On secularism, Jinnah and Pakistan

My contribution for Jinnah Institute’s secular space

What are we fighting for? What are we aiming at? It is not theocracy, not for a theocratic state – Mohammad Ali Jinnah

Sixty-three years after the country was created, the term secular remains the most contested and misunderstood political concept in Pakistan. Mention the word secular and there is a litany of protests. The right wing thinks that secularism is an outright blasphemy of sorts, while the liberals hold that the genesis of Pakistan was through an anti-secular process. It is amazing that this happens in a country which was founded by a genuinely secular leader of the subcontinent. Until the 1930s, Jinnah was an undisputed ambassador of Hindu-Muslim Unity and even in 1946 he was willing to make political bargains within the context of a secular and decentralized India.

If anything, the Indian National Congress despite its rhetoric of secularism failed the ultimate test of being accommodative of the Muslim demands. Here ‘Muslim’ was not a religious identity but a broad banner for a community’s cultural, economic and political interests. It would be naïve to suggest that there was no religious motivation in Pakistan’s creation. In fact there were many who interpreted Pakistan as an Islamic country. However, Jinnah was categorical in his stance. There is enough evidence to suggest that he shunned the notion of a theocracy. Yet the contradiction of creating a country for Indian Muslims posed a challenge to the new state-project. For instance Jinnah is said to have told Raja Saheb of Mahmoodabad as to whose Shariah would Pakistan follow. Iskandar Mirza’s version is even starker when he quoted Jinnah: “Shariah? Whose shariah? No. I shall have a modern state.”
Whatever doubts on Jinnah’s intentions or political rhetoric employed by the Muslim League, Pakistan was meant to be a polity where state was separate from religion. Jinnah was unequivocal about the vision of the state when he spoke on the floor of Pakistan’s first constituent assembly on August 11, 1947:

“You are free to go to your temples; you are free to go to your mosques or to any other place of worship in the State of Pakistan. You may belong to any religion or caste or creed. That has nothing to do with the business of the State.”

The controversies surrounding Jinnah’s politics were quashed when the statesman and the formal head of the state-to-be said: “Now, I think we should keep that in front of us as our ideal, and you will find that in due course of time Hindus would cease to be Hindus and Muslims would cease to be Muslims, not in the religious sense because that is the personal faith of the individual, but in the political sense as citizens of the State.”

This rare speech by the founder of an ostensibly “Muslim” country was a watershed in history. Fortunately, unlike his successors he was not a mere rhetorician. His decision to retain J.N. Mandal as the first law minister of Pakistan made it amply clear that the Quaid did not want politics to be influenced by faith. It is a separate matter that Mandal resigned in 1950 once the pledges made by Jinnah were squandered by his successors.

Jinnah’s failing health and the capture of the Pakistani state by men, whom Jinnah reportedly described as khottey sikay (counterfeit coins), driven by power-quests and shortsightedness unleashed a process of Pakistan’s descent into ideological anarchy and a serious identity crisis that haunts us to date.

Less than a year after Jinnah’s death in 1948, the passage of Objectives Resolution was the first blow to the secular, progressive vision of Jinnah. The Objectives Resolution promised a vague sense of Islamic identity and statehood and was a clear attempt to pander to the hardcore religious lobby that had opposed Pakistan in the first place. The Resolution since 1949 has haunted us; and today it is an operative part of the Constitution (Article 2-A) thanks to a dictator who abused religion to amass and sustain power. Article 2-A of today’s Constitution cannot be touched. Not because there is no political will, but because religious lobbies and fundamentalism writ large have gripped the Pakistani state, turning it into a sectarian and brutal society.

Religious fanaticism gained momentum in the early 1950s when a handful of Mullahs encouraged by an ambivalent state incited violence against the Ahmadiyya minority. The destruction of Pakistan’s democracy in 1958 meant that the legitimate political process was truncated and damaged resulting in social upheavals and break up of Pakistan in 1971. Even then the religious lobby supported the persecution of Bengalis – Muslims and non-Muslims – for Bengal’s essential secular culture was unacceptable to the West Pakistan-dominated institutions of the state.
Bhutto’s turbulent years and political mobilization of the 1970s was challenged by politics based on religion. Bhutto made his greatest mistakes by appeasing the religious lobby and playing with the fire of political Islam. This too was not enough, and a right wing movement fully backed by unelected institutions of the state led to Bhutto’s decline and fall in 1977.

General Zia’s draconian era (1977-88) saw the worst perversion of the ideology of Jinnah, when the state was turned into a flag-bearer of one particular school of religious thought. A systemic perversion of history and textbooks was carried out as a state policy and the inaccurate slogan ‘Pakistan ka matlab kia, La Illaha Illala (What is the meaning of Pakistan? There is no God but Allah) was sold as the ‘truth’. This conception of Pakistan was patently false. Worse, children were indoctrinated with myths, such as that stating the raison d’être for Pakistan was the implementation of Sharia.

The persecution of minorities was sanctified and man-made laws against women were promulgated, citing them as divine pronouncements. The Afghan jihad against the Soviet Union financed this ideological ascendancy and stuck the last nail in the coffin of Jinnah’s Pakistan.

Today, a distorted ideology of Pakistan and the misconstrued concept of secularism have so deeply penetrated the minds of Pakistanis, especially the youth, that it will take nothing short of a revolutionary social change to bring back the Pakistan which Jinnah had envisaged.

In 21st century Pakistan, secularism is un-Islamic and anti-religion. The Urdu translation of ‘secularism’ is ‘La-Deeniyat‘ (irreligious). Most importantly, the demonizing of this ideology through state institutions has resulted in deliberate engineering of Pakistan’s history and ethos, and Jinnah is now patronized as a devout and pious Muslim.
Pakistan’s secular irony is deepened when one looks at history. Many have argued that the idea of a secular state and the ascendancy of reason was something that traveled to Europe via the scholarly works of Muslim thinkers such as Ibne Rushd and Ibne Khaldun. Even the Charter of Medina negotiated by Prophet Mohammad (PBUH) was a treaty between believers and non-believers, which gave equal rights to non-Muslims. The primitive nomadic society of Medina was secular – a fact that the denizens of political Islam conveniently forget in the Land of the Pure.
The implications of abandoning Jinnah’s ideological path have been disastrous. Pakistan is now at the forefront of Islamist militancy and a haven for several variants of political Islam. Tragically, political Islam wants to capture the Pakistani state and has orchestrated a reign of terror for civilians and state institutions alike. Yet there are people in denial about this gritty reality. At the end of the day, recourse to Jinnah’s vision is the only answer to our existentialist crisis.

Pakistan’s first Law Minister Mandal’s resignation letter addressed to the then Prime Minister of Pakistan stated: “Every one of these pledges is being flagrantly violated apparently to your knowledge and with your approval in complete disregard of the Quaid-e-Azam’s wishes and sentiments and to the detriment and humiliation of the minorities.”

We share Mandal’s anguish and pose the same question to Pakistan’s ruling classes, especially the moderate and progressive politicians who have a rare chance to undo several failures of the past. It may be late but any reformation within the Pakistani society will require these essentials: bringing back secularism into public discourse, adding Jinnah’s August 11 address to the Constitution, and thwarting the onslaught of political-sectarian Islam by reverting to Jinnah’s lost ideals.

Raza Rumi is a policy advisor, writer and editor based in Lahore. He blogs at www.razarumi.com and edits on online magazine Pak Tea House

Leave a Reply