What does it mean to be an Islamic state? Was there ever such an entity? Can modernity, as it pertains to developing a functional society in a globalised world, be realised within the context of a theocracy? These are fundamental questions which Pakistanis need to resolve, within this generation, in order for Pakistan to develop and reach its potential.
Pakistan shares the distinction, along with Israel, as being one of only two states to have been crafted, in the post-colonial worlds, on the basis of religion. In both cases enormous migrations were involved with questionable legitimacy for the migrants. The ‘muhajir’ identity continues to be perpetuated, as such, on this basis. The creation of both Israel and Pakistan present a perplexing paradox: Created on the basis of religion, their champions were largely secular individuals. The founders of Zionism as a political force, such as Israel’s first prime minister, David Ben Gurion, were secular. So too were Pakistan’s founders, most notably the Quaid-i-Azam. I would argue that Ben Gurion and Jinnah made a dangerous bargain when it came to conflating cultural identity on the basis of religious adherence.
Pakistan and Israel — two states which don’t recognise each other diplomatically — are facing a similar radicalisation because of that initial crisis of identity which was never fully resolved. Theocratic forces are gaining power in both countries. Like Pakistan, Israel made many concessions to religious parties such as the prohibition of any work activity — including public transport — on the Shabbat (Saturday), and only allowing for marriage to take place under rabbinic tradition. This latter law has fuelled a strange industry of marriage in neighbouring Cyprus, where secular Jews flock for matrimonial weekends to avoid the strict features of a religious wedding ceremony! The main difference between Israeli and Pakistani religious movements is that the latter has turned against the state in a violent way. Because of the violence and a fundamental loyalty to religion, they are unable to figure out how best to reconcile religion with statecraft. Unlike Judaism, Islam has an evangelical streak, which is aimed at converting the whole polity to its brand of religious zealotry that is divided along sectarian lines.
This is where the challenge of ‘moderating Islam’ becomes far more apparent. The struggle between literalist and contextual interpretations of Islam has confounded Muslims from the very start. Three out of four of the early Noble Caliphs (Khulafa-e-Rashideen) were murdered due to doctrinal differences. The tussle between those who want taqlid (following or imitating primordial authority), and those who want ijtihad (independent reasoning of religious doctrine) is nothing new. Pakistan is now, sadly, the centre point for this struggle. The absolutist vision of taqlid is simply incompatible with modern societies as manifest in issues such as the Hudood Ordinance, and so Pakistanis will need to decide whether they are willing to redefine themselves within the context of ijtihad.
Other Muslim states, which we currently consider moderate, such as Malaysia and Indonesia, are also dealing with the same challenge. However, because they have a sizeable non-Muslim minority population, (40 per cent in the case of Malaysia) or have a constitutional mandate to prevent theocracy (such as Turkey), they are able to move more easily to quash the absolutist elements. Pakistan’s task is more difficulty because of our demographic. We have two choices: Either we bite the bullet and endure several years of conflict with the extremist elements, while also reforming our educational system, or we figure out a way to marginalise the extremists to a confined region, where they can exercise their theocracy without hijacking the rest of the state (see previous article).
The latter is clearly a less favourable option, but do we have the will to take on reforms and fight extremism? I fear we do not have the political courage to do so. Compromise in democratic systems is important but when one side (the Religious Right) is structurally incapable of moving from its position, we are left with a dangerous recipe for the tyranny of the malevolent minority taking hold.
Published in The Express Tribune, March 22nd, 2011.