Beyond religious bigotry and secular freedom


PM Imran Khan and Atif Mian

Source: The News

By Sher Ali Tareen, who is Associate Professor of Religious Studies at Franklin and Marshall College in the U.S. He received his PhD from Duke University.

September 16, 2018

The controversy around Atif Mian’s expulsion from economic council and many other such tragedies requires one to think beyond the claustrophobic confines of the binary division

There are few ways to describe the recent exclusion of world-renowned Pakistani economist Atif Mian from the country’s newly-formed Economic Advisory Council than as painful, shameful, sad, and disturbing. A professor at Princeton, he was compelled to resign just days after his appointment, not for any professional reasons but because of the government’s inability to handle the pressure and backlash generated by his identification with the Ahmadiya community, an intensely persecuted religious minority in Pakistan.

While there are many and motley actors to blame for this tragedy (words like debacle, fiasco etc. don’t quite measure up with the intensity of this injustice), the primary order of blame lies chiefly with Prime Minister Imran Khan and his government. For a government that recently ascended to power on the hope and mandate of justice, the injustice meted to a human being in this case was as depressing as it was shocking. Criminal incompetence, gutless cowardice, or a combination of the two: what transpired on the seventh of September leaves a gaping and perhaps irreparable injury to the moral (if not electoral) standing of Imran Khan and the PTI government.
But as one mourns this tragedy, it is also important to resist the tempting yet problematic reduction of this issue to an intractable conflict between “religious bigotry” and “secular freedom”. Describing the ailment that produced this episode as surrender to religious bigotry, and prescribing for its cure the tonic of secular freedom would represent a conceptual and political travesty. In what might seem like a counterintuitive proposition, in fact it is precisely the irresolvable contradictions of political secularism that generate such violence (physical or otherwise) against religious minorities and exacerbate majority/minority tensions.

More than anyone else, it is the late Pakistani-American anthropologist Saba Mahmood who most brilliantly explored and demonstrated this universal feature of political secularism that afflicts (though in different ways) both avowedly “secular” and “religious” nation-states. To summarise a complicated argument from her last book Religious Difference in a Secular Age: A Minority Report, Mahmood showed that attributing sectarianism and inter-religious conflict in Muslim majority countries (her focus was Egypt) to untamed religiosity and a lack of secularism represented a singularly problematic diagnosis. Why? Because religious inequality is enshrined in the very organising logic and structure of the modern nation-state, Muslim or non-Muslim.

For all its attempts at religious neutrality, the political and legal structuration of the modern state necessitates its involvement in and production of religious difference. While the precise texture and trajectory of such inequality certainly differs from the US to Egypt to Pakistan, no modern state, Western or non-Western, purportedly secular or religious, can escape an underlying paradox: even if the state “aims to make religious difference inconsequential to politics,” it cannot help but embed “majoritarian religious norms in state institutions, laws, and practices” (Mahmood 2015: 206).

Put differently, one cannot “banish religion from politics while at the same time devise laws to ameliorate religious inequality?” (Ibid., 68). This represents an irresolvable contradiction at the heart of the secular injunction to separate religion from politics; an injunction that brutally shadows, albeit in different ways, both self-ascribed religious and secular states.

The inability of the PTI government to protect this minority shows that such desire for sovereign power always remains incomplete, unfulfilled, and fractured. This is a classic case of a form of religious difference and exclusion engineered by the state as an expression of its sovereignty revealing the limits and fissures of that very sovereignty.

Moreover, the state, with its foremost concern for maintaining public order, cannot help but prioritise the normative expectations and pressures of the majority population, as so obviously seen in the recent episode under discussion. But how could discrimination against a religious minority be attributed to the rationality of political secularism? Isn’t secularism the surest antidote to religious excess and myopia? The reader might wonder.

Unpacking and appreciating the line of argument I have pursued requires that one rethinks the commonplace understanding of secularism as the inverse or opposite of religion. Secularism should instead be approached as a form of power that constantly regulates and manages what counts as ‘proper religion’ in a manner most amenable to liberal political governance.

Thus, turning to Pakistan, with the help of such a conceptual orientation, one can begin to approach the government of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s declaration of the Ahmadiya as non-Muslim in 1974 not as a retreat to religious obscurantism but as the expression of a quintessentially liberal secular exercise of striving for sovereign power through the state management of religion, through the institution of the law.

But as the recent inability of the PTI government to protect this minority shows that such desire for sovereign power always remains incomplete, unfulfilled, and fractured. This is a classic case of a form of religious difference and exclusion engineered by the state as an expression of its sovereignty revealing the limits and fissures of that very sovereignty.

Regardless of whether a state identifies as secular or religious, the pervasive political rationality of secularism, inextricable to the very structure of the modern state, ties the state’s sovereignty to the imperative of marking its citizens as either majority or minority. Thus, it is not religious zealousness and the absence of secular virtue but precisely the opposite, the centrality of a secular political rationality that exacerbates and intensifies majority/minority tensions and violence. What alternate avenues of justice might one explore then?
Crucial to complicating the religious bigotry/secular freedom binary is the imperative to engage the injustice of minority discrimination as an issue of Muslim ethics. This might also represent the most politically prudent and promising path for addressing this impasse in the Pakistani context.

Returning to the Atif Mian tragedy, it was thus very encouraging to see Pakistani Federal Minister for Information Chaudhry Fawad Hussain (before he underwent an abrupt and likely coerced metamorphosis three days later) frame this issue as a problem of Islamic hospitality. Hospitality for the internal and external ‘other’ represents a touchtone of prophetic justice, as exemplified in the ideal of the polity of Medina, he seemed to argue. This was both a courageous and an astute move for it not only nullified the propaganda that supporting an Ahmadi’s right to public service represented a Western conspiracy, but it also drew on a tradition of hospitality that is not subservient to the necessarily exclusionary calculus of liberal political governance, as I explained earlier.

Indeed, excavating resources of hospitality from the Muslim tradition rather than surrendering to the insidious fantasy of secular freedom represents a critical component of countering intra-Muslim and inter-religious discrimination. Central to such an exercise is the task of properly contextualising and interrogating the nuances of concepts such as apostasy, prophecy, and prophethood. This is a task that many Muslim scholars or the ‘ulema’ have admirably performed for many centuries and continue to do so in South Asia and elsewhere, even though their thought and scholarly interventions rarely make it to English dailies or morning headlines.

Indeed, for me, as a scholar of religion, among the most depressing aspects of the Atif Mian tragedy is the way it has highlighted the wilted space for academic discussions on the most intellectually fascinating aspects of Islam, such as prophecy, while further emboldening liberal fundamentalist caricatures of the ‘ulema’ as regressive relics of the past. What this does is that it makes life even more difficult for bold and courageous Muslim scholars (such as Mawlana Waris Mazhari of Delhi or Ammar Nasir in Gujranwala) who are engaged in the complicated yet hugely rewarding endeavor of reimagining Islamic political theology in a manner consistent with both the conditions of modernity and the protocols of tradition.

“Mullah” bashing might feel momentarily cathartic but it won’t take us anywhere. A far more difficult but politically and intellectually productive engagement with this impasse entails rethinking and un-inheriting both colonial liberal secular as well decontextualised Muslim imperial political theologies that privilege the fantasy of sovereign power over justice. In other and simpler words, mourning the Atif Mian tragedy and many other such tragedies requires one to think beyond the claustrophobic confines of the binary division between “religious bigotry” and “secular freedom.”

Postscript: Since this episode also revealed the astonishing degree of ignorance about the Ahmadiya community that pervades the Pakistani public sphere, it is important to make an obvious but nonetheless useful point: like all religious movements and traditions, the Ahmadiya tradition is also marked by tremendous intellectual and doctrinal diversity, debate, ambiguity, and disagreement, including on the critical question of prophecy. There is no such thing as a monolithic Ahmadiya tradition.

Even a polemical engagement with this tradition will benefit from learning more about it. Two academic books I would recommend for this task are: 1) religion scholar Yohanan Friedmann’s classic Prophecy Continuous: Aspects of Ahmadi Religious Thought and its Medieval Background (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1989), and 2) more recently, Adil Khan’s excellent book From Sufism to Ahmadiyya: A Muslim Minority Movement in South Asia (Bloomington, Indiana: Indiana University Press, 2015).


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