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Democracy and Religion: Are they mutually exclusive?

On 21st October, OPP organized a dialogue on the topic, “Democracy and Religion: are they mutually exclusive”, which was held at the Vrije University, Amsterdam. The event was attended by old and young alike. The main speaker at the event was Atif Tauqeer, who is a writer, researcher and poet. His area of research is Pakistan national security narrative, and he currently lives in Germany and works with various radio and TV channels including DW. The event started with a brief introduction of OPP, the organization and was followed by an overview of the topic. 


In the introductory presentation, religion, democracy and secularism were defined to set the backdrop to the discussion. Religion was described to be perceived as an “absolute truth” by its followers; a moral vision which is held to be true and just even if not everything about it can be confirmed or refuted. Democracy is a system of governance which relies on representative institutions. Secularism insists on a separation of state from religious institutions, where no religious affiliation has an advantage over another in the eyes of the state. The state does not have a state religion even though the citizens of that state may have their own personal faiths. This principle was further highlighted by Mohammad Ali Jinnah’s speech to the first constituent assembly on 11th August 1947 where he reiterated that an individual’s personal beliefs will not be a matter of concern of the state.


Atif Tauqeer began his talk by commending OPP for promoting dialogue and reclaiming space for discussion on sensitive topics, a space which has been hijacked by one narrative in recent years. Moving onto the topic, he invited the audience to take a bird’s eye view of the topic. He said that religion and politics[1] [2]  were essentially two ideas and the discussion should focus on whether these two ideas were mutually exclusive. Problems arise when these two ideas start to infringe on each other’s domains, and the course that a collision between those two ideas takes, will determine the answer to this question.


To explain the concept of religion, the speaker traced human history back to its origins where small tribes and communities scattered all over had their own traditions which morphed into a set of beliefs, blurring[3] [4]  the distinction between tradition and religion. This human evolution based on myths and gossip or “story telling”, resulted in modern human societies based on lived experience over centuries. These myths changed into sophisticated belief systems to attract a wider audience. To illustrate his point further, the speaker gave the example of Europe’s evolution from a church controlled society to a secular society. The “myth” of church was widely accepted where it acted as a state within a state, exercising full control over people’s spiritual lives. The sole right to interpret the word of God was with the church, and the reformers who challenged this myth of church’s monopoly over religion were ostracized.


Democracy, the speaker maintained has also evolved over time, starting from a representation of the landed [5] gentry and developing into representative democracy which meant rule by the majority. To safeguard against majoritarianism, constitutional democracy developed where the elected representatives are bound by the constitution.


The speaker’s talk was followed by a question and answer session. One participant argued that since Islam as a religion claims absolute truths, it cannot be compatible with democracy which relies on the freedom of inquiry and of debate. Atif Tauqeer was of the opinion that Christianity also was very closed but went through a reformation to find its place in a changing world. Another comment was regarding the Objectives Resolution which forms the preamble to the constitution of Pakistan, and states that no law repugnant to Islamic values can be made part of the constitution. It was asserted that state religion could be the reason democracy has not been able to flourish in Pakistan. The speaker agreed with the comment stating that Pakistan’s is a society of the 13th/14th century where the constitution protects the majority from  the minority instead of it being the other way around. However, Europe was in the same situation but transformed over time.


In response to the speaker’s assertion that Islam compared to Christianity does not have have a central authority solely responsible for interpreting religion, one audience member commented that until the end of the Ottoman empire, the caliphate acted like a central religious authority. Atif Tauqeer challenged this assertion stating that Ottoman caliphate and for that matter any of the caliphates since the death of the Prophet, did not exist without their challengers or a parallel Muslim empire in the same times. So the claim of any one empire having monopoly over matters of faith in Islam is contrary to historical facts, besides being unmaintainable from the perspective of the faith itself. Also the speaker partly agreed with the participant that democracy, though not necessarily a product of capitalism, does flourish in capitalism more than in an opposing ideology like Marxism.


Another comment was regarding how Christianity in Europe developed from one centered around literal interpretation of religious text to an understanding centered on metaphors. Muslim societies however, are finding it difficult to incorporate democracy which could be because of this reluctance to accept reformation from within the faith. The speaker responded that there’s a need to develop “knowledge” societies in the Muslim world to make space for an alternate interpretation of faith, based on metaphors. He also remarked that in Muslim countries in general and Pakistan in particular, there’s very little respect for the constitution, which is meant to be a document that binds the nation together. Also the constitution itself, because of its limitations in protecting the rights of the minorities, does not serve to bind the nation together.


One participant questioned why democracy, an obsolete system developed 500 years before Christianity, is looked up to when Islam introduced a complete way of life much later. The speaker asked what this political system as asserted by the participant and which was proposed by Islam, would look like. There being no prophet in today’s world, who will appoint the committee of the pious to run the state, or in short what concrete features would characterize this political system. In principle the speaker maintained that any alternative to democracy can be discussed, as long as a discussion on political systems is not motivated or colored by faith. Another participant questioned how a claim for an Islamic political system be made when the first political dispute amongst Muslims started on the day of the Prophet’s death.


Another participant argued that democracy is a governance system that works in an overarching way over society, accommodating all beliefs instead of being in conflict with them. The speaker agreed with the assertion conditional to the situation that there be freedom available to elected representatives to legislate, unrestrained by a book which lays claim to absolute truths.


The event concluded with a summary by OPP in which the audience were invited to give some thought to the comparison between secular societies in the Netherlands, Canada and India and those with a state religion like Pakistan and Iran. The first one allows the possibility for people from a minority faith to become state ministers, city mayors and even heads of states, but the same cannot even be imagined in the latter. This marked the end of the session.

Watch the Event

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