It doesn't matter if you're 'left' or 'right'

Instead of deriding each other, secular and religious democrats in Pakistan should join forces.

Ali Ahmad January 14, 2011
I have always wondered whether the characterisation of ‘’secular’’ versus ‘’religious’’ (with ‘’secular’’ equated with liberalism and ‘’religious’’ synonymous with at best, a quaint traditionalism and at worst, a form of barbarity) is an accurate framework for civic discussion.

In his work titled Public Philosophy – Essays on Morality in Politics, Michael Sandel, the Harvard political philosopher, argues that all citizens should come to the public sphere and be allowed to use religious/moral and metaphysical arguments in public discussion as it has done much to tear down these simplistic dichotomies. The civil rights movement in the US was primarily a moral and religious project arguing for the liberation and equality of all American citizens. It was a powerful statement of faith but also equality, justice and freedom.

In short, there is always (whether we like it or not) an unbreakable link between our political decisions and our personal moral beliefs. Even those advocating individual freedoms do so by adopting a moral and philosophical belief. Sandel’s message in his work is clear:
Fundamentalists rush in where liberals fear to tread. The answer for liberals is not to flee moral arguments but to engage them.

And that:
A politics whose moral resources are diminished with disuse lies vulnerable to those who impose narrow moralisms.

Addressing the democratic deficit

If we go beyond labels and suspicions, we will find we share more in common as citizens than we actually first think. In Pakistan, even in liberal publications, the public discussion is paralysed by a fixation and unhealthy obsession on what the label ‘’secular’’ actually means. We spend so much time debating whether the Quaid was ‘’secular’’ or ‘’Islamic’’ (which in itself is an almighty waste of time, and is indicative of the intellectual bankruptcy in contemporary political discourse), that we forget to discuss the actual principles and substance of Mr Jinnah’s polity.

The amount of articles in the last few days that talk about ‘’secularism’’ and ‘’liberalism’’ have been vague and mostly nonsensical, because they lack a fundamental discussion on the structural nature of religious reform.

By this I mean discussing the nature of religious authority, religious education and institutions and making the critical connection with the State. The rhetoric of liberalism in Pakistan is increasingly hollow, it seems liberal writers are concerned only about a handful issues whilst neglecting the underlying structural inequalities in our political framework. Where are the economic, political and social reforms? Liberals need to enter into all spheres of public life rather than just vaguely focusing on religion. Violent radicalism flourishes in closed societies or when individuals feel disempowered.

Crisis of religious authority

Pakistan, like many other Sunni majority countries, is facing a disintegration of religious authority. The structures of education have changed so dramatically in the last five centuries that the traditional and classical mode of Muslim learning has all but collapsed. Gone is the private jurist and in comes a consortium of ‘’scholars’’ appointed and handpicked by the state. Why is this all important? Because the fact of the matter is that the culture of Islamic legal construction in Pakistan is dictated by and large by fundamentalist and conservative scholars who have managed to maintain their structures of learning such as the madrassa and traditional education.

Furthermore, there is a monopoly over religious discourse funded by the petrodollars of the Middle East. How can reformists compete against the sheer financial and propaganda machine of this new type of fundamentalism?

For too long the expression of religious reform has been isolated in the works of brilliant individuals and held hostage by the fickle drama of political power, it is time that liberal Islam be institutionalised in Pakistan and sets its roots firmly in the soil of Pakistani society. This change will have to come by making serious structural reforms to religious authority and the way we teach and think about faith in Pakistan.

Religious reform starts from within the tradition. As leading Muslim thinkers AbdolKarim Soroush and Ebrahim Moosa make clear, any reform in Islamic law has to come from an innovative change in theological discussion and moral philosophy. This will require re-imaging the way we teach and study religion. Tariq Ramadan, too, in his work offers a new paradigm of religious authority.

The German model?

The funny thing is that the so called ‘’godless’’ West has a better understanding and idea about how to achieve this. In Germany, there has been an initiative set up by the government to train imams and religious scholars in German universities:

"We need imams who are socialised and at home in Germany," said Rauf Ceylan, a professor for Islamic religious education and one of the founders of the new program in Osnabrueck, in north western Germany. "They influence the religious orientation of Muslims in Germany, they have a big impact on whether young Muslims will practice a tolerant, conservative or extremist version of Islam."

Or perhaps we can learn from the recent opening of new educational institutions by Hamza Yusuf in the States.

In Pakistan, liberal and reformist Islamic scholars have no recognisable institutional entity. During Musharraf’s era we saw an artificial imposition of reformist scholars like Ghamidi onto the Council of Islamic Ideology. But the fact is that the Council of Islamic Ideology is but merely an instrument used by political authority to consolidate their own agenda, and not an independent institute of learning (although it would like to portray itself as one). Scholars like Ghamidi and in the past Dr Fazlur Rahman (the Pakistani-American scholar who was forced to leave Pakistan during the 60s due to his ideas of religious reform), have been attacked by the inexorable tide of fundamentalism due to a lack of security but also because there are no institutions which can provide a stable base for reformist scholars to propagate their ideas.

Institutionalising ijtihad

In today's climate where oppressive and regressive pieces of legislation such as the blasphemy law (along with many of the practices in Pakistan related to women's rights) are sanctioned by religious authority, the only way to combat these pieces of conservative and traditionalist legal construction is to offer an alternative religious discourse. This will require a sophisticated structural argument focusing on the role of religious institutions.

The other discussions about human rights, justice, freedom, liberty, corruption and gender discrimination are all essentially moral and ethical arguments that demand a robust debate on principles and values. The slogan of ‘’secularism’’ in the writings of some Pakistani writers is becoming increasingly vacuous, ignoring the tough terrain of moral and religious debate and negotiation, which is why they find themselves marginalised.

The real discussion should be about democratic liberalism. So instead of deriding each other, secular and religious democrats in Pakistan should join together and be more supportive of each other, instead of slating each other. What we must understand is that a mature, liberal and progressive democracy is more of an art form, a framework for critical public discussion, rather than just voting.

The religious left?

In Jeffery Stout’s book Democracy and Tradition, there is a very illuminating passage in his conclusion:

‘’ If the religious left does not soon recover its energy and self-confidence, it is unlikely that American democracy will be capable of counteracting either the greed of its business elite or the determination of many whites to define the authentic nation in ethnic, racial, or ecclesiastical terms.’’

A similar sort of judgement can be made about Pakistani society, that there needs to be a revival of religious liberalism which characterised much of early 20th century Muslim thought, as documented in Charles Kurzman’s works, Modernist Islam, 1840-1940: A Sourcebook and Liberal Islam – A Sourcebook.

Liberal democracy is fundamentally a moral project, and together with the input of religious and secular liberals can be conceived of as an alternative to religious radicalism. We should not be ashamed that liberalism speaks of virtue; in the great work Virtue and the Making of Modern Liberalism’’, Peter Berkowitz writes:

‘’ Liberalism’s enthusiasm for virtue has been less well documented. The enthusiasm springs from the understanding that liberty, as a way of life, is an achievement. This achievement demands of individuals specific virtues or, to speak less formally, certain qualities of mind and character – such as reflective judgement, sympathetic imagination, self restraint, the ability to cooperate, and toleration – that do not arise spontaneously but require education and cultivation.’’

Government-monitored religion?

What can be done? It has become clear now that the bravery and excellence of individuals is not enough to act as a substitute for a working democratic state. Secularism in its strictest sense is total and utter separation between religious and state institutions. Indeed a recent study by leading political academic shows that all states throughout the world in one way or another influence and control religious institutions. In A World Survey of Religion and the State, Professor Jonathan Fox says the conclusions are revealing, that government involvement in religious affairs has increased in democracies between 1990 and 2002 and only a small minority of democracies have a strict separation between religion and state.

Timid traditionalism

Seyyed Nasr Hossein in his work, the Heart of Islam , has argued that Muslim societies neither adopt the puritanical strains of contemporary fundamentalism nor indeed the innovative religious liberalism of modernists and reformists. Rather most Muslim societies adopt a traditionalist stance, rooted in classical Islam.

In Pakistan we have a timid traditionalism, who agree with the principle of the blasphemy law but prefer a more economical and safer implementation. Classical Muslim jurists sparingly used the Hadood punishments, and created a very strict set of criteria for their usage making it a rare occurrence. Engaging traditionalism as a buffer against fundamentalism but also working from within can sow the seeds for future theological and legal reform.
Ali Ahmad A medical student and freelance writer who tweets @AhmadAliKhalid
The views expressed by the writer and the reader comments do not necassarily reflect the views and policies of the Express Tribune.


Robin | 13 years ago | Reply It doesn’t matter if you’re ‘left’ or ‘right’ As long as You are MUSLIM
A Ali | 13 years ago | Reply @ All: Thank you for your kind comments and feedback. @ Hasan: You're question is apt, but I think it deserves a post of it's own so I will tackle this dilemma in the future. However, it is telling that this problem is more to do with economic theory and globalization rather than just religious doctrine. It's interesting how political and economic factors have such major and radical influences on religious interpretation. Just goes to show how religious interpretation is a very human process and can never be considered perfect. @ Burger Boy The point about early Islamic history is interesting and I intend to discuss it later by talking about a recent book on the subject, Asma Afsaruddin's ''First Muslims - History and Memory''.
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