Karachi Literature Festival: Are we secular enough?

Published: February 18, 2013
Panellists debate religion’s role in public sphere in Pakistan.

Panellists debate religion’s role in public sphere in Pakistan.

KARACHI: The cloud of gloom after Saturday’s Hazara killings made its way to the third day of the Karachi Literature Festival on Sunday morning.

The madness of the attack, and accompanying hatred against a sect, was deemed by panellists a direct result of lack of secularism — a subject they were gathered to debate upon.

Lawyer and advocate Asma Jahangir, having condemned the attack in strong words, said: “No, I am not saying that secularism is the complete removal of religion from people’s lives. Follow your religion, but follow it like it’s meant to be followed. Extremism and the suppression of other faiths is not what our faith teaches.”

Quite unanimously, the panel, which included Justice Nasira Iqbal from the Lahore High Court, Supreme Court Senior Advocate Hamid Khan, writer Javed Jabbar (moderated by writer Irfan Hussain), agreed that the Hazara killings were a grotesque example of religious extremism.

Justice Iqbal agreed with Jahangir and stated that the true nature of Islam was secular — something religious extremists fail to grasp. “We are reminded of the Meesaq-e-Madina, we are reminded of the social contract under which the Muslims and Jews lived together as a community. A community of difference, no doubt, but difference that was embraced.”

“The problem is that people think secularism is laadinayat – synonymous to atheism. But the fact is secularism, as an idea, does not dictate or sanction a religion, and neither does it approve the lack of religion in public affairs,” said Hamid Khan, adding that the mixing up of these two concepts was what made secularism so unpalatable for people. “The thing we must understand is that secularism comprises two points: no establishment of religion, and the free exercise of religion. It is difficult to entertain both these concepts.”

At this point, Jehangir spoke out to condemn ‘laadiniyat’: “Discouraging all symbols of faith in the public sphere, as practised in France and Turkey, is completely unjust.”

Jabbar explained that the difficulty in grasping the concept occurs because secularism, as an idea, was new and still evolving. “Mr [Muhammad Ali) Jinnah was himself struggling with several concepts: what did it mean to create a separate state for the Muslims, and yet steer clear from a theocratic model?”

The contradiction was a glaring problem for others on the panel too. “People ask: if you wanted a secular state, why did you break from India?

All’s not lost

Despite the extremism which is causing tragedies like Saturday’s, Pakistanis are a largely secular people, as never has a party been elected solely for its religious call, observed Jabbar.

“Extremism is worse in India. Pakistan is a secular society in a religious state; whereas India is a religious society in a secular state.” Jehangir contended. “In India, the state’s secularism overtakes the society’s deep religiosity – which is marvellous.”

The need to include secular concepts in school-level textbooks was agreed upon as a Hindu audience member exclaimed, “My child is not a Muslim. Why should he read ‘I am a Muslim’ in his textbooks?”

Published in The Express Tribune, February 18th, 2013.

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Reader Comments (11)

  • Raj
    Feb 18, 2013 - 10:47AM

    “Extremism is worse in India. Pakistan is a secular society in a religious state; whereas India is a religious society in a secular state.” Jehangir contended. “In India, the state’s secularism overtakes the society’s deep religiosity – which is marvellous.”

    Have read many amazing comments in this forum. But this one is a winner by miles.


  • BlackJack
    Feb 18, 2013 - 1:00PM

    The difference is that dharmic religions don’t get involved in enforcing rules on society; the practice of faith is intensely personal and there is no widely agreed and socially relevant definition of a good Hindu/ Buddhist/ Jain/ Sikh – so a religious society manages to function under a secular state. I don’t agree with Ms Jehangir’s claim that Pakistan is a secular society as there is no proof other than the oft repeated ‘religious parties don’t win in elections’ point, which points more to the fact that a one-point agenda of religion is not enough to win with Pak voters who are also plagued by material issues in this life, and there is very little differentiation when every party claims to be as devoutly muslim as the next (it is not a contest between parties that claim to be religious vs. parties that claim to be secular).


  • Feb 18, 2013 - 1:29PM

    How can Pakistan be more secular when in a survey over 70% wanted sharia law.
    Also, the discrimination against Ahmedis, christians, hindus and shias come from the society not the law so much


  • SM_India
    Feb 18, 2013 - 1:53PM

    Asma Jahangir is wrong in her assessment about India. Let me quote Ramchandra Guha, a distinguished Indian historian who said “Back in 1948, doubts were also being cast about the Indian experiment with nationhood. Never before had a new nation not based its unity on a single language, religion, or common enemy (or, preferably, all of the above). However, all Indians did not have to speak Hindi or be Hindus. As an inclusive, plural and non-adversarial model of nationalism, the idea of India had no precedent or imitator. It set itself apart from European nationalisms, which were based on a common language and, often, a shared faith and common enemy as well. Thus the citizens of England were united by the fact that they all spoke English, that they were mostly Protestant, and that many of them disliked France and the French. Likewise, the citizens of Poland spoke Polish, were almost all Catholic, and often detested Russia and the Russians. (In this respect, the idea of Pakistan is wholly European, based as it is on the privileging of a single religion, Islam; of a single language, Urdu; and, not least, on a collective hatred of the larger nation to its east.)”. He goes on to say that “India was not expected to survive as a democracy; but it has. India was not expected to hold together as a single nation; but it has. These manifest successes, achieved against the odds and against the logic of human history, have compelled a worldwide admiration.”


  • Sayyed Mehdi
    Feb 18, 2013 - 2:13PM

    Quite unanimously, the panel … agreed that the Hazara killings were a grotesque example of religious extremism.

    You don’t say? http://bit.ly/A4ZJ2B


  • iftikhar ahmad
    Feb 18, 2013 - 3:02PM

    Why is it that the so-called intellectuals only live in Lahore and Karachi and not Peshawar or Quetta? Then they talk about political correctness and right thinking society.


  • Manju
    Feb 18, 2013 - 4:10PM

    Karachi Literature Festival: Are we secular enough?
    The actual question is “Are you secular at all ‘Islamic Republic of Pakistan'”?


  • indian
    Feb 18, 2013 - 5:40PM

    pakistan…secular??? yeah right….i have seen those crying hindus whcih cross over to india and who promise nevver to return back..:p … secular huh :P


  • Stranger
    Feb 18, 2013 - 9:33PM

    Pak is an Islamic republic and not a Secular republic. The very birth of Pak was formed because of theological reasons.


  • Bala
    Feb 19, 2013 - 3:07AM


    100+ votes to you ! I do not speak Hindi but I am 100% Indian… India is beatiful idea …its amazing that is is working at all …and there is no similar country in the world like India (may be america is the closest)


  • Rashid
    Feb 19, 2013 - 3:36AM

    Seems to me that Asma Jehangir has mastered the art of double speak. An essential pre requisite to become Prime minister in Pakistan, even if a care taker one.


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