.

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Usman Asif

Norwegian born of Pakistani descent, writes on politics, society and religion. He blogs at He tweets @UsmanBaghi.

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