‘Admitting you are a secularist can get you killed in Pakistan’

Published: January 28, 2013


KARACHI: Urdu linguists have distorted the meaning of the word “secular,” and falsely translated it as la-deen (non-religious). The use of the word is so dangerous now that even mainstream leftist political parties in the country are afraid of talking about it.

Civil society representatives highlighted these points as they participated in a seminar titled ‘Democracy and secularism in Pakistan: Its need and importance’, at the Arts Council on Saturday. The event was organised by the Forum for Secular Pakistan. The participants urged political leaders to push for a secular state, “as there can be no democracy in the country without secularism”.

Prof. Dr Jaffar Ahmed, the chairperson of the Pakistan Study Centre, criticised Urdu linguists for “distorting” the meaning of ‘secular’ in earlier dictionaries. The word was originally used to refer to the small pieces of land that common people used to hold in the days when the Catholic Church would own most of the land. The word came to symbolise scientific inventions and progressive thought in the 19th  century, he said.

Senator Hasil Bizenjo said that secularism had become, perhaps, the most difficult subject to talk about in the country. “If someone says that he is secular, people would kill him on the spot.” He said that only three to four political parties in the country had mentioned the word in their manifestos.

On the other hand, monarchs, as well as democratic governments, have been using religion to strengthen their rule for centuries. However, there have been a few prominent rulers, including the founder of the Mughal dynasty, who had grown worried over the amalgamation of religion with state affairs, said I A Rehman, the secretary general of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan. “For democracy to survive, it is necessary for the state to stay neutral when it came to religion.”

Published in The Express Tribune, January 28th, 2013.

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Reader Comments (21)

  • John B
    Jan 28, 2013 - 5:13AM

    I hope the conference speakers realize that their wish requires change in PAK constitution starting from preamble, which is a near impossible task. Without which there is no power for secularism in PAK.

    If PAK goes for secularism, then she is rejecting her very foundation which led her into being a separate nation from India. If PAK goes secular then should there be a border between her and India and if so, on what basis and why? After all, Europe has realized the folly of segregating borders under same national ideology and stand united today after fifty years of continental war. Then why should PAK stay segregated if it stands united in ideology of secularism with India.

    Any talk of secularism should also address these questions, if the Intensions were true. Otherwise, such talks are empty discussions with no real meaning.

    What will stop a “secular” PAK in becoming a federated state in India : ego, pride, guilt,obtuseness or personal gain of select few over the masses?

    Bangladesh which turned semi-secular still cannot come to terms with its existence away from India and she can only write her history as a struggle for independence from West Pakistan.


  • Toba Alu
    Jan 28, 2013 - 9:05AM

    Chapeau. Just read my arguments at http://tribune.com.pk/story/499083/our-little-worlds/

    Btw I did not attend, neither did I read this article before I wrote my comments.


  • Zinnah
    Jan 28, 2013 - 6:58PM

    @John B: To answer your query we need to understand the raison d’être for Pakistan. Pakistan was created for a separate homeland for Muslims so that they can live peacefully without being outnumbered by the majority Hindus in the newly independent country. It was not created in the name of Islam as the current narrators suggest. So even if the country transforms itself into a secular and progressive one, it still has the Raison d’être valid. Because India though is a secular state, it is Hindu majority state.


  • Manju
    Jan 28, 2013 - 8:01PM

    Urdu linguists have distorted the meaning of the word “secular,” and falsely translated it as la-deen (non-religious).
    This is happened so much so to the extent that most Pakistanis believe the distortion that “Islam is the only religion and all other beliefs are ‘Kafirs’ means Non-believers. This practically means “Whatever anyone else things is wrong and only i am right” = A Delusion…. An entire Nation with 2 generations brought on this concept and that too in school curriculum (Pakistan Studies). With this education Pakistan’s largest contribution cum export to the world (=Strategic Assets) is very much understandable….
    The use of the word is so dangerous now that even mainstream leftist political parties in the country are afraid of talking about it.
    Which sounds like Pakistan’s most fashionable word used these days called ‘End Game’…


  • Abid P. Khan
    Jan 28, 2013 - 10:01PM

    @John B:
    It seems you do not get time to read newspapers, otherwise you would not have made that statement about EU.
    Has it ever occurred to you that all the Latin American countries belong to the same faith yet have well defined borders which have been guarded for centuries? Why don’t they merge according to your simplistic interpretation of history.
    By the way they do not have communication problems either, they share the same language except Brazil(which uses another version of Latin).


  • doom
    Jan 29, 2013 - 12:48AM

    @John B:
    I think that enough time has passed for this type of questioning and demanding justifications of Pakistan’s existence be now retired forever. Pakistan doesn’t need a reason to exist since it already exists, and humpty dumpty can’t be put together again. That is: these types of questions or musings (or whatever they are) are moot; and have been for a very, very long time.

    So in conclusion, I think we can consider secularism for Pakistan without fear of turning into United India again. See how funny that sounds?

    PS this: “Bangladesh which turned semi-secular still cannot come to terms with its existence away from India”, was news to me. But do you think that maybe there was just a tiny, tiny hint of self-aggrandization there?


  • Hukum Singh
    Jan 29, 2013 - 2:40AM

    @John B:
    You said -:”Bangladesh which turned semi-secular “

    Bangladesh may have semi-circular with increasing internet use and less need for circulating circulars. But Bangla Muslims are just as fundamentalist as any Pak Fundamentalist. Just because they do not use Arabic Script does not make them less fundamentalist. Have u talked to a Khaleda Zia supporter recently?


  • John B
    Jan 29, 2013 - 2:51AM

    So in a nut shell PAK is not a secular country and it will never be and it is intended for only Muslims and others who are not Muslims have to put up or shut up.

    So, then why the discussion of secularism in PAK? And how an idea of secularism in PAK can divorce itself from asking the question what was wrong with secularism of India and how PAK idea of secularism is better than what India fought for and established.

    In a secular principle all are equal and have the right to live their life as they see fit. If so, then How can PAK avoid asking herself in a secular discussion what characterize her any different than other states of India?

    Suppose ask an hypothetical question: what are the down falls or benefits in being a federated state in India.. After all , PAK agrees that secularism could be better for PAK , so why restrict in asking the next logical question of it should be a separate state. What does it gain.?
    Why should an average Muslim on the street cares who (Sikh or Christian or Muslim or Hindu or an atheist ) rules them in a secular state as long as government functions for him.

    Discussion on secularism in PAK and Bangladesh context cannot avoid asking these questions because of the history.


  • Zeeshan
    Jan 29, 2013 - 2:58AM

    John B,

    Half baked knowledge coupled with hate led to your diarrhea above.


  • Syme
    Jan 29, 2013 - 5:55AM

    John B, I have no problem to assimilate with secular India and interestingly unlike others, I won’t put a condition that if they will treat me fairly, only then I am willing to wipe off borders. What could be the reasons for the great divide? Economic, Linguistics, pseudo Persian cum Arabic cum roman roots? The ideology which we are talking day and night may be farce or it is.
    I think, Pakistan is a bright reality now. We must look past the schism now. Pakistan existence is no more dependent on an ideology and neither do Pakistan, her people are morally oblige to follow every words and saying of founders.
    People are free to choose whatever form of government and constitution they want in their land.
    Now the question is, will India ever take us back? Did they assimilated Bangladesh?
    Unfortunately, secularism could be a brick to the greater foundation of prosperity and justice but alone it can’t vindicate.The reason for Objective resolution was constitutional autochthony and it became a scourge(?)The culture which we are looking is, tax culture, accountability culture and, that comes with a panacea. No one in subcontinent fought against the priesthood and kingship. We( people of subcontinent) haven’t seen a kingslayer in a magical sense. And, all magic comes with a price.


  • Hamid
    Jan 29, 2013 - 7:08AM

    @Zinnah: “….It was not created in the name of Islam as the current narrators suggest. So even if the country transforms itself into a secular and progressive one, ……

    don’t worry, that will never happen.


  • Feroz
    Jan 29, 2013 - 10:34AM

    It must be clearly understood that Pakistan cannot be secular because it has a Constitution that is not secular. Even if all the citizens want it to be secular it cannot be without the Constitution being abrogated and a new one written. Such a pipe dream should be discarded and effort should be made to build a more humane society with strong emphasis on Human Rights.


  • Jan 30, 2013 - 6:22PM


    “It was not created in the name of Islam as the current narrators suggest.”

    I quote Jinnah for you,

    “Some are misled by propaganda.
    Islamic principles are as applicable
    to life as they were 1,300 years ago.
    The Constitution of Pakistan will be
    made on the basis of the sharia.

    Why are you ganging up on John? The only fault of his is that he thought everyone is up to his genius and knows History as well as him. He is absolutely correct in his analysis.

    Your assertion goes to a toss now, doesn’t it.. If you want I can quote some more instances of Jinnah wanting Sharia and praising an Islamic system. I know you will quote Aug 11th speech. But, I can quote a pro-Sharia, pro-Islamic speech, for your every Jinnah secular speech.

    We will have a quote-off. What do you say? :)


  • Rais
    Jan 30, 2013 - 7:08PM

    Secularism is the separation of religion from life. Secularism advocates that man is the sovereign and legislator and it is human beings not Allah that determine what is right or wrong. Since Allah is Al-Malik (The Sovereign), it is forbidden to rule by other than what Allah has revealed as it is made quite clear in the Qur’an:

    "And rule between them by that which Allah has revealed and follow not vain desires, diverging away from the truth that has come to you." (Qur'an, 5:48)

    "And rule between them by that which Allah has revealed and follow not their vain desires, but beware that they may turn you away from some of what Allah has revealed." (Qur'an, 5:49)

    "And whosoever does not rule by what Allah has revealed they are kaafiruun." (Qur'an, 5:44)

    "And whosoever does not rule by what Allah has revealed they are DHaalimuun." (Qur'an, 5:45)

    "And whosoever does not rule by what Allah has revealed they are faasiquun." (Qur'an, 5:47)

    On the day of resurrection Muslims will not be answerable to Qaid-e-Azam but to Allah Subanautaala.


  • Zinnah
    Jan 30, 2013 - 8:02PM

    @Buteforce. Yes exactly. I also thought my fellow countrymen to be as literate and as intelligent as me. Did not understand that I asked for something which is nonexistent.
    Dont understand where Jinnah has said that there would be no equal rights for Non-Muslims. And in due process ruin the life of Muslims as well

    I will not quote Jinnah here. But please go through this link.

    link text


  • Iron hand
    Jan 31, 2013 - 2:30AM

    @Rais: There is no such thing as religious law. There is only law, written by people, interpreted by people, enforced by people. You may believe that certain laws are divinely inspired, and you may believe that only people of a certain religious belief should be interpreting laws, but that’s really as far as it goes. All of Pakistan’s laws were written by human beings, and all of Pakistan’s laws are interpreted and enforced by human beings. To become a civil society, Pakistan must abandon the anything goes, vigilante interpretation and enforcement model favored by the extremists, because this results in anarchy. You must accept the state’s singular authority to draft (legislature) interpret (courts) and enforce (police) the laws. That is the path to progress and stability, no matter what your religious beliefs.


  • andleeb
    Jan 31, 2013 - 8:48AM

    @BruteForce: Pakistan has moved on. Jinnah is no longer relevant.


  • Jan 31, 2013 - 10:03AM


    Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt said the same thing(They represent modernity, equal rights, bla bla bla). Now an Islamist Constitution is in place in Egypt, minority right gone for a toss.

    Jinnah never said minority rights should be trampled upon. Just like the BJP in India. It has never, ever said any minority community should be discriminated against.

    Much before Babri Masjid demolition by BJP supporters, Jinnah had called for Direct Action day during the month of Ramzan(mind you the Religious overtones of the timing), when communal tensions were running high. Direct Action was supposedly against the Hindus of Muslim majority Bengal, who were apparently responsible for Nehru rejecting Cabinet Mission Plan.

    In 5 days 5000 were dead, after Jinnah called his Direct Action against Hindus. HIs deputy in Bengal, who went on to become Pakistan’s PM, was the Chief Minister of a united Bengal.

    I believe you when you say Jinnah was a secular guy. What do you call secular guys using Religion to call for “direct action” against others and a Muslim state? Hint: It starts with ‘C’, ends with ‘L’.

    Jinnah said the agnostic Nehru and a saintly Gandhi, the apostle of peace were working for Hindu agenda!! How ridiculous can a person be to accuse such great Humanists, recognised the world over, as such.. He called Congress a Hindu party, when the great Maulana Azad was the President of the Congress! I don’t think Jinnah really believed what he said against Nehru and Gandhi. He said such things to stir up Muslim sentiments.

    I laugh when people start debating if Jinnah was a Secular guy or not.. They are asking the wrong question.


  • Manju
    Feb 1, 2013 - 11:29AM

    @BruteForce: Pakistan has moved on. Jinnah is no longer relevant.

    If the man who single handedly make Pakistan a fact is irrelevant, then Pakistan’s very existence will be irrelevant…


  • Feb 1, 2013 - 12:12PM


    Jinnah was never relevant to any society that wants to achieve the kind of things Nehru stood for..

    No wonder that today Nehru and Gandhi are still relevant. Obama says Gandhi is the person he wants to meet from History, above all else. Mandela time and again has said how Gandhi inspired him. Martin Luther King has said how Gandhi transformed him as an individual.

    Barring Obama; Mandela, King and Einstein fall into the Great category. Jinnah was someone who opposed Gandhi, called him someone who was pushing forward a Hindu agenda. Poor Gandhi, he goes on hunger strikes to make sure Muslims are not butchered by the Hindus and gets called such things.

    For every secular sounding speech of Jinnah, I’ll give you an Islamist speech.

    Jinnah called Direct Action because his because his demands in CMP were not met and he called it during the month of Ramzan. Take the Religious overtones, mix it with national politics and add to it the deadly ingredient of violence, you will have a Taliban.


  • Mulheed
    Feb 17, 2013 - 2:44AM

    I support secularism. But you can’t be a true Muslim and be secular. And I support secularism.


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