Sunday, April 7, 2013

Let Pakistan be a Secular Democracy

April 7, 2013
By Saeed Qureshi

The rigid and myopic application of constitution’s articles 62 and 63 to determine the suitability of candidates for contesting this year’s elections has gone too far. While Pakistan is awash with endemic violence, unremitting abuse and infringement of every moral, social and religious injunction, paradoxically a strict religious, unrealistic and fanciful ethical criterion is being imposed on the aspirant candidates. Let the voters decide who the best candidate for them is.  

The ongoing practice is ridiculous and indeed farcical.  In 21st century and in a modern world, our election system wants religious robots to take part in elections. The faith should be confined to the individual level and have minimum role in state affairs. Civil societies are the hallmarks of the modern states and these, in a way excel, the rights given even by religions.

Are we turning Pakistan into a rigid and intolerant theocracy by sizing up the candidates as religiously suitable and morally as infallible as angels are believed to be? From where do the returning officers draw their rights for judging the conduct of others? Returning officers should not have the mandate to probe the religious or private credentials of the candidates.

Conduct and religious attachment are subjective issues and can be viewed and interpreted in multifarious ways. It is utterly impossible to pronounce someone as being pious, truthful and immune from sins or moral lapses. It is equally irrelevant, unnecessary and difficult to dub someone as wicked and morally bankrupt with varying degrees.

An individual supposed to be pious in my view could be devil for another person. So better abandon these frivolous benchmarks and vague hoaxes of ideology of Pakistan and infringement of constitution. It would be much desirable if clause 62 and 63 are set aside and later expunged from the statute book. These are recipes for a perennial ideological conflict that would dent Pakistan as a modern and progressive state.

Religions largely suppress the individual liberties, fundamental human rights and foster sectarian bad blood. The civil societies give vent to the inalienable rights provided within the framework of a modern secular and democratic state.

In Pakistan there is a persistent refrain on making Pakistan as an Islamic state but even the most ultra-conservative government of General Ziaul-Haq could not achieve this goal because of the inherent contradictions between the features of a modern state and the orthodox nature of the religion.

Since any religion is bound to degenerate and split into sectarianism and denominations, the state that is essentially a secular institution cannot function properly and peacefully because of the internecine feuding between various faiths. In a theocracy or in a state that calls itself a religious state or the custodian of particular faith and religion, the religious and sectarian harmony is not possible as we can see in Pakistan.

It is foregone, that notwithstanding the Islamic teachings about equality and justice, a majority sect seldom treats the adherents of minority sects on an equal footing. Rather the minority sects are persecuted and intimidated as heretics and infidels. This is happening in various Islamic countries.

Secondly, it is important to understand that the institution of democracy is the gift or product of modern society and civilization. Democracy essentially is secular in nature and empowers the masses without their ethnic, racial, religious, social or financial status. In Islam a head of state is both the custodian of faith and the ruler. He can be a monarch, an autocrat or a ruthless dictator (as the Umayyad, Abbasids, Ottoman caliphs were).

In democracy power lies with the people of a state. In theocracy or in a religious state it can rest with even an individual if he is the staunch proponent of a certain faith. There is no such thing as a religious democracy because the religious codes do not provide any system of elections on the principle of one man one vote for the entire population.

A democratic head of state is more concerned with the welfare of the state and its people and not of a particular sect or religion. The modern nation states are essentially secular and not strictly religious. Historically, religious dispensation has always been a monarchy or autocracy. The hereditary right to caliphate as claimed by Hazrat Ali after the demise of the prophet of Islam cannot be termed as democratic.

A democratic dispensation and the religious political system are heterogeneous towards each other and therefore even the Islamic states like Malaysia and Indonesia have to liberalize their societies despite having Islam as their official religion. Malaysia, Indonesia and Turkey are the appropriate models of an Islamic state where secularism and Islam converge. There is ethnic, sectarian and communal peace in those societies.

Religion urges the humans to believe for heaven or hell. Human nature is devious and obeys when punishment or reward is imminent and in sight. A political system or society cannot remain stable in face of an unremitting ideological conflict going on between the sects within Islam?

It would be a landmark feat if the Islamic scholars can Islamize democracy or democratize Islam. While the state has clear-cut laws and covenants and possesses the administrative apparatus to enforce them, the bulk of religious injunctions are contradictory, confusing, rigid and out of sync with the momentous changes in human societies.

Is it possible that there can be a reconciliation and compromise between the Islamic clerics and democracy? In a country which since its inception has remained in the throes of faith based- extremism, bigotry, sectarian and communalism, the most pressing need is to bring about a consensus and truce between the warring sects.

The most crying urgency is to evolve a consensual code of Islamic faith between Sunnis and Shias so that the state and the society don’t suffer due to their mutual doctrinal rivalry and ensuing bloodshed.

As such the only rational way-out is to adopt the twin panacea of secularism and democracy that would allow every sect and denomination and rich and poor to practice their own faith without trading the accusations of heresy.

The perception of secularism doesn’t necessarily mean negation or elimination of religion. It simply means tolerance and coexistence in matter of difference of religious beliefs and opinions. It is foregone that Pakistan as a theocracy or a country with a religious label cannot move forward and would always be trapped in a self-destructive ideological conflict. The devastation of Baghdad by Mongol hordes in 13th century is a testifying tragedy to the Shia Sunni animosity towards each other.

While acknowledging the distasteful fact that the ideological gulf between two main Islamic sects cannot be bridged, these must be legally bound to coexist and tolerate each other. As far political power is concerned, Pakistan has to decide once and for all that the war of conflicting beliefs should not be allowed to enter the political corridors.

The other forms of religious extremism and fanaticism also need to be forcefully curbed. The religion should be confined within the personal and at best group contours. That is the only viable, practical and rational solution to the religious bad blood that breeds violence and hinders smooth functioning of state and society.

The State and society have got to be secular and truly democratic for prosperity and advancement and for Pakistan to enter the fold of modern states. At the same time Pakistan, like Turkey, Malaysia and Indonesia, can retain its Islamic identity. In a nutshell, Islam, secularism, and democracy should go hand in hand in Pakistan.

It is, therefore, incumbent upon the Islamic theologians and scholars to explore a way to integrate religion with democracy in order to serve the imperatives of a modern society. The religion would best serve its pristine purpose of worshiping God, observing rituals and instilling morality if it is confined to the personal, individual or group levels. The underlying theme of all religions is morality, righteousness and obedience to God if left to private domain.


  1. Qureshi Sahib, you have rung a kataray ki ghantee in warning our coming generation what may be in the store for their future if theocratic states do not accept democracy for political governance. I was in Turkey twice; what a progressive and productive society. Their experience should be a model for Islamic world to emulate.

  2. Dear Dr. Lal,
    I appreciate your response to my above article. I agree with you and I am also of the opinion that Turkey and even Malaysia can serve as models for tottering Islamic countries like Pakistan for a leap forward.