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- Sunday, October 21, 2012 - From Print Edition

Secularism is deemed to be a dirty word in Pakistan. But it is an idea whose time has come. In fact, it may already be too late. We now stand effectively disconnected from the freedom movement that was led by Mohammad Ali Jinnah and his associates.

This assertion would appear to be paradoxical at a time when the Malala Yousafzai tragedy appears to have united and energised all those elements who want to repulse the rising tide of religious extremism. It does look like a turning point in some respects. Yet the passions that Islamic radicals and the jihadis have injected into the political process cannot be contained without a conscious decision on the part of the establishment and the mainstream parties to disengage religion from the state.

While the surge of compassion for Malala and what she represents is likely to discredit the Taliban and lessen their influence, our politics remains very much haunted by the spectre of extremism and intolerance. Their street power, for instance, will not diminish automatically.

The most vicious expression of religious extremism are the sectarian killings. The consistent targeted killings of Hazaras in Quetta, bordering on ethnic cleansing, inspire fearful thoughts about the national drift. The killings that took place in Gilgit-Baltistan were even more diabolical. Karachi has also had its own share of sectarian violence. The minorities, particularly the Ahmedis, remain under threat.

A recent Pew Research Institute poll said that fifty percent of Sunnis in Pakistan consider Shias as Muslims – meaning that the other fifty percent do not. This is simply unbelievable. Even if the poll is highly inaccurate, we know that fanaticism on this front has steadily grown. Violent hatred of the other, on the basis of religion, sect, school of thought, language and ethnicity has spread across the country.

Granted, Pakistan is afflicted with numerous other problems and extremism exists in different contexts. However, the main source of intolerance and lack of social harmony is the exploitation of religion in politics. It is obvious that this process is highly divisive. It is instructive that we do not have one but a plethora of religious parties, all with their separate interpretations of an ideal religious dispensation.

One major problem in dealing with these outfits is that you cannot hold a rational dialogue with them without the fear of being branded an infidel. Their militant attitude has fostered an environment of fear and intimidation. It is this fear that has undermined the potential for creativity and modernism in the intellectual and cultural domain. Pakistan’s is a spiritually stunted society because of the dominance of religious intolerance.

In these circumstances, we are in desperate need of a national leader or a mainstream party courageous enough to proclaim the separation of religion from the state. Perhaps our military leadership should first do some hard thinking on this issue and sincerely evaluate the social and political cost of lending a jihadi perspective to our national security formulations. Yes, this is our war and we need a paradigm shift to win it.

Come to think of it, where have the Taliban come from? They were not allowing little girls to go to school when they assumed power in Afghanistan with the overt support of the government of Pakistan and we were unable to change their mind on what has emerged as the fundamental tenet of their ideology. They were not seriously challenged when they initially spread their tentacles in Pakistan and were eventually able to stage their inordinately long reign of terror in Swat. Now the issue of whether there should be a military operation in North Waziristan or not has become contentious. Again, it does not seem important whether North Waziristan is a part of Pakistan and should the writ of the government extend to this tribal wilderness.

While no one, including most of the religious leaders, is in a position to disregard the brutality of the attack on Malala, the Taliban have adamantly refused to show any remorse for this act of ignominy. Reuters released a report on Tuesday on a statement made by the Taliban in which they reiterated that Malala deserved to die because she had spoken against them and had praised Barack Obama. Calling her a “spy of the west”, the statement added: “For this espionage, infidels gave her awards and rewards. And Islam orders killing of those who are spying for enemies”. See, they claim to be dictated by the tenets of Islam.

Manifest in this statement is a diabolical hatred of the United States and of the west, something that has percolated through other religious groups with varying intensity. Opinion surveys tell us that a vast majority is anti-American. The problem here is that this passionate stance also incorporates a rejection of western values such as democracy, human rights and emancipation of women. There is a tendency to bypass the world, so to say, in charting out a separate route to redemption.

One irony here is that though Pakistan is overwhelmingly a religious society, it does not reflect the great values of religion in its public behaviour. Ours is manifestly not an upright, moral society. It is infested with corruption and waywardness. When you go around talking to people, you find them depressed and confused about their own and their country’s future. Almost all of them feel insecure for different reasons.

So, as a Muslim country, where can Pakistan go from here? It is in this respect that one may look at Turkey as an example. And not only because the modern Turkey was founded by Kemal Ataturk on harshly enforced secular foundations. The point for Pakistanis to ponder is that at present the ruling party in Turkey is a moderate Islamic party. It has led the country to new heights of prosperity and regional influence.

The message here is that secularism is not a polity without religion. It prescribes religious freedom for all individuals and groups but the state, in its worldly affairs, does not profess any religious faith. It should be possible for our leaders to promote the idea without resorting to the offensive nomenclature. We do need some drastic political initiatives to suppress the dark passions of extremism that have been aroused in the name of religion, the Taliban being one glaring example.

Finally, a quote from Recip Tayyib Erdogan, prime minister of Turkey: “We have shown every one that an advanced democracy can exist in a predominantly Muslim country. We have become a role model for all Muslim countries”. I also remember what he said in Tunisia some months ago: an individual (or citizen) should be religious but the state should be secular.

The writer is a staff member Email: [email protected]