Revisiting the constitution

May 31, 2010

“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 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. You will find that in course of time Hindus would cease to be Hindus and Muslims would cease to be Muslims, not in the religious sense, because that is the personal faith of each individual, but in the political sense as citizens of the state.”

This is the Pakistan, our founding father Muhammad Ali Jinnah envisioned. The attack on two Ahmadi places of worship on May 28 is saying that we have failed him – and we have done so miserably. Jinnah wished to see a Pakistan where faith or belief was to be left as one’s personal choice; instead we have created a country where you dare not disagree with a cleric or else you will be branded a non-believer.

If we have to survive as a nation, we cannot just expect divine intervention to fix this mess for us. We have to fix it ourselves. It has to start from the very basic question: Who are we? And the answer to that is that we are Pakistanis and nothing else. The 1973 constitution that continues to hold us together was one of the many remarkable things Zulfikar Ali Bhutto did for Pakistan. But he erred gravely when he caved in to Jamaat-e-Islami’s demands of declaring ‘Ahmadis’ as non-Muslims, for the simple reason that it codified in law the state’s intervention in religion and in what was and remains a decidedly private matter.

The story of Dr Abdus Salam, the brightest of all Pakistani scientists, stands out. He is the first and only Pakistani to have won a Nobel Prize. He played a lead role in setting up Pakistan’s first ever space exploratory and nuclear research centres including the Pakistan Atomic Energy Commission. He sent hundreds of Pakistani students to the top international universities of the world for PhDs in nuclear physics and other scientific disciplines. When he died, the epitaph on his tomb read: ‘First Muslim Nobel Laureate’. The word ‘Muslim’ was later erased by local authorities. Here was a man, who did far more for his country than all of the religious parties combine could ever claim to and yet we denied him the respect and the legacy that he deserved because of his personal beliefs.

Until 1977, when Bhutto’s government was toppled, Pakistan was free of any major sectarian and ethnic tensions. The ten years of Zia-ul-Haq’s dictatorial regime would transform Pakistan from a tolerant society into one marred with ethnic and sectarian divisions and hate-driven politics. He fully crippled the religious freedom of minorities by imposing draconian laws in the name of the Anti-Islamic-Activity Act. Zia vanished, but we continue to pay for his sins.

The remnants of his era, in the shape of many in our media now and others, continue to insinuate hatred against minorities, the West, and all others who disagree with them. It goes beyond my imagination that we let these hate-mongers freely express their extremist sentiments on TV channels under the pretext of freedom of speech. Freedom of speech doesn’t mean freedom to spread hate.

To build a stronger and a united Pakistan, we need to cleanse our constitution of the provisions that continue to divide us.

The issue here is not about any one particular sect or minority group but about the state getting into the business of judging people’s faiths and then on that judgement including or excluding them from the rights (in particular the right to equal treatment under law) otherwise guaranteed to them as citizens of Pakistan.

Published in the Express Tribune, June 1st, 2010.

The writer is a doctoral student at Cornell University