Deep down in our hearts…

Beena Sarwar

Secularism and Pakistan.  Two words you'd hardly expect to see together. Yet, there is an ongoing and vibrant discussion about the issue in the country at various levels, interrogating the issue of identity, religion and its role in the State. These discussions are taking place in many languages and at many fora, pushed by activists, political workers and ordinary citizens who believe that religion is a private matter. Blogs and facebook pages like Secular Pakistan or Say No To The State Religion have a growing readership. The News, one of Pakistan's largest English language newspapers, is running a series of articles on 'The case for a secular Pakistan' in its Sunday edition (http://bit.ly/ff9IhD). 

Secularism - the separation of religion and politics - implies recognising that religion is a personal affair and that no one has the right to impose their own beliefs or religious laws on others. This is something that many religious scholars, including Islamic ones, agree on. 

Unfortunately, those who disagree are often violent and impose their views aggressively. In the polarised post-9/11 world, this has cost countless people their lives - a prominent recent example being the murder of Dr Mohammad Farooq Khan, the moderate religious scholar and vice-chancellor of Swat Islamic University.

The debate is taking place at a time when Pakistan, and indeed, the world, finds itself polarised as never before, with extremes jostling for ascendancy. The country is in an uproar over the controversial 'blasphemy laws' imposed by military dictator General Zia-ul-Haq in the early 1980s. The issue has again been highlighted thanks to the death sentence handed down by a district court to Aasiya Bibi, a Christian woman accused of blasphemy. The high court has yet to confirm the sentence.
 
The widespread support for Aasiya Bibi has generated a knee-jerk reaction from the extreme Right that is using her case to shore up its dwindling support. The religious parties are up in arms, baying for the blood of prominent politicians who support repeal or review of these laws. Support for their view can be gauged by looking at the polling results in Pakistan. 

Pakistanis often follow religious rituals, but politically and electorally, they have never voted the religious parties into power. Typically obtaining at most three or four per cent of the total votes in general elections, the religious parties got their highest number of votes (about 11 per cent) during the 2002 elections when six of them joined hands as the Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal (MMA), and the leaders of the mainstream political parties did not participate. In the 2008 elections, the MMA won barely 2.2 per cent of the vote. 

This is despite Gen Zia's military dictatorship (1977-88), which immeasurably strengthened militancy based ostensibly on religion. His aggressive media and education policies fostering a pan-Islamic, 'jehadist' worldview, and controversial laws ostensibly based on religion, brutalised society, encouraged the rise of vigilantism, and rewarded those who adhered to his idea of a 'good Muslim'. 

The polls conducted in Pakistan about identity and religion typically pose questions in a way that makes it difficult for people to respond, reflecting the complexity of their realities (see Pakistan in polling vs. Pakistan in practice by Kalsoom Lakhani, http://bit.ly/PkPoll).  If Pakistanis are asked to choose between religious and secular values, most will - in public, certainly - choose religion. But, deep down, most have what I would define as secular values. That is, in general, live and let live, with a deep adherence and faith in the sufi culture of the region. 

Most of Pakistan's history has been spent under unconstitutional and military governments, who stay for an average of a decade, introduce controversial laws (and artificially boost the economy), before being forced out. Civilian governments are left to clean up the mess. The newly independent media and recharged 'civil society' play up their incompetence, corruption and weaknesses, and before long, vested interests are baying for a regime change. 

To settle critical issues of religion and identity peaceably, the democratic political process must be supported and allowed to continue. The education system and syllabi must be overhauled, and there has to be zero tolerance for 'hatespeak' and violence in the name of religion. Bottomline: religion must not be used as a pretext for injustice, violence and murder.

This story is from the print issue of Hardnews: DECEMBER 2010