Pakistan: The secular myth

Dawn: IN a recent address, Chaudhry Nisar hit out at political opponents by classifying them as ‘secular’ and equating the term with ‘non-believing’. Clearly, the interior minister needs tuition in history and political philosophy.

There is no simple thing, place or peoples called the ‘secular’, the ‘religious’, the ‘West’, ‘good’ or ‘evil’. Each carries multiple, contradictory meanings and is subject to historical interpretation. Only political manipulators use these as fixed and oppositional categories in order to create divisions and distrust. Debates around secularism often follow religious wars or conflict and, like many countries, Pakistan also faces this dilemma.

Secularism is a philosophy rooted in the 16th century, when European Protestants struggled against the rule of the exploitative Catholic Church. These dissenters were not without religion, or la-deen — they simply wanted social, political and economic freedoms from the tyranny of the Holy See. Secularisation is the result of the social and political processes that followed, influenced by rising capitalism and scientific discoveries. The tumults of secularisation spanned a century, up until the Treaty of Westphalia (1648). Still, this bottom-up history does not mean that all Western societies are unimpeachably or completely secular today. One visit by the Pope to any European country will confirm the secular paradox.


Much confusion still surrounds this political philosophy.


Secularism — the distancing of state from religion — does not mean la-deeniyat, absence of religion or anti-religion. It means re­arranging state laws and policies so that they are neutral (ghair janibdaar) and treat citizens of all faiths without prejudice. Secularity — the principles of secularism — means that religion should have no influence on public institutions and services, and religious privilege must not influence government. It limits moral issues to the private, personal sphere. Secularisation — the transfer of socio-political power away from religious governance — does not force people to become atheists or stop observers from going to church or mosque. It does prevent using places of worship for practising politics.

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