The Shifting Boundaries between the State and Religion 

Is secularism (separation of state and religion) essential for Equality, Religious Diversity and Democracy?

The Europe-based, Organization of Progressive Pakistanis (OPP) organized a webinar on Sunday 29 November 2020, and invited world-renowned scholar and academic, Dr Pervez Hoodbhoy to give a talk on the issue of the overlap between religion and state, secular, theocracy and its impacts on the society especially in terms of intercultural and interreligious harmony, democratic rights and freedoms and gender equality. A large number of people, from different parts of the world, attended the event and actively took part in the discussion. The topic was appreciated as most relevant especially in the context of a recent surge of religious discourse in Pakistan and Europe. The program turned into a lively dialogue between participants, who with their well informed and scholarly arguments that helped to put current issues of intolerance, xenophobic alienation, violence and extremism. Many participants raised questions of Europe and North America was experiencing a surge in the politics of far-right and its possible impacts on the migrants. Some of the participants delved deeply into the obvious and hidden currents of the movement of Pakistan and Jinnah´s true vision of Pakistan. Most of the participants finally agreed that secularism was the only viable option for countries like Pakistan.

While introducing the topic, OPP’s moderator clarified in the beginning that the topic was not about religion rather they wanted to have an unbiased dialogue on the relationship between religion and state and its impacts on the society. For this, it was imperative to see deeply the fundamental differences between the dynamics of the secular and religious societies and their corresponding equations with the states. He said it was interesting to note that sometimes the state is secular, but society is religious and sometimes the state is theocratic but society clamours for a secular democracy. He elaborated secularism as a system where every citizen could freely exercise the right to belief without any fear of disadvantage or discrimination. Secularism is not anti-religion rather it guarantees the freedom of religion and conscience as one should not mix secularism with atheism and one should also not confuse secularism with consumerism.

Dr Pervez Hoodbhoy started his talk while explaining that a secular state changes laws according to the changing needs of the time and does not claim to have inspiration from universal human values rather than some divine text. He said it was not possible for a theocracy to be truly democratic or give all its citizens equal status. He said Pakistan was founded on the assumptions of Muslim nationalism. According to Jinnah, Hindus and Muslim could not live together in peace and they needed a separate country. Jinnah was not clear whether Pakistan should be a Muslim country or Islamic country with sharia laws of theocracy. He would perry the question and in fact, he was not able to give an answer while Nehru was avowedly clear that India would be a secular country. Had Pakistan also been declared a secular country, it would have been a difficult choice in the perspective of the Pakistan movement? This confusion remains even today. Jinnah's speech on 11 August about secularism is a very celebrated speech. This speech explained that there would not be the majoritarian rule in the name of religion. So, it is safe to say that Pakistan is not a secular state. But Sharia punishments have not been imposed on the country despite the fact that alcohol or pork is forbidden. Pakistan is a mix of modern and religious lawmaking.

Explaining the origin of the concept, he said word secularism in Europe was used by Martin Luther who rebelled against tyranny and corruption of the church. The sectarian or religious wars of Europe were extremely bloody with 80-years, 60-years, 40-years and 30-year wars between countries in Europe. 1648 the treaty of Westphalia was the beginning of the national state. Secularism was needed because Catholics and protestants could not live together. This way, secularism is needed when different people needed to live together in proximity. There was a great confusion as there were different laws for both the sects in every aspect of life. So, they needed secular laws. You cannot derive laws from any text and expect that the society be peaceful, tolerant, progressive etc. He said the primary reason for religion was the insecurity of the ancient societies in the face of weather, predators, death etc. With scientific knowledge and development, however, religion has declined except in most of the Islamic countries and in India, which is on the way of becoming Hindu Rashtria by BJP. Religion, however, is not going to go away. All scientific knowledge is not going to remove the need for religion. However, what is not going to go away, is that the societies will have to become irrelevant to the faith of their citizens or no faith. “My conclusion is that religion changes, social behaviour change, and law also change according to the needs of the time. This way, secularism is the only practical way to have a peaceful and progressive society” said Dr Pervez Hoodbhoy while concluding his talk.

A lively but intense discussion followed that challenged many established concepts and notions, on the one hand, and clarified many confusions, at the other. At the outset, a participant asked if secularism had really changed the behaviours of the people of Europe and how would we compare that with Pakistan? Dr Hoodbhoy said in EU countries, we demand secular treatment. But as soon as we reach our country, we forget it and suppress our religious minorities. In Europe, there is an established framework where you can appeal to whereas, in Pakistan, religious minorities have no equal status even in the constitution, which has Objective Resolution as its operative part. The difference of faith should not be reflected in the laws. Another participant mentioned huge funeral of Khadim Rizvi of Tehreeke Laibaik Pakistan (TLP) and asked if Pakistan was going down the drain. Responding to his question, Dr Hoodbhoy said the funeral showed how big following he enjoyed, and it also showed the trends in the people. He said Khadim Rizvi had the backing of military establishment who used him against Nawaz Sharif. He reminded the video clip in which present DG ISI was seen giving money to TLP workers after Faizabad dharna.

Another participant asked about the role of culture and traditions as people stick to religion because they think that secularism shall deprive them of their cultural values. Responding to question, Dr Hoodbhoy said customs changed with time. He said slavery was not considered bad in Arabia a thousand years ago but today nobody has slaves and similarly we watch television, photographs etc even though it is prohibited. The other participant commented that religion seemed rising instead of diminishing as was seen in Pakistan, India, Korea, America, Europe and other parts of the world. Dr Hoodbhoy said it was undeniable that religion continued impact but its role of constructing social norms and laws is diminishing. Another participant mentioned a survey that depicted that 75% of Muslim under 35 in France believed in the superiority of Sharia law over state laws. He asked if Muslims were ready to accept reformation in Islam. Dr Hoodbhoy described it as a worrisome situation that could lead to active discrimination and a catastrophic decline in the quality of life and justice in Europe. He said Muslim were as reasonable and respectable as other and there was no need to be ghettoized. A participant said Muslims preferred to live in ghettoes wherever they are in minorities and asked if it was necessitated by religion. Dr Hoodbhoy disagreed that it was the result of religious identity. He said Mayor of London was a Muslim. Turkey and Iran could modernize themselves. Iran is totally unrecognizable what it is today. Another participant added that the guest workers in Europe were put in ghettoes thinking that they will feel comfortable.

At this moment, another participant, while pointing out the recent case of a Christian girl Arzoo Raja, said religious minorities in Pakistan were facing worst persecution especially in the form of the abduction of underaged girls and their forced conversion to Islam. Dr Hoodbhoy said termed these incidents as very painful examples. He said he knew about a lot of forced conversions to the marries women as well. The majority has become extremely persecutory in Pakistan and we must fight back. And certainly, we need a federal law. Law should make forced conversions impossible. Connecting it again to the roots of the religious extremism in Pakistan, a participant wondered if Jinnah was using the religious card only as a tool or was serious about Pakistan. Dr Hoodbhoy said Jinnah was extremely opposed to communism and socialism. He wanted ticket from Tories but could not get and then he tried from Lahore and could not get either. Some historians like Ayesha Jalal say that Pakistan was thrust upon him, but it is a fact that from 1937 to 1947, all his statements focused on two-nation theory. Dr Ishtiaq said it was simply untrue that Jinnah did not want Pakistan.

In the end, OPP thanked speakers and participants and said equality, rights and freedoms were not possible without secularism. The neutrality of the state is essential and critical. Freedom, Equality and Protection must be ensured by the state. Faith, colour, race or ethnicity should not be given advantage or disadvantage. If a state has religion, the people of that religion would find the state on their side and that opens the door for the misuse of both state and religion. Other religion will be discriminated against opening the way for discriminations creating fertile grounds for polarization and extremism.

Report by: Shiraz Raj is a freelance journalist, writer and poet. He writes for various national and international media outlets. 

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