Secularism: A concept most misunderstood!

by:Dur-e-Aden It is almost a sin to mention the word secularism in Pakistan. Suddenly you are bombarded with labels of being pro-western, anti-Islam, ashamed of your values, threat to identity of the nation, as a result of which you are not a true Pakistani or a good Muslim. People associate secularism with the images of clubbing, partying, drinking, promiscuity, prostitution, broken family structure, mental diseases and all other ills that are associated with western culture. The idea being that when these societies moved away from religion, they became materialistic and lost their sense of morality, as a result of which they are suffering from these social disasters today. It is very true that religion is an important source of morality. Some of our basic senses of right and wrong come from religious teachings whether it’s respect for human life, caring for the poor, modesty and respect in personal relationships or refraining from materialistic pursuits of the world; these are very important and valuable concepts that help to build up the character of a person. The misguided idea however, is that to build such a character among people, religion has to be a part of the state structure and imposed on people forcefully. Muslims who demand a religious state forget to notice that it is actually Muslims who prove this idea wrong that secularism is a threat to your religious values. For example, there is a large number of Muslims who live in secular western societies where Islam is not part of the state, yet they don’t do any of the things that are common place in those countries and which we think are not “our values.” Even though Islam is not a part of western governmental structure, this doesn’t mean that it is a threat to the beliefs of Muslims living in those countries. This is a very important point that people need to understand. Secularism merely means separation of church/mosque and the state. In other words, your state and its institutions don’t adhere to a religion. It certainly doesn’t mean that you yourself have to leave your religion. In fact, in a secular society, you will have more freedom to practice your particular interpretation of a religion which is very much limited in a state where anyone ideological religion interpretation is part of the state apparatus. Let’s talk about Pakistan. Here we have Brelvies, Deobandis, Imamis, Ismaelis, Zikris, mystic Sufis, Wahabis and Ahmadis. Now if we want to make Pakistan an “Islamic” country, this means that Islam has to be a part of the state and all its functions, from education, to laws, to foreign policy, to treatment of minorities etc. Now which version are we going to adopt? (Especially when even within one version, there are disagreements. Not all Hanafis agree on everything, neither all Shafi’s). Moreover, what gives one particular version the right to impose itself on others? (I am not even talking about non-Muslim minorities here, just talking about divisions within Muslims). May be if we agreed on what “Islam” is, the argument to make Pakistan an “Islamic” country would be stronger, but considering the diversity that we have within Islam, incorporation of religion with the state is only going to increase resentment among the groups who would be left out, and sectarian violence by those who would consider their version right and others’ wrong. We have already experimented with this bloody business during Zia years when one ideological interpretation of religion became part of the state and now that cancer has engulfed our society. Secondly, the moral degradation of western societies is not a result of secularism. It’s a result of abandonment of religion or other sources of moral ethics in their personal sphere as well, something that we don’t have to worry about. It is because in our society, along with all the modernity, religion is still and will continue to be a very important part of our everyday lives. That is why I think that secularism would be perfect for our society as even though we may differ on complex matters regarding interpretations, there are a lot of commonalities that we take pride in by calling them “our values.” Moreover, if you look at Pakistan today, it’s not an “Islamic” country in the full sense of the word (whatever that means in the first place?). Despite the inclusion of certain religious clauses, our laws are largely secular and so is our society in their everyday lives. We have people wearing niqabs and people wearing jeans, we have women running for Parliament and stay at home mothers, we have people with beards and those who are clean-shaven, we have people listening and performing music and those who tend to refrain from such activities. Now I am pretty sure none of these classes of society would want their way of life to be banned, and that can only happen in a secular society. Otherwise, if you have one religious interpretation guiding the lives of people who come from diverse social and ethnic backgrounds, result will be chaotic. People don’t really like much interference in their personal lives and state should be concerned with matters that affect the society as a whole. Now getting back to “our values” which are always so threatened, I just want to give one example, let’s take drinking. Majority of the Muslims don’t like the idea of legalizing alcohol as it is clearly prohibited by Islam. However, if you want to make a law regarding its prohibition in the country, you can and should make other logical/valid arguments as to why it is harmful, because it causes addiction, drunk driving accidents, can be a cause of increase in domestic violence/abusive families etc. Moreover, other countries ban drugs too depending on how much harm they will cause to a society so there is no clear cut line as to what drugs should and shouldn’t be legalised. As far as minorities are concerned, if they are not discriminated on other more important basic rights, they probably won’t mind as they also understand that sometimes majority considerations are important in order to avoid conflicts. For example, when Muslims live in other countries that do sell alcohol, they might not fully agree with it they have to accept the decision of what the majority wants. My point here is certainly not to say that minority voices are not important or that they should be ignored at the expense of majority. I just want to point out a political reality. Even the most liberal/modern/secular societies haven’t been able to completely remove the influence of religion on their political decisions. It is a thing that people take seriously and you cannot completely erase its influence in the public sphere especially when adherents of one particular faith have such a vast majority (97% Muslims in case of Pakistan). The point that I want to emphasize is that when majority won’t see their values being compromised, they won’t see minorities as a threat and this will stop strong anti-minority feelings to be developed. As a result, more important issues of minorities can be brought to forefront and resolved. Moreover, generally I have observed that minorities in Pakistan don’t have a huge list of demands and I think that they do understand that being in a Muslim majority country, certain practices of Muslims will affect their public life. Still, all minorities want is to be treated equally with regards to other citizens and not discriminated in their day to day affairs on the basis of their identity. This thing can be seen in the West as well that when certain Muslim practices are suddenly seen as a threat to modern, liberal values, it only ends up increasing discrimination against them; whereas Muslims normally just want to have the freedom to go about their everyday lives without being hunted on the basis of their identity. There are certain policies in the west that clearly run against Islamic principles/values, but even if those Muslims disagree with them, changing them at the state level is not a part of their agenda. Politics is a business of compromises as you can never make everyone happy. Using this analogy, I think that minorities in Pakistan would prefer that we give them complete freedom in their private sphere and treat them as equal citizens with regards to fundamental rights that everybody should be entitled to including the right to vote and run for office and have a voice in making of policies. As a result they would also accept and realize that sometimes national policies might be more influenced by majority demands than that of minorities, even when minority voices are listened to and accounted for. A secular, democratic state is what our founders thought Pakistan would grow up to be when this country was born. When our grandparents migrated from across the border leaving everything behind, they came to be a part of the country where in the course of time Hindus would cease to be Hindus and Muslims would cease to be Hindus, not in a religious sense, because that’s everyone’s private matter, but in the political sense, as citizens of the state. A country where everything is being blown into pieces and whose countrymen are always so ready to be at each other’s throat is not the land of pure that was formed after years of struggles. Just as people were united for the formation of this country despite many different ethnic and religious identities, that unity is now needed more than ever to sustain it which belongs to us, all of us, irrespective of our religion, caste or creed. That was the Pakistan that Jinnah gifted us, and that is the Pakistan that we have to get back. It’s ours and God willing, it will remain ours.

America’s Place in the New World


IT’S election season again, and the main contenders for the Oval Office are knocking themselves out to reassure Americans that their nation remains at the pinnacle of the global pecking order. Mitt Romney recently declared that “this century must be an American century.” Not to be outdone, President Obama insisted in his State of the Union address that “anyone who tells you that America is in decline” doesn’t “know what they’re talking about.”

Mr. Romney and Mr. Obama might overdo it a bit, but they’re actually not far off the mark. Despite two draining wars, sluggish growth and a diffusion of power from the West to China and the “rising rest,” a combination of economic resilience and military superiority will keep the United States at or near the top for decades.

Still, they’re missing the point. The most potent challenge to America’s dominance comes not from the continuing redistribution of global power, but from a subtler change: the new forms of governance and capitalism being forged by China and other rising nations.

The democratic, secular and free-market model that has become synonymous with the era of Western primacy is being challenged by state capitalism in China, Russia and the Persian Gulf sheikdoms. Political Islam is rising in step with democracy across the Middle East. And left-wing populism is taking hold from India to Brazil. Rather than following the West’s path of development and obediently accepting their place in the liberal international order, rising nations are fashioning their own versions of modernity and pushing back against the West’s ideological ambitions.

As this century unfolds, sustaining American power will be the easy part. The hard part will be adjusting to the loss of America’s ideological dominance and fashioning consensus and compromise in an increasingly diverse and unwieldy world.

If American leaders remain blind to this new reality and continue to expect conformity to Western values, they will not only misunderstand emerging powers, but also alienate the many countries tired of being herded toward Western standards of governance.

This transition won’t be easy. Since the founding era, the American elite and the public have believed in the universality of their model. The end of the cold war only deepened this conviction; after the collapse of the Soviet Union, democratic capitalism seemed the only game in town. But the supposed “end of history” didn’t last. Many developing nations have recently acquired the economic and political wherewithal to consolidate brands of modernity that present durable alternatives.

The last 30 years of Chinese development, for example, look nothing like the path followed by Europe and North America. The West’s ascent was led by its middle class, which overturned absolute monarchy, insisted on a separation of church and state and unleashed the entrepreneurial and technological potential vital to the Industrial Revolution. In contrast, the authoritarian Chinese state has won over its middle class, and with reason: its economy outperforms those of Western competitors, enriching its bourgeoisie and lifting hundreds of millions out of poverty.

And in today’s fast and fluid global economy, the control afforded by state capitalism has its distinct advantages, which is precisely why Russia, Vietnam and others are following China’s lead.

The Middle East is similarly set to confound American expectations. Participatory politics may be arriving in the region, but most of the Muslim world recognizes no distinction between the realms of the sacred and the secular; mosque and state are inseparable, ensuring that political Islam is returning as coercive regimes fall. A poll last year revealed that nearly two-thirds of Egyptians want civil law to adhere strictly to the Koran, one of the main reasons Islamists recently prevailed in the country’s parliamentary elections.

And Egypt is the rule, not the exception. If nothing else, the Arab Spring has shown that democratization does not equal Westernization, and that it is past time for Washington to rethink its longstanding alignment with the region’s secular parties.

True, rising powers like India and Brazil are stable, secular democracies that appear to be hewing closely to the Western model. But these countries have democratized while their populations consist mainly of the urban and rural poor, not the middle class. As a result, both nations have embraced a left-wing populism wary of free markets and of representative institutions that seem to deliver benefits only to a privileged elite.

Rising democracies are also following their own paths on foreign policy, foiling America’s effort to turn India into a strategic partner. New Delhi is at odds with Washington on issues ranging from Afghanistan to climate change, and it is deepening commercial ties with Iran just as America is tightening sanctions. Standing up to America still holds cachet in India and Brazil, one reason New Delhi and Brasília line up with Washington less than 25 percent of the time at the United Nations.

Washington has long presumed that the world’s democracies will as a matter of course ally themselves with the United States; common values supposedly mean common interests. But if India and Brazil are any indication, even rising powers that are stable democracies will chart their own courses, expediting the arrival of a world that no longer plays by Western rules.

The 21st century will not be the first time the world’s major powers embraced quite different models of governance and commerce: during the 17th century, the Holy Roman Empire, Ottoman Empire, Mughal Empire, Qing Dynasty and Tokugawa Shogunate each ran its affairs according to its own distinct rules and culture.

But these powers were largely self-contained; they interacted little and thus had no need to agree on a set of common rules to guide their relations.

This century, in contrast, will be the first time in history in which multiple versions of order and modernity coexist in an interconnected world; no longer will the West anchor globalization. Multiple power centers, and the competing models they represent, will vie on a more level playing field. Effective global governance will require forging common ground amid an equalizing distribution of power and rising ideological diversity.

With that in mind, Washington should acknowledge that America’s brand of capitalism and secular democracy must now compete in the marketplace of ideas.

To be sure, even as it adopts a more pluralistic approach, the United States should defend not just its interests, but also its values. It should continue to promote democracy, stand resolute in the defense of human rights and do what it can to stop indiscriminate violence of the sort unleashed by Syria’s government.

But American leaders do their country no service when they trumpet a new American century or topple governments in the name of spreading Western values. Doing so will drive away the very nations the United States needs on its side to confront dangerous pariahs and manage a world in which power is broadly shared.

Standing by its own values while also recognizing that there are alternative forms of responsible and responsive governance would ultimately elevate the nation’s moral authority, making it more likely that other countries would be as respectful of America’s preferences as America should be of theirs.

Charles A. Kupchan is a professor of international relations at Georgetown, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, and the author of “No One’s World: The West, the Rising Rest, and the Coming Global Turn.”

Pakistan: The two nation theory
Written by Lal Khan
For the last 65 years, the attempt of Pakistan’s ruling class to impose numerous anniversary celebrations aimed at instilling nationhood has failed to resonate with society below. The media-hyped cricket hysteria, the patriotism orchestrated by the state and the distorted history in the school syllabus, whose objective is to foment national pride amongst the deprived and destitute masses has abysmally failed. Their suffering and agony does not leave much room for them to celebrate. The compromising historians make us believe that on March 23, 1940 a resolution was passed that laid the foundations on which Pakistan was created. A similar communal and chauvinistic version of history dominates the scene in India. However, it is not as simple as that. The story of independence as peddled since 1947 is linked to the politics and the interests of the pre- and post-partition elite. Although a successful conspiracy can always finds ways and means of officialising it, there also exists the retribution of history. The concept of the “Muslim nation” does not correspond to the realities and the historical developments that led to this fate. If Muslims were one nation then why does one need a visa for Saudi Arabia or Indonesia? There is hardly any so-called Muslim country where a Pakistani Muslim could enter without restrictions. On the other hand if the question was posed: “When did the Muslims become a distinct nation in the Indian subcontinent?”, it would be impossible for the historians of the confessional state to elicit a common answer. The same is true for the question of the Shi’a-Sunni and numerous other theological interpretations of various shades of orthodoxy representing varying levels of obscurantism. Aren’t the Baloch, Sindhi, Pashtun, Kashmiri and Punjabi nations? What has been missing from the official versions is the real causes of partition and the vested interests that it has served. The central tenet of the British colonial state was the Roman principle of “divide et impera” and religion was amongst the instruments used to execute this policy in connivance with the local elite propped up by the Raj. It was from this elite that the politicians of the Indian Congress and the Muslim League were drawn. The Muslim League was formed by the Muslim aristocracy under the guidance of William A J Archbold, who was a broker between them and the Viceroy and Governor-General of India in 1906, Gilbert John Elliot-Murray-Kynynmound, fourth Earl of Minto. The Congress, on the other hand, was created by a British bureaucrat Allan Octavian Hume in 1885. Most of these native politicians were to satisfy amply Lord Macaulay’s contrivance that he asserted in his 1834 Minute on Education: “Indian in blood and colour, but English in taste, in opinions, in morals and in intellect.” It was the British Raj that introduced the column of religion in the census of 1872. In 1934, the Principal of the Mohammadan Anglo Oriental College, Aligarh, Sir Theodore Morrison wrote, “The Hindus and Muslims were two distinct nations... the Muslims should rest assured that they were not alone in their concern for the preservation of their characteristic civilisation.” Winston Churchill described Hindu-Muslim antagonism as, “a bulwark of British rule in India”, and noted that, “Were it to be resolved, their concord would result in the united communities joining in showing us the door.” In his paper Harijan, Gandhi wrote on April 7, 1946 that, “To accept this unholy combination (of Hindus and Muslims indulging in strikes would mean delivering India to the rabble.” In February 1946 at the peak of the naval revolt against British rule, Jinnah released a press statement to the Bombay Free Press Journal: “I appeal to all Royal Indian Navy men... particularly; I call upon the Muslims to stop and create no further trouble until we are in a position to handle this very serious situation.” The Congress, the Muslim League and the British were inexorably aligned due to the revolutionary situation to preserve capitalism and break class unity and the struggle. This truth cannot be concealed for long from the annals of history. What is even more ironic is that after the massive general strike of February 1946 and the growing revolt within the army, navy, air force and the police, the British were desperate to leave India. Several missions were sent to devise an amicable handing over of power while keeping the exploitative system intact. The Cabinet Mission came to India on March 23 and published its plan on May 16. According to this plan there would have been no partition of the subcontinent. Instead it proposed a confederation of three units with the currency, communications, defence and foreign policy to be dealt with by the central government. Jinnah and the central working committee of the Muslim League accepted the plan after intense deliberations. This was an unambiguous rescinding of the Lahore (Pakistan) Resolution of March 23, 1940. The foremost protagonists of the two-nation theory had discarded it. The secession of East Bengal in 1971 decisively annulled its validity. Congress President Maulana Abul Kalam Azad also accepted the plan. On July 7, the All India Congress Committee approved the plan. However, Nehru taking over the presidency of the Congress from Azad, held a provocative press conference on July 10 and wrecked the plan, paving the way for a bloody partition. The incendiary role of Edwina Mountbatten at the behest of the conservative sections of the English bourgeoisie in Nehru’s outburst stands exposed today. This infuriated Jinnah and the Muslim League that had backed off from the demand for Pakistan with extreme restraint. On July 27, Jinnah rejected the plan and reiterated the demand for partition. Azad wrote about those stormy events in his epic work, India Wins Freedom: “I warned Jawaharlal that history’s verdict would be that India was divided not by the Muslim League but by the Congress.” This partition was one of the most brutal genocides in the twentieth century. Millions were slaughtered, mainly in Punjab and Bengal. Sixty-five years after ‘independence’, almost half of the world’s hunger, poverty, disease and deprivation inhabits this subcontinent. The British Raj’s serious strategists knew well that without partition on a religious basis, the national liberation struggle would not stop at national independence but would go forward on to social liberation, overthrowing capitalism and doing away with imperialist plunder. On March 23, 1931, the legendary martyr of this struggle, Bhagat Singh, at the age of 23, along with his comrades Sukhdev and Raj Guru, were assassinated on the gallows by the imperialists, also in Lahore. In one of his last speeches Bhagat Singh had said, “I reject any freedom where British exploiters are replaced by native elites. The only genuine independence can be achieved through a Socialist Revolution.” That mission still seeks its redemption. History poses this challenge to the new generation. The writer is the editor of Asian Marxist Review and International Secretary of Pakistan Trade Union Defence Campaign. He can be reached at [This article was originally published in the Pakistani Daily Times]