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Is a secular Pakistan the answer? July 19, 2009

Posted by sandygordon in : Pakistan, Snedden, Christopher , trackback

Christopher Snedden

Islamic ‘fundamentalist’ groups in Pakistan are currently posing major problems to the Pakistan state.  Most obviously, the religiously-inspired and rampant organisation of Taliban (‘students’) is violently agitating in Pakistan’s North-West Frontier Province (NWFP) and the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA).  The Pakistan armed forces are trying to suppress a very difficult opponent.

A further, but less obvious, issue is religiously-inspired groups in Punjab, particularly in southern Punjab, some of whom may be supported by elements within the Pakistan state (e.g. the Pakistan Army’s Inter Services Intelligence Directorate (ISI)).  Some of these groups may be responsible for the recent major terrorist attacks in places such as Lahore and Mumbai.

One side effect of Pakistan’s religious problems is ongoing, and sometimes brutal, sectarian violence between intolerant Sunni and Shia elements, although these actually pre-date the Taliban’s rise.  Another is the large financial cost of mounting counter insurgency (COIN) operations to suppress the Taliban.  Furthermore, the Pakistan Army’s primary focus is to fight a conventional war against India.  It, therefore, is often honing its COIN capabilities ‘on the run’.  There also is the huge financial burden of re-settling internally displaced people from FATA and Swat in an economy stressed by the global financial crisis, sluggish growth and high inflation.

It seems somewhat ironic that the ‘Islamic Republic of Pakistan’ should be having a problem with Muslim citizens trying violently to change this society—or to harm one another.  However, the issue of Islam has been an ongoing problem for Pakistanis since 1947.  In earlier days, the debate was whether Pakistan should be a state for Muslims or an Islamic state.  Over time, the issue has morphed into being about how much Islam, particularly its Sharia Law aspects, should be imposed on Pakistanis.

As the current Taliban campaign inspired by hardline Salafi/Wahabi interpretations of Islam shows, this issue has not yet been resolved.  Taliban Muslims want to impose their interpretation of Islam—which appears to be a severe and intolerant one (the Taliban don’t like musicians, dancers, movies, for example)—on, and throughout, Pakistan.  They want to make Pakistan a truly Islamic state—as they perceive it.

So far, moderate Pakistanis motivated by more inclusive Islamic practices—and now also understanding the strength and motivation of their ‘enemy’—are in the ascendant in Pakistan.  But, they cannot rest on their laurels.  The fight will continue for some time, including for as long as neighbouring, and Taliban-infested, Afghanistan is highly unstable.

One possible way to reduce the volatility of the issue of Islam in Pakistan would be to make Pakistan a secular state.  This is not a new idea.  Pakistan’s founder (Quaid-i-Azam), Muhammad Ali Jinnah, its first prime minister, Liaquat Ali Khan, and its first military dictator, Ayub Khan, all favoured a secular Pakistan state.  Indeed, in 1963, Ayub tried to remove the word ‘Islamic’ from Pakistan’s official title.

A secular Pakistan state would negate the contested issue of which interpretation of Islam, and how much Sharia, should be used in, and applied to, Pakistan.  Such interpretations include Hanafi, Barelvi, Deobandi, modernist, Sufi-inspired and Salafi/Wahabi aspects of Sunnism, Shia Islam, and its subset Ismaili Islam (to which Khoja subset Jinnah belonged).  Being a secular state would end the subtle discrimination against Pakistan’s non-Muslims, who comprise five per cent of the population.  A third advantage is that it would make it easier to prosecute Pakistanis engaging in what amounts to illegal, violent and anti-constitutional actions undertaken in the name of a hardline interpretation of Islam.

I do not expect my proposition to gain traction in Pakistan.  Instead, it will raise howls of protest, particularly for Pakistanis affiliated with religiously-based parties such as Jamaat-i-Islam.  Nevertheless, the national hero for many Pakistanis, Muhammad Ali Jinnah, said in his speech to the new Constituent Assembly of Pakistan on 11 August 1947: ‘You may belong to any religion or caste or creed[;] that has nothing to do with the business of the State’.  Jinnah’s speech is worth contemplating, particular for intolerant Pakistanis or Pakistanis with a romantic view of this secular Muslim.


1. Faisal - July 23, 2009

No, a secular Pakistan is not the answer. Until at least when majority of the Pakistanis wants it as such.
I think you have failed to look into the real issues causing the trouble that we Pakistanis are in today. As far as I perceive the situation as a middle class, middle aged Pakistani, the issue is not about Islam vs secularism at all. What Jinnah meant by the quote above is in itself an Islamic principle, where the state is essentially secular in dispensation of justice, distribution of benefits and protection of citizens’ life and property. This is what any modern state aspires to achieve I guess, and has been done during the life of Prophet Mohammad (PBUH) in the first Islamic state of Madinah.
Coming back to the problems in Pakistan, it has little to do with religion. For example, islamic Pakistan enjoys a cordial relation with communist China. When it comes to India, its not the same due to Kashmir. Its not a war of Hinduism vs Islam. Its a territorial dispute.
Within Pakistan as well, a strong centralist state and repeated military take overs have led us to this. Unfortunately, the military takeovers have always been favored by the West, esp. the US. To be more specific, Ayub Khan (Kennedy), Zia (Reagen) and Musharraf (Bush Junior) have all been supported due to one or the other reason.
A corrupt military and civilian bureaucracy mainly comprised of the educated urbane Punjabi and mohajir, feudal politicians with large land holdings handed over to them for their services to the colonial British masters, and Baloch and Tribal sardars generously funded by the Pakistani state to maintain control over erstwhile peripheries of the British empire are but few of the problems. A deep involvement by the Army’s spy agency the ISI, into the political affairs of the country is one way how the so-called democratic governments are manipulated, controlled, harassed (during the brief stints that military decides not to rule directly though uniformed generals).
Common Pakistanis despise all this as much as as they do the involvement of international players- US, UK, India, Israel et al. in the affairs of their country and neighboring Afghanistan.
We are a great nation, unfortunate to be in the wrong place at the wrong time may be.

2. Thanawat Pimoljinda - October 9, 2009

Here, I would like to give a theoretical idea in regard to this case using India as a comparison…
The concept of nation state becomes more controversial in a country which lacks religious, cultural and linguistic homogeneity and wherein various religious and linguistic groups are present. In the modern parlance, the concept of nation state runs into several problems in a pluralistic society like India. The classical nation state came into existence in Europe on the basis of shared linguistic and cultural heritage and future economic vision. That was not the case in colonized countries in Asia and Africa. The colonial countries did not establish their colonies in religiously and linguistically homogeneous areas. They established their rule wherever they could capture power and brought about administrative unity. These administratively unified areas clubbed together became a nation state when the colonial masters left.
However, in some countries like India, conflict took place about the concept of nation state when the colonial masters left. The Muslim League which claimed to be the sole representative of the Indian Muslims rejected the concept of composite nationalism and advanced the theory of religious nationalism. In fact, the idea of religious nationalism was mooted for the first time on Indian subcontinent. It is interesting to note that the theory of religious nationalism was advanced by secular elite of the community, but not by its religious leadership. It was result of competition for power between secular elite of the two communities rather than justified by theology of Islam or Hinduism.
At this point, many historical situations clearly bring out the fact that political unity and sense of common nationhood need not depend on religious unity, but on political, historical and cultural factors. Religious nationalism is not a viable category as same religion can be, and often is, embraced by different racial, ethnic and cultural groups. Religion is a spiritual and moral category whereas nationalism is a political together with territorial category. Composite culture can be a more viable base for nationalism than religion alone. Religion provides for common spiritual experience and shared moral and ethical vision whereas nationalism provides for shared political concerns, cultural practices and historical heritage. South Asia had such common heritage. Its division was brought about external factors like British imperial policies rather than by differences of religion. A South Asian confederation is a must for this region to usher peace and prosperity in the region.
In sum, all of sovereign states around the world attempt to uphold their security, survival and interests by using its power as an instrument to reach those goals. Unfortunately, they exist in the world with diversities of culture, which comprise the difference of language, history, customs, and even varied religion. All of these elements, obviously, play the important role in separating a nation from the others and probably is the cause of conflict between countries as well.

Thanawat Pimoljinda