Liberal Ideas

Secularism: Time to Rethink and Re-evaluate the Concept the Concept

Dr. Huma Baqai

Dr Huma BaqaiPrior to 1980 there was a tendency to downplay the force of religion in politics. It proved counter-productive especially because the sweeping political changes of 1980, witnesses most states of the world succumbing to calls of so far submerged identities. This consciousness is present in New Europe, Central Asian States the Middle East, Southeast Asia and now even on the continents of America and Australia. This also impacted South Asia with a new vigor, a greater upsurge of regional religions was seen. The number of religious organizations had increased, religious practices have become more pronounced, extremism and intolerance are on the rise and the use of religious card for political game a pronounced South Asian reality. The alternatives to state whether political, social or legal have religious undertones. The spread and growth of these alternatives is a source of conflict both at the state level and societal level.
The association between conflict and religion is now a global reality. The use of religion for political capital gains, for consolidation of power and perpetuation of structural violence is becoming part of our new global reality. In regions like South Asia its even more profound. It does not allow the region to progress towards integration or even modernization. The extremist tendencies and intolerance is actually threatening the existence of countries like Pakistan and Afghanistan and challenging the norms and values of democracy in countries like India and Sri Lanka.

 What is the way forward? 

 The only way forward is to rethink and re-evaluate the role of religion in our lives and Politics. The selective use of religion by the power brokers of South Asia for vested interest and consolidation of power can only stop if the peoples of South Asia reject this. This will happen if out of the box thinking takes place. One dimension can be rethinking and reevaluate the concept of Secularism in South Asian context. 

The term Secularism which is a 19th-century import from Europe is under scrutiny. Although adopted by India it is under consistent threat and is flouted everyday with Muslims and Christians facing the wrath of Hindu extremists. In Pakistan and Afghanistan the task is even more difficult for here the term is translated as Without Religion (La-Deeniat).  Which gives the extremist all the place in the world to exploit it to their advantage. Mere mention of the word is considered blasphemous by some and does not allow any discussion or debate on the subject thus preventing alternative thinking.

 The none western view of Secularism is what needs to be adopted in Pakistan which encompasses along with respect for the religion the concept of tolerance, co-existence and protection for religious minorities. This also coincides with the Jinnah’s vision of Muslim majority secular state rather than theocratic state. Moreover the results of all the free elections held in Pakistan prove beyond doubt peoples’ commitment to a moderate state which encourages tolerance, non-violence pluralism and inclusivism. The secular sate here encourages tolerance, religious pluralism and religious co-existence not because of its neutrality on the matters of religious but rather because of assumed religious orientation towards truth, tolerance and reality.

 The non western view of Secularism propagated

 There are various movements towards Islamization especially in Pakistan with efforts directed towards introducing Sharia’ah (Islamic Law) as the law of the land. The innocent people are often convinced of its utility after being abundaned by the state and its corrupt apparatus. The rightists and religious political parties also use the lure of implementing Shari’ah to gain political capital. The only problem here is that as a nation we have no consensus over the interpretation of Shari’ah and the people need to be educated about this. The promises of imposition of Islamic Laws actually get translated into selective use of religion to impose traditions and believes which are not necessarily derived from Islam. It becomes a tool in the hands of hate mongers who believe that followers of a sect of Islam other than their own are worthy of death, indulging in orgies of death and destruction. The aim is their to impose their interpretation of Islam, their values and believe system. This in essence is fundamentalism, which assumes that my interpretation is the ultimate truth. 

Fundamentalist ideas, religious or not, are dangerous because the people, who are in favor of them, do not want to submit themselves to human laws, because they think they only have to obey a higher force. The concept that people’s behavior should be determined by a higher plan is a sort of slant towards transcendence, which is common to both the Vatican and the conservative Muslims, in spite of their enormous cultural and political differences. The focus is on surpassing people and making people submit to and thus subjugating the individual, and the primacy of humans and human laws.

The international events and globalization also contribute to religious extremism is South Asia. The naked aggression and unilateralism practiced by the only super power in the world, especially against the Muslims, has reinforced the concept of the clash of civilizations. There is a conceptual shift in the definition of sovereignty. The powerful are coercing sovereign states to tailor domestic policies to conform to their ideals of freedom, tolerance, and democracy. Those who do not comply, face the threats of sanctions, engineered regime change,  social upheavals, and even naked aggression in the form of invasions and Drone attacks all in the name of the American neo cons doctrine of freedom and  democracy, and the anticipated right to self-defense. This has further strengthened the hands of the rightist in South Asian societies where religious radicalism and Nationalism are becoming one, making it increasingly difficult for sitting governments to fight extremism. It also places the liberals on the back foot not being able to defend these acts of atrocities where killing women and children is called collateral damage. The West’s lack of understanding of the ground realities and the trust and intellectual deficit that mars their relationship with these states and societies sabotage indigenous efforts towards curtailing extremist tendencies. This is applicable to the present situation in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Palestine and Syria. Development Modernization progress all are considered to be an agenda of the West. It has strengthened the stance of the Extremist Islamists and in the process and it has weakened the stance of the liberals.

 South Asia is a region where people strongly believe in religion and it plays a defining role in their lives. It is nearly impossible for any political party or individual to be completely out of the influence of religion. However, a conscious effort has to be made to prevent the use of religion to further political ends. The real solution lies in the separation of state and religion. This would prevent the negative use of religion from controlling politics and religious sentiments from influencing relations between different communities. In order to maintain peace and cooperation in South Asia, it is desirable to rethink and reevaluate the concept of secularism.

 However to bring objectivity to the discussion it must be understood that moderates and anti secularists who reject exclusivist religious-nationalist development, do not see the alternative as a modern, westernized secular state. In their view, political-religious conflict involving intolerance and violence are also perpetuated by the so called modern secular national state. To them, religion per se is not a source of conflict but its politicization that trigger conflict.  In the South Asian context, this is proven beyond doubt for both secular and non secular state has witnessed religion triggered conflicts and its politicization by the ruling elite. Therefore, the adoption of secular values alone will not resolve the religious chasm in the region.  The approaches emphasized upon and applicable should include tolerance, non-violence, pluralism, and inclusivism.

 Secularism in Pakistan in spite of this ground reality does offer a chance to political viability through secular sharing of Power. In state of religious, ethnic derivations the only viable option for Pakistan is a secular form of government. It may sound like a tall order but, Support for strict separation between religion and government has grown steadily over the past five years according to the U.S survey. Majorities in 47 countries surveyed by the Washington-based PEW institute for public opinion agree to religion and politics not to mix. Pakistanis who believed that religion and government should remain separate were only 33 percent of the population in 2002.

 Five years later the size grew to 48 per cent a 15 per cent increase. However it should be completely understood that when people of Pakistan call for separation of government and religion they are actually giving a negative sanction to politicization of religion and its use for power brokerage. Pakistan like rest of South Asia remains a emotionally religious state looking for options that does not divorce religion but live with it in peace.

  *Dr Huma Baqai, Associate Professor Social Sciences at IBA; founder member of Liberal Forum Pakistan and among the advisory team of LFP.