Pakistan should become a secular state, but how realistic is that?

Published: November 5, 2017

A child watches adults attending Eid prayers in Rawalpindi, Pakistan on September 13, 2016. PHOTO: REUTERS

In one of my articles last year, I tried to make a normative case for secularism in Muslim countries. I argued that given the rise of Islamic fundamentalism and growing sectarianism, there is a case of secularism in Muslim countries. Since a secular state is religiously neutral, therefore it would allow various sects in Islam, as well as non-Muslim minorities, to practice their faith freely.

Moreover, it would delink the religion with legal code and therefore laws would start reflecting contemporary realities. In my opinion, the idea should at least be entertained in our discourse as it merits serious deliberation.

My own country, Pakistan, perhaps is in dire need of evolution towards secularism. Today, as I write these sentences, Pakistan is embroiled in sectarian extremism and suffers from misuse of several religious laws. As I pointed in another article of mine, the state has used religion for strategic purposes also, which has ended up causing more harm than good.

However, we also need to understand the ground realities as well as the impediments. I have a firm belief that Pakistan should become a secular state, but how realistic is that wish? In Pakistan, for example, can the idea that religion be separate from the state take root? Does our history provide us some encouragement? Do seculars even exist in Pakistan?

While going through various blogs and newspapers, at times one gets a rather misleading impression about secularism in Pakistan. One of the foremost impressions is that a reasonable number, if not a majority, is secular-minded in Pakistan. However, even more misleading is the impression that some of the mainstream parties are secular – or quasi secular as some of the Pakistan Peoples Party’s (PPP) loyal journalists tend to use the term – and so is their vote bank. One of the logics given is that since Pakistan has not voted for ultra-religious parties, it is somehow amenable to the idea of separation of state and religion.

Much to my dismay, the unfortunate reality is that in a country like Pakistan, no material and influential institution is secular. This is a fact. Our courts, our establishment and even the “liberal” parties are not secular.

As I also expressed in my previous article, the case for secularism has never been presented in an effective manner and somehow the concept has been thoroughly confused and amalgamated with atheism in Pakistan.

This has resulted in complete inability of even progressive people to argue that since religion and statecraft should be separate, therefore some harsh laws should be repealed. For example, Pakistan has a controversial anti-blasphemy law (known as Pakistan Penal Code 295C) which makes blasphemy punishable by death. This law has often been misused and has often ended up endangering minorities. Due to its controversial nature, it has been in the spotlight a lot of times. However, its opponents do not argue that a religion-inspired law has no place in our society but rather that the law is contradictory to the real Islamic ‘spirit’. To weave arguments around secularism in mainstream media is almost impossible and even if done, would be counterproductive as far as repealing the blasphemy law is concerned.

In Pakistan, those who believe in secularism are a very tiny minority and they have an uphill task. Some of them generally try to present it as Jinnah’s vision for Pakistan. The central idea is perhaps the fact that since Jinnah is extremely revered and if the population becomes convinced that he wanted Pakistan to be secular, then it would pave the way for the separation of religion from state.

However, this approach will not work mainly because even if Jinnah was indeed secular, the public has always been told that the creation of Pakistan was for the implementation of an Islamic law. Even during times when Jinnah was alive and the movement for Pakistan was unfolding, the public perception of Pakistan was not that of a secular state. Perhaps Jinnah was also cognisant of that and hence immediately before the creation of Pakistan, in his August 11th speech, he explicitly stated that religion was not to be the business of the state, in order to remove the confusion. However, he did not live long enough to ensure that Pakistan’s constitutional framework was secular.

After his death, it has all been downhill. Pakistan has treaded along the path of its elites and in fact, even masses wanted it to.

I have heard a number of times that representatives reflect the will of the masses and this is projected as the strongest defence of democracy. However, following this logic, the 1973 Constitution, which made Islam the state religion and was unanimously passed, only reflects the will of the masses. Mind you, democracy is not always liberal and that is why innovations like the first amendment, which tries to protect freedom of speech, secularism and minorities, exist in the American constitution.

This protection would even supersede any decision taken by the majority in the parliament if it is in contravention of the aforementioned principles. Although, in theory, the American constitution can be changed, but in reality, it is almost impossible as it requires a two-thirds majority in both houses followed by ratification by state legislatures.

So what about the political parties? A political party is secular if it openly denounces the fusion of religion with matters of the state. In democracies, political parties have to openly debate and therefore there is no concept of closet seculars. Even if you cannot publicly call yourself as secular, as some point out that in Pakistan it would be impossible to, you still have to adopt a secular approach (at least show progression towards that end). Yes, if you do not legislate to induce more religion in matters of the state, while keeping silent about the existing status, this would perhaps qualify you as a moderate party, not a secular party.

Eventually, a political party speaks what its vote bank wants it to speak. Even PPP, a supposedly liberal party, was the one responsible for the 1973 Constitution and also for the controversial second amendment which declared Ahmadis as non-Muslims. The vote bank of almost every party is religious, though with varying degrees, and unfortunately wants religion in the affairs of the state. They may not be voting clergy into power, but frankly, they are also not raising enough voice to separate religion from the state.

If anything, as urbanisation grows in Pakistan, the fusion of religion with politics and worse, with the state, is going to further increase. Until now, the relatively lower level of urbanisation and predominantly the rural nature of politics, which is centred on local issues at the constituency level, have to some extent controlled the religious influence in politics. With the increase in urbanisation, the structure of the society will evolve in such a way that it will be more vulnerable to increasing the role of religion in culture, beliefs and politics.

When that happens, secularism, which is underpinned by the idea of separation of religion from the state, will become even more elusive. Political parties, including ‘liberal’ parties, will also start leaning towards the right, and there are indications they have started to.

In a country where the general populace is of such character, the alternate would be a top down approach, which can either be through a populist leader with sway over masses or through establishment institutions. In Pakistan, no leader has dared to do that and in fact the one who was most popular, Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto , was in many ways the originator of the present state of affairs. In fact, Bhutto manipulated religious sensitivities for gaining political mileage, and Pakistan has seen popular leaders like Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif after him, but both of them did not take any material step towards removing religion from the state.

Nawaz obviously caters to conservatives and therefore it was highly unlikely for him to take any step, but even Benazir, despite being personally liberal and secular, could not take any concrete step towards this objective. One cannot blame Benazir, as by the 90s too much ground had already been ceded for the quest of a ‘true’ Islamic state. Needless to say, the current famous leader, the cricketer-turned-politician, Imran Khan, is never going to take any step. He is the worst kind of a reactionary and someone who defines his entire outlook through hyper religious and nationalistic angles.

And as far as other state institutions are concerned, the situation is hardly different. Ideologically, armed forces are geared to hold up Islamic values, as well as Pakistani nationalism in terms of their orientation and identity. Before General Ziaul Haq, the army had quasi-secular ethos, but under his rule, things began to change.

The task for people like me, who firmly believe that religion belongs to its own private and personal space, is extremely difficult and it will take generations for us to even make moderate progress. This to me is the ultimate irony, considering the desperate state of affairs in Pakistan right now.


Raza Habib Raja

The author is a recent Cornell graduate and currently pursuing his PhD in political science at Maxwell School, Syracuse University. He has also worked for a leading development finance institution in Pakistan. He is a freelance journalist whose works have been published at Huffington Post, Dawn (Pakistan), Express Tribune (Pakistan) and Pak Tea House. He tweets @razaraja (

The views expressed by the writer and the reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of The Express Tribune.

  • Allah Baksh

    The problem pakistanis are too much confused. If it wants to be secular then that totally negates 2 nation theory and if wanted to be an islamic state than that negated the 2 nation theory in 1971. So, the only thing that can save pakistan now is job and prosperity for all and religious freedom for all and persecution of none i.e. whoever follows what should not be concenrns of others. otherwise pakistan is doomed to be on the same wheel chair as it was some 70 years ago.Recommend

  • Eddied

    European countries learned centuries ago of the dangers of mixing religion with politics…the reformation which began in 1510 was the start of recognizing that church and state needed to be separate to avoid the inevitible corruption of religious officials who alone weilded absolute power over the masses…a separate secular government was needed to provide a balance of power that was fair and equitable…it is true that “power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely”…Recommend

  • ab

    Pakistan is based on Islam and Islam has it own strong political, social,economic system made by Allah. Why we should implement this man made system with all the problems in the world when we have the most fantastic system( do write about that also). maybe it is not even 10% implemented here,but any other system is not needed. so thank you very much.Recommend

  • Rex Minor

    The author is flogging the wrong horse by dealing with the subject based on ignorance, secularist Governments came into Europe with the rise of Adolf Hitler and Mussolini who separated governnce from the church through the concord with the Church, england being the exception where the monarch is the head of the church as well as the parliament controlled Government and France which has promoted Lycite to the extent that the ruling Governments are quasy anti-religion. All European Governments though recognise their cultural and humanistic values emanating from the religion.
    Unlike christianity, the religion of Islam does not recognise the authority of the medium between the creator and the believer which in the past brought corruption to the Church, thereby becoming the causual factors for protest movement by Luther and aufklarung of christianity.

    Rex MinorRecommend

  • Harris

    Pakistan was made in the name of islam, and will remain a islamic republic since majority support it and Pakistan will never become secular to please a minority or the west. You seculars always come with the 11th august, what about Quaids other speeches that are not secular. So seculars keep dreaming. Pakistan zindabadRecommend

  • Rex Minor

    For example, Pakistan has a controversial anti-blasphemy law (known as Pakistan Penal Code 295C) which makes blasphemy punishable by death.

    RHR, then write about the end of capital punishment in Pakistan as is in civilised lands of Europe and not end of Islam from Nations cultures. The West is the believers world and not secular world per se. Bigotry is blesphamy as the former President George w Bush says and musilm ban by the Trumpers is a blesphamy too.

    Rex MinorRHRecommend

  • Haris

    Pakistan was made in the name of islam and Two nation theory and that is supported by the majority so will never be secular and instead of 11th aug speech What about other unsecular speechesRecommend

  • Striver

    The reality is that all states no matter how much they proclaim to be “secular” are always somewhere in between the secular and the religious, meaning that they follow the middle-path.
    You only have to look at oath-taking of presidents and prime ministers. Lets not forget that after 9/11 the word “crusade” was the word of choice by a president but later expunged from his speeches, G W Bush.
    Pakistan’s case is a strange one. Most states say they are secular but are in the grips of religious fanatics. India. Pakistan on the other hand proclaims to be Islamic but is far from it. Has any religious party ever been elected to power? One that did manage to win narrowly as the local level years back won because of the civilians deaths by American drones. No religious party has won provisional elections since.
    So lets be realistic and we are not a religious lot and never have been. The religious lot a more vociferous that all folks. Don’t be mislead.Recommend

  • vinsin

    Completely agree with author but as he, it is extremely difficult. But a good step is to start with women rights. Pakistani laws are becoming more and more secular towards women rights recently.Recommend

  • vinsin

    Then why Pakistan has not implemented that system yet? You are using computers and INTERNET which created by man made system.Recommend

  • Fahim

    Why Pakistan should become a secular state Recommend

  • Komal S

    Wait, why don’t you wait until the last minority is converted or exited from your country and then talk about secularism. Malaysia has 60% muslims and see how Islam holds a stranglehold in that country. Unfortunately Islamic and Secular is an oxymoron.Recommend

  • Acorn Guts

    I swear true secularism is more Islamic than the Islamic system we currently have in Pakistan.Recommend

  • vinsin

    Not true, except Muslim majority states most of the states are secular. USA constitution is secular. Pakistan is already an Islamic Republic so religious party has no use.

    No states except Muslim majority states are in grip of religious fanatics.Recommend

  • Sridhar Kaushik

    If Pakistan were to become secular, majority pakistanis will argue: what was the reason for creation of Pakistan.
    Pakistan is what India is not.
    It is meant to be a muslim state that has today become Islamic state harboring terrorists of all hues.
    Secularism in Pakistan is a nonstarter.Recommend

  • saaduwolf

    Sir, perhaps you may want to wander outside of your western books to realize the fact that what Islam wants is to rule the
    heart and mind of a person. Let that person be you. Thus if in the shari‘ah of God, there is any directive related to the society, you should be prepared to implement it without any hesitation.

    This is an Islamic government. No doubt, this is only applicable to you when you, as a part of society, accept its rule over themselves. You are welcome to pen your opinion, maybe write a paper on this. Currently, your understanding is pretty limited.

    Secondly, may i point to the author to revisit his last statement “The task for people like me, who firmly believe that religion belongs to its own private and personal space”. Sir, your firm belief above has neither any logic, relevance or any weight age, as far as running a state is concerned. If you disagree, then it just might be right to say that “the task for people like me, who firmly believe that secularism belongs to its own private and personal space” is true too?Recommend

  • jssidhoo

    Religion at home and work at office is a good formulaRecommend

  • T chaudhry

    Comments here show that they public has the least knowledge of their religion. The Holy Prophet (saw) ruled Mecca where diverse cultures and religious people lived. If he ruled there without interfering in religious affairs of public, why should not we follow his example and leave religion as private issue of public instead of forcing religion upon them.Recommend

  • T chaudhry

    Islam advocates a secular government which does not interfere in religion. Pakistan experimented otherwise and indeed bore its fruits. Now it should relize its mistake and separate Religion and State. Its the only way it can gain stability and peace.Recommend

  • James Kapoor

    What is the point when you have already killed/converted almost all the minorities?
    Good thought but too late.Recommend

  • Rex Minor

    You most probably mean primitive still trying to live the 7th century rituals?

    Rex MinorRecommend

  • Rex Minor

    or the one in several other so called muslim majority countries.

    Rex MinorRecommend

  • Rex Minor

    The author wants a Godless country similar to the one in India or China simply because of certain faulty legislations in the name of Islam? Why not complain about Indonesia where corporal punihment is practiced publicly or Malaysia where a homosexual receives a capital

    punishment? Besides alcohal is prohibited in several American counties which no one relates it to so misused word Sharia.

    Rex MinorRecommend

  • Amir Sultan

    I agree with Rex. In Islam you are asked to respect and consider the opinions of the learned, but their view is not binding so there is no risk of “going to hell” if you oppose them.Recommend

  • Striver

    Wrong. Your comment is biased and stereotypical. Religious parties are part and parcel of a democratic arrangement whether a sate proclaims to be secular or not.
    India is in the grips of religious fanatics. So argument falls apart. You comments are typical of those who possess little knowledge but think they are always right.Recommend

  • rationalist

    Tough luck. Once you get on the Islamic “tiger” you can’t get off of it alive.Recommend

  • Patwari

    The US president takes his oath on a bible.
    If you are testifying in an American court,
    your oath ends in “so help me God”
    If you are elected a Congressman in US, you
    take your oath of office on a bible. Even if you
    are a HINDU. You don[t take it on the Bhagavad Gita.Recommend

  • ab

    That’s the problem, we wants it but the world and the super powers doesn’t want it to be implemented here as they wants us to be secular and liberal like them.It was implemented in Afghanistan in the form of Taliban and you can see that the Us and it allies didn’t like it launch an attack on it. Second question show your arrogance about Islam. Islam doesn’t say to abandon the world. True Allah has send us for the preparation of life after death but we have to stay in the world and consume it under the umbrella of ISLAM under some restrictions. how can khilafat be maintained in this world if we doesn’t know science and technology. But the requirement is that, science and technology would be under the umbrella of teachings of Allah.Recommend

  • ab

    In true Islamic state ,even if you kill all the Muslims in India we can’t even touch one Hindu here for revenge(IS IT GOOD OR BAD?). it is haram to take revenge. but the Islamic state will not sit idle and not do anything like a secular Muslim state as all Muslims are ummaRecommend

  • ab

    The main thing is that Islam is different. don’t mix Islam with Christianity.Recommend

  • Trey

    This isn’t true. If you’re Jewish, you could very well call for the Torah. You don’t have to swear on a physical object either. You can affirm to tell the truth, like many atheists do who don’t have to say ‘so help me God’ in court.

    Keith Ellison, the Muslim congressman from Minnesota, took his oath on Thomas Jefferson’s copy of the Quran. It was only controversial due to Christian supremacists and anti-Muslim bigots. It would have been unconstitutional for him to be forced to only swear on the Bible.

    A Hindu would indeed have the right to swear on their own holy book or not. They could swear on the Bible, but that would be a form of Christian supremacy and if they were forced to, then that would violate their rights.Recommend

  • Trey

    Unfortunately, in the East, it’s difficult for most Muslims to separate their unquestionable supremacist beliefs and literal sacred ideologies from public life and state functions, and may also be true for some in the West, but this is particularly true for most Pakistanis. Overall Sunni and Shia Muslim fundamentalisms are on the rise globally, so I highly doubt there’ll be any improvements any time soon. Actually in truth illiberalism of all kinds are on the rise across the globe, regardless if a nation is democratic or not.

    I remember an old interview on the Daily Show with Jon Stewart. I think it was Vali Nasr as the guest, who mentioned a survey about how much religion means to your life. Pakistanis scored the highest number where 90% of respondents said it mattered a lot, as compared to other countries, like Egypt which was either 50% or 60%. Jon Stewart quickly quipped “I guess that makes them (Pakistanis) the most moral country and people on earth”‘, to which the audience obviously laughed at.

    One could even try a religious argument for secularism saying that it saves Islam from being defamed by hypocrites (Munafiqs) and the unjust (Zalims). However, that will fall on deaf ears too. I think the secular goal maybe unrealistic. As you noted those against the blasphemy laws make the argument that it is un-Islamic, which it is, rather than not saying it is obsolete, because that is the only way how they know they can appeal to the majority, who simply cannot step out of their bubble. And quite truthfully, you maybe safer and better off not trying to challenge the twisted religious-nationalist views of most folks there, which was evident after the Taseer assassination and Mashal Khan lynching.Recommend

  • KlingOn2K

    It is as realistic as Maryam Nawaz donating all her wealth to charity.Recommend

  • Sridhar Kaushik

    True Islamic state!
    The one that exists in one’s fantasy i guess.
    Let us be realistic, shall we?
    Those states that have made religious identity a part of Statecraft have all lagged behind. Iran and Pakistan are 2 classic examples. One Shia and the other Sunni majority state.
    Look at the plight of minorities in Pakistan. It is just pathetic. This is what will happen if you start defining your existence on the basis of religion, be it Islam or any other religion.
    The religious clerics will then come and tell you what is true Islam or Christianity etc.
    Indian muslims are lagging behind in India today becuase they see themselves as muslims first and therefore have to go by what the mullahs tell them. This means subjugation of women, triple talaq etc etc.
    Pakistan’s ideology is its own burial ground. Pakistan can become secular only if its majority population go through some kind of transformation wherein they realize religious identity has brought them nothing but pain. This won’t happen anytime soon.Recommend

  • Amir Sultan

    Unfortunately we have defined secular very poorly in Pakistan. As far as
    the freedoms to practise religion are concerned, I consider myself
    secular. But if you’re proposing to seperate legislation and public
    affairs from a religion that is the source of identity for 95% of the
    population then that would be unfair.
    Secondly why would Quaid allow
    Muhammad Asad to form a Department of Islamic reconstruction as a govt
    institution if he wasn’t open to the idea of religion directing the way.
    ((To all you propaganda out there who deny it existed, read his
    book “Principles of State and govt in Islam”. The Preface reads “At the
    time (March 1948) I was Director of the Department of Islamic
    Reconstruction, a govt institution devoted to the elaboration of the
    intellectual and sociolegal principles which should underlie our new
    state”. Book was published 1961, University of California
    Press.))……..BOOM.. End of Debate!Recommend

  • ab

    What is view point when you read if you kill all the Muslims in India we can’t even touch one Hindu here for revenge here. I am lying? or it is irrelevant? fantasy? or what is your exact thought?Recommend

  • RHR


    What are you smoking these daysRecommend

  • vinsin

    Which religious fanatics are ruling in India? Which Religion does constitution of India support? Which religion is supported by USA constitution?

    If my comment is biased and stereotypical then provide evidence otherwise. What are the laws in Saudi Arabia that are secular?Recommend

  • vinsin

    What that has to do with secularism? Hinduism is not a one book religion. Bhagavad Gita is just one of 64 Gitas. What your comment has to do with my comment?

    Most of Muslim majority states are non-secular, period.Recommend

  • vinsin

    You are confused between secularism and liberalism. Attend some school.Recommend

  • vinsin

    Secularism do not support slavery, so you are wrong.Recommend

  • vinsin

    You hardly have Hindu left. Stop forced conversion first then.Recommend

  • vinsin

    States are secular not people. So your statement is false. Can Salman Rusdie celebrate atheism openly in Pakistan? Can Arab pagans go to Mecca?Recommend

  • vinsin

    So where are those diverse culture and religious people of Mecca?Recommend

  • vinsin

    That is called a pluralistic system not secular. Secular means same laws for every citizen. Then what about TNT, partition etc? Is that is what Islam advocates, then almost all Muslim majority countries are wrong.Recommend

  • vinsin

    Blasphemy laws in British India was demand of subcontinent Muslims. Jinnah opposed those laws. Blasphemy laws in Pakistan made completely Islamic by Zia. Indian Blasphemy laws takes away citizenship and had been applied only once as per I know.

    Blasphemy laws exists in many Islamic or Muslim majority countries.Recommend

  • vinsin

    How? Is a religion or a political system?Recommend

  • ab

    Yes, according to Express tribune.Recommend

  • ab

    Stop giving cartoonish remarks.Recommend

  • ab

    why not do your homework first?Recommend

  • ab

    How old are you?Recommend

  • Striver

    The evidence that your comment is biased and typical is your comment.
    Don’t you know the religious fanatics ruling India?
    Are you pretending to be ignorant or does it come naturally?Recommend

  • Striver

    All rituals are primitive. You came about by a primitive ritualRecommend

  • vinsin

    You are the one who claimed it is different, so why dont you tell? What exactly is your point? What homework should I do to know what you meant by Islam being different?Recommend

  • vinsin

    Which part was cartoonish to you?Recommend

  • vinsin

    If you know then why dont you just tell which religious fanatics ruling India? OR isnt that you dont know and show your ignorance.

    Which Religion does constitution of India support? Which religion is supported by USA constitution?

    What are the laws in Saudi Arabia that are secular?Recommend

  • Striver

    Lets play the game: You give me 5 names of the terrorist fanatics you think are ruling India now and I will give you the correct version.

    You need to read my original comment. It is not the constitution but what goes in practice that matters most. India has proven to be a horrible place if you are Muslim, Sikh, Christian or Dalit.Recommend