Can secularism help Pakistan?

A secular system is an assurance that each one of us can practice his/her religion freely, including Islam.

Faraz Talat September 13, 2011
The vox populi says "no", and I understand that most readers would hold fast to this sentiment with earnest sagacity regardless of what I write here. But recognizing that this debate has been re-invoked by a popular article "Secularism does not equal tolerance"  about secularism not being a necessary prerequisite to religious tolerance, I beg to state my own case.

Firstly, I must stress (as many secularists do) that secularism is not an anti-religious system. It merely stipulates that the state affairs must not be influenced by religion, in acknowledgement of the fact that a nation is a collection of citizens with different religions, and putting one group's religious laws on the pedestal would be unfair to the rest, who would want their own religious values to be prioritized.

Secularism is not an experimental model. It's a tried-and-tested system that has consistently yielded splendid results. To emphasize this point, I'd like to talk about something I learned from an Irish friend of mine.

The image of Ireland following its independence and almost all the way up till the 70's was a dismal one. With the Catholic group in power, an iron-fisted censorship board was established that banned films and magazines at the slightest hint of blasphemous or "immoral" content, and the artists and writers involved in these acts were punished.  Professors were frequently mistreated for teaching concepts which were not considered in line with the orthodox Christian beliefsReligious minorities faced unfathomable horrors as they were discriminated against by their government as well as the people.

The results of this system were abysmal. The Irish film and art industry was left strangled, and the state of education was atrocious. The state of women worsened and religious minority populations began to dwindle. The country developed a reputation as a terrorist state, known well around Europe as the home of IRA and religious fundamentalists. This tarnished image quickly became the bane of Irish migrants in UK, who reported widespread discrimination and bigotry against them.

Prominent Irish Catholics blamed this failure on improper implementation of Christian dicta, arguing that since these religious laws worked perfectly well for the Rome-dominated western Europe of the 13th century (regarded as the golden age of Christianity), there's no reason why they shouldn't for modern Ireland.

Do these circumstances sound familiar?

With the secular revolution in the 1970's, Ireland was quickly transformed from a backward European nation to a progressive, prosperous state. A remarkable reduction was observed in the level of religious intolerance, the art industry began to thrive and Ireland's global image received a boost in inverse relation to the level of discrimination faced by Irish people abroad.

Ireland is just one example. The failures of Pakistan despite fervent Islamization are no indication of the inefficacy of Islam laws, which largely promote religious harmony and unity. It has been observed by prominent scholars and theologians that many edicts that are passed off as Islamic commandments these days have little to do with Islam itself, but rather the socio-cultural model of 7th -10th century Arabia. The same Arabic laws that did wonders for Muslims in the golden age a thousand years back may require some revision if they are to work just as well in the 21st  century paradigm, where things have changed significantly.

This evolution must be embraced, not perceived as a threat to our religious values. A secular system of governance is not a hindrance to the Islamic faith, but an assurance that each one of us can practice his/her religion freely without being discriminated against or provided special privileges on the basis of our religious convictions (or lack thereof).

This is, coincidentally, what the father of our nation implied in his address to the Constituent Assembly of Pakistan in 1947:
"You are free to go to your temples, you are free to go to your mosques or to any other place of worship in this State of Pakistan. You may belong to any religion or caste or creed that has nothing to do with the business of the State."

The author of the article I alluded to in the beginning claims that religious tolerance can be achieved sans secularism. Perhaps so, but that noble task is markedly more onerous when the dialogue is initiated with the words:
 "Our country's laws shall be based on my religious beliefs, because they are superior to your beliefs. Now, let us talk about equality and tolerance!"


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Faraz Talat

The writer is a doctor based in Rawalpindi and writes about current affairs and societal issues.

The views expressed by the writer and the reader comments do not necassarily reflect the views and policies of the Express Tribune.


Qamar | 12 years ago | Reply Pakistan is a big failure as it is an islamic country! in an islamic countries no minorities/liberals/atheist have full right but in western/secular muslims enjoy more freedom than non-muslims in islamic countries...still there are people here who still thinks islamic system is better than secular system lol.. i wanna ask questions to those who prefer islamic system: can a non-muslim women wear dress according to her wish? in a western country a muslim can wear headscarf can a "muslim" convert to other religion? in a western country a non-muslim can converts to islam or other religion can any non-musliim marry a muslim girl without converting to islam? in a western country a muslim can marry a non--muslim girl and she will convert to your religion in every western country everyone can become president irrespective your religon, can in an islamic paksitan a non-muslim becomes president of Pakistan? in UK thtere is more mosques than churces in all islamic countries together, can a non-muslim built churches/tempels etc? in secular countries muslims can launch islamic channels and spread islam everywhere, how many christian channels are there in Pakistan, and are the christians allowed to spread information about their religion? in a western country anyone can leavve their religion and convert to other religion, can in an islamic country someone who leaves islam lead a peaceful life without getting prosecuted? Accept the fact muslims have more rights in western/secular countries then non-muslims in islamic countries, a country based on theocracy is always a big mistake! so pakistan is indeed a big mistake..
Ash | 12 years ago | Reply To those who are comparing Secularism and Atheism and are sort of downplaying atheism, I would like to ask: what is wrong with being an atheist. It is just that if I or someone else don't believe in the God as the concept does not sound great, that's it. Does take me or that person as someone who should be killed or someone who is not a good human? How is that suddenly atheist become so different than religious people?
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