The fundamental debate

November 29, 2020

Deciding the question of religion’s role in a nation state

A debate on the place of religion in a democratic society, particularly the role of state in this regard, can be quite divisive. Some scholars hold that allowing religion a role in the affairs of the state confounds the issues of identity and cultural rights. Most political ideologue in Pakistan, however, insist otherwise, probably in view of strategic choices in the recent history.

For nearly two centuries now, the notion of a nation state has posed a formidable challenge to countries having populations composed of diverse ethnic groups and/or religious communities. The nation state has allowed strong foundations to be laid for secular and democratic politics as well as totalitarian regimes. Today, however, the idea is under attack from various directions. National minorities everywhere are asserting the right to self-determination and religious communities are challenging secular governments.

The Objectives Resolution endorses the Islamic ideals and the Constitution of Pakistan has declared Pakistan an Islamic Republic. Islam is also the state religion.

The Constitution provides that all laws will be brought into accord with the injunctions of Islam as laid down in the Quran and Sunnah and that no law repugnant to such injunctions shall be enacted.

This alone, says Dr Raghib Naeemi, should be enough to answer those who wish to make an argument about Pakistan based on their claim that it is a nation state. “We must not and cannot ignore the role of Islam in the Pakistan Movement... The state of Pakistan cannot function without being guided by Islam”, he tells The News on Sunday.

Naeemi says only a tiny minority with a liberal outlook espouses the idea of a nation state having no religion whereas the vast majority wants the state to be guided by Islamic principles.

Javed Ahmed Ghamidi, another influential religious scholar, believes otherwise. In his article titled, State and Government, published on Ghamidi.TV, he states that Pakistan is a nation state and can therefore have no religion.

“The nation-states of the modern era whose boundaries are ascertained by international treaties and which become a source of nationhood themselves for their citizens as soon as they come into existence. Thus in spite of having commonality or diversity in colour, ancestry, language and culture they call themselves Egyptians, Americans, Afghans and Pakistanis and express their nationhood in this respect. No one is superior or subservient here. All, in fact, are regarded as equal citizens in all respects and in this capacity participate in the affairs of the state”, he says.

Ghamidi quotes from Quaid-i-Azam Muhammad Ali Jinnah’s address to the Constituent Assembly on August 11, 1947. The Quaid-i-Azam had famously declared that, “You are free; 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.”

A state is an organic legal entity, says writer Wajahat Masood. He adds that a nation state is established through a social contract. Faith or religion, however, cannot be described through a law or the constitution. “There is only one basic rule in a nation state: every citizen has an equal right to keep and practice their religion. The state protects this right. Thus, the state’s role is not to determine citizens’ religion but to ensure their right to practice it without facing violence or being threatened”, he adds.

Under the concept of a nation state, the state has also no right to declare a community as a ‘majority’ or a ‘minority’ on the basis of religion. Any special consideration given to a particular religionviolates the rights and privileges granted to all throughthe social contract, says writer Wajahat Masood.

There is an incredible amount of diversity within each religion in terms of how its adherents define their connection to it. For some, according to Masood, a religion’s theological beliefs and rituals of worship are central to their lives. Others are more drawn to a religion’s community and culture rather than its beliefs and rituals. Many feel part of a religion’s culture but choose not to participate in its rituals. Some people feel free to choose a religion for themselves, or to reject religion entirely as a part of their identity.

Under the concept of a nation state, Masood says, the state has also no right to declare a community as a ‘majority’ or a ‘minority’ on the basis of religion. “Any special consideration given to a particular religion violates the rights and privileges granted to all through the social contract,” he adds.

The relationship between a state’s preference for a religious tradition and democratic political culture is a bit more complex in a reality. Cultural and linguistic diversity is a feature of most nations today as people from various groups live together as a consequence of historical events and migrations.

Sociologist Zaigham Khan is convinced that the complexity of religious tradition and democratic political culture in Pakistan has caused the most confusion for the state since independence. Unfortunately, the state has yet to understand and value the cultural diversity of this land, he says.

All individuals must feel free to explore the uniqueness of their culture and identity while developing an understanding of the cultural diversity around them. When a state gives preference to one religion or community, it denies others’ cultural values and creates problems for nation building, he says.

“Denying cultural expressions of some communities limits the expression of their unique perspectives on life and restricts the transmission of knowledge accumulated over centuries. Unfortunately, in countries like Pakistan, an artificial uniformity is being established by denying religious, cultural and linguistic diversity. It is because, the state has never detached itself from a single identity and owned the cultural, heritage and linguistic diversity”, he adds.

Khan says that the state’s role is not to promote a cultural tradition or to deny one in order to build a nation.


The author is a staff   member.    He can be reached at [email protected]

The fundamental debate