Secularism and Conflict Management in Pakistan (Daily Times)

By Babar Ayaz

Debate between the hardliner Islamists and Secular forces has been as old as this 66 year old country. In between are the centrists and the military that have all along followed the policy of appeasing the Islamists to rule the country. Why do they appease the Islamists who have limited constituency but greater nuisance street power and since the 80s gun power also?

The simplest answer is because these centrist politicians and the military who ruled the country started exploiting the religious narrative blatantly even before Pakistan was made to get the support of the masses for the Two-Nation Theory. And after Pakistan was made, one-religion-one-nation theory was handy for undermining the rights of the nationalities which were not part of the ruling establishment.

The military exploited religion to further its anti-India national security policy as it helped in turning Pakistan into a security state. The present violent conflict in the society between the state and militant Islam has made the discussion on the need of a Secular Pakistan–. URGENT!

For long Pakistan has suffered because of the domineering Islamist narrative. The ruling classes draw strength from this religious narrative. In this backdrop Monis Ahmer’s book ‘Conflict management & vision for a Secular Pakistan’ is a timely addition to the work done by a number of writers on this subject.

Erstwhile Marxist scholar Sibte Hasan wrote a book ‘The Battle of Ideas’ in 1986 in support of a secular Pakistan. While he used Jinnah and Iqbal’s quotations profusely to prove his point, more recently Saleena Karim in her book ‘Secular Jinnah & Pakistan’ used Jinnah and Iqbal’s ideological relations to prove the case otherwise — for Islamic Pakistan. But the point here is: that should we be bogged down within the boundaries of history or make a case for a Secular Pakistan irrespective of what the founders thought rightly or wrongly? It’s 21st century we need to move on into it.

Perhaps one of the most scholarly discussions on this issue was held at a workshop on ‘State Management of Religion in Pakistan’ at King’s College. These papers were published by Modern Asian Studies a publication of the Cambridge University Press with an introduction by David Gilmartin and Humeira Iqtidar. . As it was the discussion among the academicians hence the papers were thought-provoking but complex beyond the understanding of an average Pakistani who wants to explore the secular option.

Monis Ahmer has dealt with the issue with the complete freedom of the scholar but keeping it simple for an average reader. He has at the very outset identified the major conflict in the society: “Pakistan’s predicament since its inception as a nation state on 14 August 1947 is three pronged: …failure to create plausible conditions which can provide it’s culturally, religiously and ethnically diversified population a sense of identity or the identities pertaining to language, culture and sect made things difficult for the nascent state of Pakistan. The question whether religion of Islam – which according to the custodians of the Pakistan movement was the basis of creating the world’s first state in the name of religion—be given importance or the ethnic and religious diversity of the state be recognised?” This predicament was fully exploited by the Islamists in influencing the state’s constitution and laws.

He has answered various misconceptions regarding secularism and has laid the case for a Secular Pakistan explaining why it was necessary for the conflict management in our society. He first raises the frequently asked questions and issues related to the debate on secularism in Pakistan and then moves on to provide logical answers to these queries with the support of references. Monis’s book can be called as FAQs for a Secular Pakistan. Some of the questions he has answered are; What is meant by the term secular and how it is transformed into an ideology ‘Secularism’?; Is there a need to redefine secularism according to the changing environment and conditions?; How did secularism originate and why did it emerge as a motivating force to prevent the exploitation and manipulation of religion for political purposes? (In my book ‘What’s Wrong with Pakistan?’ I have analyised the consequences of exploiting religion by politicians); and is Islam compatible with secularism and if yes then why are Muslim societies unable to deal with issues which require an active objective and rational way of approaching the politicization of religion and the role of the state in this regard?

This indeed is a crucial question which has been dealt by many scholars on both sides of the divide. One school of thought wants to prove that Islam gives space to establish secular polity; while the says that it doesn’t because Islam gives a complete code of life which includes the management of state under Sharia.

 Monis Ahmer has given five basic arguments in favour of a Secular Pakistan.

  1. Since the terms ‘secular’ and ‘secularism’ lack proper understanding not only in Pakistan but also in many Muslim countries, it will be unwise to term that ideology as anti-religions.
  2. Despite the fact that religion was the major factor in the creation of Pakistan, it does not mean that the country should adopt a conservative and radical version of Islam and allow the exploitation of people on the basis of religion.
  3. There is no contradiction between Islam and secularism because the latter is not against religion but wants to prevent its use for political purposes.
  4. In view of the sectarian and ethnic contradictions in Pakistan the country can prevent religious and ethnic schism (conflict) in the society by pursuing a secular approach on the issues of governance.
  5. The prevailing violence and religious extremism in Pakistan has got an impetus because of the amalgamation of politics with religion. Only by separating mosque from the state Pakistan can hope to seek peace and stability and manage conflict. The point I made earlier.

He has advocated that Pakistan should learn from the secularism experience of Europe and particularly Turkey and Indonesia and given his vision and toolkit for a secular Pakistan. Secularists need to read it and speak out, as it’s already too late in the day to save our society from the rising religiosity with weak-kneed governments giving in too quickly to these divisive forces.

The writer is author of What’s wrong with Pakistan? He can be reached at


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  1. #1 by Iqbal Alavi on June 12, 2014 - 6:09 pm

    Acknowledge. Thanks. You have summarised it for the convenience of the reader. I will fwd this to friends. iqbalalavi

    Date: Thu, 12 Jun 2014 10:52:06 +0000 To:

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