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January 1, 2015

State and religion


January 1, 2015


A pressing question facing today’s Pakistan is the relationship between religion and the state. Should the state be subordinate to religion? Should religion be subordinate to the state? Or should the two be separate?
Subordinating the state to religion means making political as well as economic and cultural institutions primarily an instrument of the propagation and enforcement of a particular creed. Such a view makes the state an ideological entity existing solely to serve a religious purpose.
On the contrary, making religion subservient to the state means that religion, like other social institutions, is an instrument to protect and advance state interest – generally described as national interest. The profession of a creed may be prohibited in the interest of the dominant political ideology or narrative.
Keeping the state and religion separate means that neither would the state prescribe or promote, nor would public resources be used, in the service of a particular creed. Neither would the followers of a specific faith be accorded preferential treatment nor would those professing other creeds be discriminated against. The state would be secular – without an official dogma or religion.
Every polity has to answer this question one way or another with far-reaching socio-political implications. How has our society answered this question? To understand this, let’s go back to the genesis of the country.
The partition of British India was done on the basis of religion; there was no other ground: linguistic, ethnic, racial, or geographic. Muslim majority regions made up Pakistan – the rest went to India. But what precisely was the purpose of the creation of Pakistan? Was it to put in place an ‘Islamic’ state in the narrow sense of the term? Or was it to safeguard the political, economic and cultural rights of the Muslims ‘endangered’ in a united India?
To date, opinion has remained sharply divided on such questions. The founders of

the country, who on their part were liberal and westernised if not secular as well, did from time to time make statements on the raison d’être of what at that time was the largest Muslim state on the map of the world. But they were not always consistent – and understandably so. Even if they were consistent, the controversy might not have been sorted out.
The first real test came when the Constituent Assembly began to draw up the first constitution of the country. One of the causes behind the inordinate delay in constitution making was the debate on the place religion would hold in the political system.
The present constitution of Pakistan, following the previous basic laws of the land, has sought to answer the question of the state-religion relationship by making Islam the state religion and incorporating some other Islamic provisions. For instance:
Both the president and prime minister have to be Muslim; principles of democracy, tolerance, freedom, equality, and justice, as enunciated by Islam, shall be fully observed in the country; Muslims shall be enabled to fashion their lives as per Islamic teachings; and no law will be made, or continue to be in force, which is in conflict with the canons of Islam.
At the same time, the constitution guarantees religious freedom by giving every citizen the right to ‘profess, practise and promote his religion’. But has the state-religion relationship question been adequately answered?
Pakistan remains an overwhelmingly Muslim society. So on the face of it, making Islam the state religion seems quite logical. But within Muslims there are sects and sub-sects having deep, and at some points irreconcilable, doctrinal differences. Not only that, there are progressive and retrogressive, liberal and narrow, modern and primitive, forward-looking and reactionary interpretations of Islam. So in case religion is given a paramount place in the polity, the first question is which creed or interpretation should reign supreme.
One may refer here to the report authored by the late Justice Munir Ahmed on the 1953 Punjab disturbances occasioned by a religious movement, which led to the imposition of martial law in the province. The Munir Report, as it is commonly called, on the basis of the author’s dialogues with some leading Muslim clerics of different sects, notes that they can’t even agree on the definition of a Muslim.
Here is a passage from the report: “The net result of all this is that neither Shias nor Sunnis nor Deobandis nor Ahl-e-Hadith nor Barelvis are Muslims, and any change from one view to the other must be accompanied in an Islamic state with the penalty of death, if the government of the state is in the hands of the party which considers the other party to be kafirs. And it does not require much imagination to judge the consequences of this doctrine, when it is remembered that no two ulema have agreed before us as to the definition of a Muslim...”
Not surprisingly, a Deobandi is reluctant to offer prayers led by a Barelvi. A Shia hesitates to go to a mosque that is run by Sunnis.
By the same token, the social values of Islam are susceptible to a variety of interpretations. Take, for example, justice. Does it consist in expeditious trial of the accused followed by on-the-spot punishment in case of conviction, as touted by the exponents of the jirga system as well as the Taliban? Or does justice lie in following the lengthy due process of law, as represented by the formal judicial system?
What is the Islamic concept of democracy? We follow essentially the Westminster model of parliamentary democracy but our parliament is called ‘Majlis-e-Shura,’ which is at best a consultative forum and not a supreme legislature. On a retrogressive interpretation, parliamentary democracy, based on majority vote and party system, is ‘un-Islamic’. On a liberal interpretation, there is no inherent contradiction between the two.
Are Islam and pluralism mutually compatible or exclusive? If they are compatible, a variety of creeds can co-exist with full religious freedom and reciprocal toleration. If they are mutually exclusive, only one creed is entitled to exist and the rest should either be converted or wiped out, not simply as a matter of policy but as a religious obligation. This is what the Taliban ideology, of which a significant section of our society is enamoured, essentially is. The Taliban kill in the name of God.
By making Islam the official religion, the state has taken upon itself the task of making people good Muslims. But who is a good Muslim? Is it he who prays five times a day but has no qualms about murdering those who do not measure up to his standards of a good Muslim? Is it he who earns his or her living by hard work? Or is it he who is compassionate and kind to his fellows irrespective of their creed?
More than 97 percent of Pakistanis are Muslims; Muslims also occupy key slots in government, business and industry. So Islam has never been in danger in Pakistan. But religious extremism, coming from Muslims and not non-Muslims and feeding on a diabolical ideology, is eating into society. It is time we pondered where we went wrong in establishing our state-religion relationship.
The writer is a freelance contributor. Email: [email protected]




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