Recently, during a conversation with friends on the state of Pakistan, the conversation drifted to the pros and cons of a secular Pakistan versus ‘the Islamic Republic of Pakistan’. While the conversation itself was quite mundane and one that is oft-repeated, what I found particularly interesting was the use of secularism and tolerance as synonymous by my pro-secular friends, and the implicit assumption that a religious government could not be a tolerant one. This struck me as odd, as I don’t see secularism and tolerance as synonyms. There are many examples of tolerant religious countries and intolerant secular ones. While I strongly support the need for a more tolerant Pakistani society, I do not believe that a secular Pakistan is a prerequisite for a tolerant Pakistan nor do I believe that using secularism as a vehicle to promote tolerance is a productive approach.
The recent rise in Islamophobia in the West highlights the fact that a secular society does not equate to a more tolerant one. The ban on the burqa in France, the ban on making minarets within Switzerland, and the movement in the US to ban Sharia law (whatever that means) are all indicative of intolerant secular societies. On the flip side, you have examples of tolerant Muslim countries, such as Malaysia. I recently visited Malaysia where I saw people eating in public during Ramazan, women roaming in miniskirts and alcohol being served openly. While all of these are superficial indicators, they strongly go against Muslim sensibilities. Seeing a tolerance for these things in a Muslim majority country showed to me that religiosity and tolerance are not mutually exclusive. One can hope that Pakistani Muslims can take a page from Malaysian Muslims and be more tolerant of people with differing views.
Currently, the public space for debate is shrinking within Pakistan. There is little or no tolerance for differing opinions. Liberals in particular are being targeted and being murdered/abducted for just making their voices heard, as is evident by the fate of the Taseer family. In addition, journalists who write provocative stories are targeted and murdered, giving Pakistan the ‘prestigious’ title of the ‘most deadly place for journalists’. More efforts must be made by the government to ensure an avenue for debate between groups with differing ideologies and safeguarding the security of both parties. Without the ability to engage in healthy debate and to freely speak one’s mind, the voice of each and every Pakistani is in danger of being muted.
As opposed to people expending efforts on promoting a secular Pakistan, it would be more productive to promote lessons of tolerance within the existing framework. A secular Pakistan is an oxymoron to most Pakistanis. Proposing a foreign concept such as secularism may detract from the positive goal of increasing tolerance within the country. However, just the simple message of a more tolerant Pakistan, which safeguards the rights of minorities, women, and religious groups is one that may resonate more with Pakistanis.
In my experience, Pakistan is a unique society where most people get offended if you don’t agree with their opinion. Everything is black and white, and there are no shades of grey. I, however, strongly believe that the world is full of shades of grey and I hope that those who don’t agree with me just agree to disagree.
Published in The Express Tribune, September 8th, 2011.