Salman Taseer murder and the issue of secularism

Salman Taseer has been assassinated and buried. But the fundamental question that cannot be buried with him is that why is religious intolerance on the rise in Pakistan? This question has been haunting the bloodied people of the country since its inception.

Without going into the history of the Pakistan movement in the last century we cannot get to the root of this troubling question. All historical evidence shows that the Muslims of India were living in the sub-continent for over a thousand year and were practicing their religious rights according to their religion. The issue of having autonomous Muslim majority states within the federation of India emerged in the early 20th century, only when it was realized that the British were willing to give some powers to the people of India. This demand eventually matured into a movement for a separate homeland to serve the interest of the Muslim ruling elite, which was afraid of Congress’ strong center policies. Islam was only used as a   ‘means’ to flare up the mass sentiment in favour of this movement.

David Gilmartin (1989) has documented the important role that some leading Pirs in Punjab played, in popularising the idea of Pakistan. However, the fundamentalist dimension in the Pakistan movement developed more strongly only when the Sunni ulema and pirs were mobilised to prove that the Muslim masses wanted a Muslim/Islamic state. While the central leadership at Deoband indeed allied itself to Congress, some prominent dissidents such as Maulana Ashraf Ali Thanvi and Shabbir Ahmed Usmani and their factions rallied around the Muslim League. Also, the fact that the central Deoband leadership was allied to the Congress meant that the Muslim League was rendered attractive to their much bigger and more influential rivals, the Barelvis, who entertained their own ambitions of establishing an Islamic state. The tables were turned when the Barelvi ulema and pirs of Punjab, NWFP and Sindh joined the Muslim League.

The founders of Pakistan were confused and thought that ‘the end justify the means.’ This Machiavellian approach was dangerous and was only good for short-term gains. The political formulation that ‘end justify the means’’ is only half the story. The other half is that there onwards the ‘means’ used for such short-term political gains dictate another ‘end’ on which the creator of this formulation have little control. Such is the dialectics of history. And today we are dictated by these ‘means’ to another violent ‘end.’

The fact that religion was exploited by the founders of the country to achieve ‘temporal end’ – a separate homeland for the Muslim majority ruling elite – has given enough space to the religious leaders in this country. They want to dictate because their strength comes from the dangerous political formulation forwarded by the rulers since Pakistan’s inception.

Right from the inception of Pakistan these forces have pushed for laws that are contrary to the democratic norms. First they pushed the weak Liaquat Ali Khan government in accepting the Objective resolution. Then they unleashed the attacks on the Ahmediya community in the early fifties. But at that point we still had some sensible judges like Justice Munir who could take on the fundamentalists. Religious intolerance has increased subsequently getting a major boost during General Ziaul Haq’s so-called Islamic Jihad against Afghanistan. The extremists were not only trained but armed to the teeth by Zia and his American and Saudi allies. Little did they realize that the means they are using to bring down a progressive government of Afghanistan would ultimately be dangerous for Pakistan and the world? Both the Pakistani establishment and American leaders stupidly led this region to the present explosive situation.

What we are facing today is the logical outcome of the dangerous policies of the past. Salman Taseer’s murder has shown that even discussion about the blasphemy laws is dubbed as ‘blasphemy’ by the religious parties. Religious leaders have taken this stand and instead of the murderer; the victim is blamed by these bigots. It is the space provided to the religious leaders that we see their statements offering head money for Salman Taseer and Asia Bibi are printed by the media. And the suo motto happy judges do not take notice of such statements which incite murder by announcing handsome rewards. Neither do they take the media to task for abetting by publishing such statements. The government is also too afraid of the religious militants and has no check on the hate speeches made by extremists in mosques and madaris because the state is defined as an Islamic State.

The fanatics like Mumtaz Qadri would continue to kill and maim people, for establishing their brand of intolerant Islam. The fact is that we have declared Pakistan an Islamic Republic and have a constitution committed to make laws according to Quran and Sunah. This gives political space to religious parties. Their argument is that the state has failed to enforce Sharia as stipulated in the constitution, so the Ulemas have taken it upon themselves to fulfill this duty.

If Pakistan has to progress it has to establish itself as a true democracy. No democracy is complete if it is not secular. Does that mean that 97% Muslim Pakistanis will lose their faith? No, not at all. In a secular dispensation they are free to believe what they want. The difference is that they cannot impose their thinking or their brand of Sharia on others. The state has to be neutral. Secularism has been misrepresented by the religious parties. Secularism according to Encyclopedia Britannica is “the term applied in general to the separation of the state politics or administration from religious or church matters.”

Encyclopedia Americana is more specific: It “is an ethical system founded on the principle of natural morality and independent of revealed religions or super-naturalism. Its first postulate is the freedom of thought – the right of every many to think for himself. (2) The right of difference of opinion upon all subjects of thought (3) right to debate and discuss all vital questions.”

The term was coined by George Jacob Holyoake (1817-1906). In 1851 in his Secularist doctrine he proclaimed: 1) Science as a rue guide of man, 2) Morality as secular, not religious, in origin 3) Reason the only authority 4) Freedom of thought and speech 5) Concentration on improvement of human life.

Thus “secularism,” according to Syed Sibte Hassan “is not an evil design of an evil mind whose object is to undermine our social and ethical values or which conspires to create chaos and confusion in the country. On the contrary, it is an enlightened social philosophy inspired by ideals of human progress and freedom.”

So it should not be misconstrued as anti-religion. However, a secular state does not allow anybody to insult anybody’s religion by law. This is inscribed in the basic blasphemy law. At the same time the state should also stop anybody from labeling any individual or an organization ‘Kafir’ and the Mullah from issuing injunctions for killing people who do not agree with their viewpoint.

Many supporters of the secular democracy are of the view that in a country where rationalizing the blasphemy law so that it cannot be misused is resisted violently, demanding a secular Pakistan is asking for the moon. But is there any other way to salvage Pakistan than to separate the religion from politics? We can move towards this goal incrementally, but cannot keep our eyes off it. Otherwise the people who want a peaceful and progressive Pakistan will lose their sense of direction. Under no circumstances Islamic vigilantism should be tolerated by the government. Otherwise the country will drift into violent abyss.  (

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