The abyss stares back

Treating this country as Jinnah’s bequest infantilises Pakistanis and justifies a paternalistic state.

Feisal H Naqvi September 03, 2012

What do you do when you look in the mirror and get scared?

Between the Rimsha Masih case and the recent rise in sectarian killings, Pakistan has been forced to confront its dark side in a more concerted fashion than ever before. What we see is scary. We are a nation increasingly at war with ourselves. And we’re losing.

Till date, the standard response of the liberal has been to respond with an invocation of Jinnah’s famous speech to the Constituent Assembly. You know, the one which includes the famous line about being free to go to your temples and your churches.

I have a question here. Is that all we have? One speech by one guy, 65 years ago? Is that the entirety of the foundation on which our commitment to freedom of religion rests? Because if that is the case, we are in bigger trouble than we know.

Let me go further. We need to believe in freedom of religion not because Jinnah said so but because it is the right thing to do. What Jinnah said six plus decades ago has nothing to do with anything.

Before everybody reacts in shock and horror, let me try to explain my heresy.

I yield to no person in my admiration for the Quaid. But Jinnah, above all others, would have been horrified by his deification. Jinnah was a lawyer, one of the greatest in a continent full of litigators. As many commentators have noted, Jinnah was famed for his principles and his integrity. But what made him great was his dedication to those principles. To respect those principles because he believed in them is to put the cart before the horse.

The logical response to my objection is that I am being unnecessarily finicky. Given our current predicament, the argument is that we need people to believe in religious liberties. Who cares why they believe, so long as they believe? For the average Pakistani, Jinnah is more than a leader and whatever can be associated with him stands sanctified. Why not then use popular veneration for Jinnah to buttress the right cause?

The problem with this approach is that it is both cowardly and ineffectual. It is cowardly because it hides behind the mantle of a revered leader to advance its arguments. It’s the equivalent of arguing that the chicken should be our national symbol because the Quaid was fond of KFC.

There is a further problem in personalising ethical issues. Moving the debate from what we should believe in to what our leaders have believed only changes the dispute from a war of ideas to a war of biographies. All that happens then is that history gets selectively rewritten so that Jinnah the secularist, Jinnah the champion of minority rights gets reborn as Jinnah the patron of obscurantism.

The best example of this rewriting of history comes from a recent column by Nadeem Farooq Paracha titled “Jinnah rebranded?” (Dawn, August 26). In his column, Paracha mentions a story about a student who attacked a procession of Shias. When that young man was told that Jinnah, the founder of Pakistan, was a Shia, he denied it vociferously. “Jinnah wasn’t the founder of Pakistan. Quaid-e-Azam was. And Quaid-e-Azam was Sunni.”

Splitting the Jinnah and the Quaid into two different people is, perhaps, the most schizophrenic response I’ve ever seen. But the attempt to reinvent Jinnah as a fundamentalist has a distinguished pedigree. General Ziaul Haq once announced that he had access to a secret diary in which Jinnah had confided his desire for an Islamic state. And General Zia’s favourite legal adviser, Sharifuddin Pirzada, has also parlayed his association with Jinnah into the claim that the Quaid wanted an Islamic state.

Part of the problem is that the evidence is ambiguous. As detailed by Pervez Hoodbhoy, Jinnah said all sorts of things to all sorts of people. That, by itself, is not surprising. The struggle for Pakistan was a political struggle and like all politicians, Jinnah promised everything to everybody; or, at the very least, said lots of things that can certainly be construed in many different ways.

My point though is different. Quaid-e-Azam Mohammad Ali Jinnah may have been a closet secularist or a closet fundamentalist. But the sovereign state of Pakistan is more than Jinnah’s closet. It is the homeland of 180 million people, each of whom has an opinion as to how this country should be run. It is their elected representatives who are supreme, not any one person.

The further point is that relying on the Quaid’s charisma to sell human rights is a fool’s game. If we are to win against the kind of people who are out there beheading our soldiers, we need to sell a picture of this country that treats it as more than the testamentary gift of Mr Jinnah.

Treating this country as Jinnah’s bequest infantilises Pakistanis and justifies a paternalistic state. What it says to the voters is that this is the Quaid’s country, you just happen to live in it. What it says to the establishment is that they are the custodians of a particular vision and that the wishes of the voters count for naught. That is hardly the basis of a free state.

Pakistan is in the middle of a mortal struggle. On the one hand, we have a flawed and enfeebled state, riven with corruption, democratic only in name. On the other hand, we have the apostles of virtue, selling a simple vision in which all our problems will be solved if only we let them drag us back a millennium.

US Judge Learned Hand (1872-1961) once famously noted that, “Liberty lies in the hearts of men and women; when it dies there, no constitution, no law, no court can save it; no constitution, no law, no court can even do much to help it”. This country can only survive as a free republic if our people accept in their hearts and minds that freedom of religion is a right they need to preserve. Treating them like children doesn’t help that cause.

Published in The Express Tribune, September 4th, 2012.


syed hassan | 11 years ago | Reply

Jiye....Faisal Naqvi.....You struck...I use to read ET and find myself in better country though living in Pakistan. I believe Pakistan's society, an intellectual bankrupt but people like faisal, saroop, Hoodbouy and others pop up with magneficient writings to scrap my conviction. I wish ET would have be Roznama Jang or Nawa e Waqt.

Vikram | 11 years ago | Reply

@Mehreen: Qur’an says there is no compulsion in religion

What does that really mean? Any one and all can answer.

What is the function of (Islamic) religious police?

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