Tuesday, February 7, 2017

Secularism for Pakistan’s survival

Yasser Latif Hamdani
Sadiq Khan, the British-Pakistani lawyer and politician, has managed to win the election for the position of London’s mayor. As expected Pakistanis around the world have greeted the news with jubilation and excitement. After all, a first generation son of a Pakistani bus driver has managed to become the first Muslim mayor of a major city in the European Union. People say that this is a great triumph of secularism, which it is, but the statement needs to be put in context. The United Kingdom (UK), a fiercely secular society, is nevertheless not a secular state; constitutionally it is a protestant monarchy, where the monarch of the realm is also the head of the Anglican Church, and also under the Act of Settlement has to be Protestant Christian. Yet through evolution starting with the age of reason, the Protestant nature of the Kingdom has become dead letter for all practical purposes because politicians in the UK have adopted secularism as their creed. It is, therefore, possible for any citizen, whatever their faith, to become the mayor of London or even the prime minister. It was this British secularism that Pakistan’s founding father, Mohammad Ali Jinnah, has harked back to in his famous 11th of August 1947 speech, when he poignantly referred to the history and evolution of Catholic and Protestant conflict in the UK to the effect that “...today, you might say with justice that Roman Catholics and Protestants do not exist; what exists now is that every man is a citizen, an equal citizen of Great Britain and they are all members of the Nation.”
To do so, however, such a citizen must adopt secularism and belief in human rights as his or her creed. Predictably, Mayor Sadiq Khan does believe in these values. In 2012, he supported same-sex marriage, which prompted many UK mosques to denounce him and even threaten him. Khan was undeterred. How many in Pakistan today would vote for Khan holding such views? This is the irony. Pakistan abandoned the vision outlined by its founding father and chose instead a narrow-minded theocratic path. We already know where that has led us. The idea that a minority can be elected in this country to a responsible position in government has over time become unlikelier still. We are not even ready to accord our minorities the right to live in this country with dignity.
Laws left behind by General Zia-ul-Haq have ensured that religious freedom as a constitutional fundamental right has become redundant and useless. Instead we have now campaigners from religious parties asking for the execution of ‘blasphemers’. To these campaigners, Pakistan is not even of secondary importance. They have not even considered how it would isolate Pakistan globally if we were to take some of our laws to their logical conclusion. Persecution of minority religious groups in Pakistan is the norm and not the exception. One forced minority, the Ahmadis, have been disenfranchised unconstitutionally and illegally because, despite the joint electorate, the state insists on placing their names, exclusively, on a ‘supplementary list’ on the electoral rolls. As a result, an Ahmadi cannot even become the mayor of Rabwah (officially called Chenab Nagar) where the majority population is from that group. So what are we celebrating Sadiq Khan’s victory in London for?
Things need to change faster in Pakistan. We are the laughing stock of the world because of our insistence on notions that just do not have any place in the modern world. Even something as basic as a passport application we fill out vitiates the most basic of fundamental human rights, which our constitution purports to grant us. Tomorrow civilised nations of the world may well ban all of us from entering their borders because all of us, inevitably, are forced to sign the horrendously bigoted statement against Ahmadis to get a passport. In doing so, willingly or unwillingly, self-included we all become accessories to state-sponsored persecution of that group. It is only a matter of time that the world takes notice and, consequently, this unconscionable act of ours would hurt us Pakistanis as a whole, much more than it would hurt Ahmadis.
But does this occur to our religious divines? No. Pakistan has never been and never will be a priority for them. Instead some like Maulana Muhammad Khan Sherani of the Council of Islamic Ideology want to debate whether Ahmadis are murtids (apostates) or merely non-Muslims, implying of course whether they should be killed or merely persecuted. Where do these people want to take Pakistan? If they had their way, they would lead us to the second holocaust. There is always that possibility that minorities in Pakistan have to reckon with. It will not end there though. Ultimately the officially sanctioned Muslims will turn on each other. There would be a massive bloodshed of epic proportions.
During the Pakistan Movement, Raja of Mahmudabad, himself a Shia Muslim, started using the Muslim League platform to advocate an Islamic state. When Jinnah got the wind of his, he told Mahmudabad to distance himself from the Muslim League. He said, “Do you realise that there are over 70 sects and differences of opinion regarding the Islamic faith, and if what you [Raja] are suggesting was to be followed, the consequences would be a struggle of religious opinion from the very inception of the State leading to its very dissolution.” Religious leaders are forcing us closer to that precipice and the spectre of dissolution is looming large.
The question of the separation of religion from state, therefore, is a matter of life and death for Pakistan as a country, society and a state. The very survival of the country is linked to whether or not we are able to ensure that religion is made a private matter between man and God and taken away from our halls of government and our courts of law. This is because Pakistan is far too diverse a society with far too many different sectarian and religious interpretations of Islam for it to afford a theocracy. It is time for Pakistanis, therefore, to accept that faith is a matter between man and God and not the business of the state.

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