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A secular state is a moral state — by Ishtiaq Ahmed

The modern secular-democratic state must ensure that all individuals as well as majorities and minorities enjoy freedom of religion and conscience and the political right to choose their government

In the last few weeks the Daily Times has carried a number of very interesting articles for and against making Pakistan a secular state. Babar Ayaz pleaded for amending the Pakistani constitution with a view to making it a secular state (‘Amendments for a secular constitution’, Daily Times, February 2, 2010). Dr S M Rahman of the Friends Foundation took a diametrically opposite stand, debunking the secular state as an immoral entity, which allegedly focuses entirely on the pursuit of hedonistic interests and pleasures (‘Is secularism that sacrosanct?’ Daily Times, February 22, 2010). Both authors have advanced seriously considered arguments in favour of their political and ideological preferences. I fully sympathise with Babar Ayaz as he has referred to the hard facts of the brutalisation of society that has taken place in Pakistan in recent years.

Some further arguments can be adduced in support of the secular state. The basic flaw in Dr Rahman’s thesis is that instead of reviewing contemporary views on the secular state, he eclectically quotes fictional literature and with a broad sweep the history of 2,000 years of Christendom, the Renaissance, the Reformation and so on, but does not attempt a review of the development in political theory and practice with regard to the contemporary secular state.

Not only Rousseau but some other Western writers have shown admiration for the state of Medina founded by the Prophet (PBUH) and sustained for a while by his pious successors (29 years according to the Sunnis and a mere six years according to the Shias). However, what those writers have not done but which any serious and honest scholar of today — Muslim or non-Muslim — cannot escape noticing is that subsequent attempts to resuscitate the ideal Islamic state have been unmitigated disasters.

I have shown in my doctoral dissertation (‘The Concept of an Islamic State: An Analysis of the Ideological Controversy in Pakistan’ published in 1987 and again in 1992), that the Quran does not provide a general theory of the state or government; it at most provides a sui generis idea of a Prophet-in-Authority. The Prophet (PBUH) was a lawgiver, a law enforcer or and a law adjudicator. Upon his death the role of lawgiver was over. The pious caliphs could at most claim the right to enforce the law and to adjudicate it when it was violated. With the assassination of Ali in 661 AD, the ideal Islamic state ceased to exist.

During the pre-modern period, education, information and knowledge were restricted to very small elites, pious or corrupt. In such circumstances, societies were lucky to have a benevolent despot in power but were mostly ruled by absolute rulers; many were tyrants. One can argue that at that period in history it was but natural that some gifted individuals could make a huge difference in the lives of people. Since the Prophet (PBUH) and his pious successors were in their own time revolutionaries who tried to establish a more just society than what was present contemporaneously in the 7th century, their achievements have admirers not only among Muslims but also others. With the advances in education, information, law, constitutionalism, moral philosophy and political theory, there is no need for pinning hope on gifted individuals. Rather the need is to build institutions that ensure respect for the rights of citizens.

The modern conception of the state begins with Machiavelli — an authority that Dr Rahman probably is referring to with regard to morality. That view of the secular state has indeed visited great suffering on humanity during the period of nationalism, and the two World Wars and the Holocaust are examples of it. However, the state as an entity upholding the rule of law and itself accepting limits to its power and authority by law has a long pedigree. It origins are undoubtedly the British Isles. The rule of law meant recognition of the rights of individuals to certain inalienable freedoms. Those freedoms included the freedom to conscience and religion as well.

It is such a secular state that has evolved during the 20th century into a welfare state, and after World War II it has become truly universal, requiring equal treatment of men and women, protection of the rights of minorities to their culture and religion, and committed the state to promote the welfare of its citizens. I do not find such developments immoral in any sense of the word. On the contrary, the modern secular state prescribes a very advanced morality — that its citizens have the right to be liberated from want and hunger, illiteracy and disempowerment, which has been the lot of the mass of the people throughout history. Moreover, the modern secular-democratic state must ensure that all individuals as well as majorities and minorities enjoy the freedom of religion and conscience and the political right to choose their government. There are of course many other rights that are now part of the UN conventions and national constitutions. The whole idea is that the government cannot arbitrarily repeal the human and civil rights of citizens.

No doubt the secular-democratic state is no guarantee that its constitution and laws will never allow abuse of power — the unlawful invasion of Iraq in 2003 by religious freaks like US President Bush and British Prime Minister Blair are some indication of the need to extend the rule of law beyond the state to international relations. In other words, there is an urgent need to ensure that the violation of international law that results in the deaths of innocent people is criminalised even more strongly. The International Criminal Court (ICC) has been assigned the task of ensuring that leaders who are guilty of crimes against humanity and acts of genocide are tried and punished.

It represents a secular morality that is far superior to all the ‘might-is-right’ conquests that were normal when warrior nations such as the Romans and Arabs or later the Europeans could embark upon and subjugate other peoples. Secular political thought, tempered by the growing realisation that human beings have to be treated as equal and free without regard to race, nationality or religion, has created vastly different possibilities for human beings to live in peace and enjoy a life of dignity under the law. Therefore, the modern secular state is a moral state.

Ishtiaq Ahmed is a Visiting Research Professor at the Institute of South Asian Studies (ISAS) and the South Asian Studies Programme at the National University of Singapore. He is also Professor Emeritus of Political Science at Stockholm University. He has published extensively on South Asian politics. At ISAS, he is currently working on a book, Is Pakistan a Garrison State? He can be reached at

Source: Daily Times

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  • The names really don’t make much of a big difference whether secular, Islamic, democratic or kingdom etc. What’s important that the all the citizens including the majorities and minorities get their rights served to them in a just and timely manner. Everyone can enjoy freedom of expression and choice. Name it anything, but let people live and breathe freely.

  • Bad, bad secularism! —Farrukh Khan Pitafi

    The opponents of secularism are mere agents of the forces that want to subjugate us and keep us prisoners of contradictory, reductionist ideologies

    “Whereas sovereignty over the entire universe belongs to Almighty Allah alone, and the authority to be exercised by the people of Pakistan within the limits prescribed by Him is a sacred trust.” Thus begins the Constitution of the Islamic Democratic Republic of Pakistan. I have read these lines again and again throughout my life and have never been able to divine their meaning. Sovereignty, I take it, is a mundane, human concept. Why do we then need to drag the name of the Almighty into every line that we write? This question takes my imagination to the Almighty Himself. Would He, in his infinite wisdom, really care what these tiny insects crawling on a small blue-green planet write in a constitution that is seldom enforced? I think not. He could have forced us all to spend every single moment of our lives in worship. He could have advised us all to tattoo His name and attributes on our foreheads, but He did not command us to do that. Then why do we have to start the constitution of a republic with words that tell us that we have responsibilities to uphold but no rights whatsoever? That the sovereignty we are so vociferously protecting from Blackwater, and other waters, does not even belong to us?

    These lines, and several other moral defences, advanced by the self-appointed guardians of the Islamic state often make me feel as though I am suffering from dyslexia. I think of this and realise that on this newspaper’s editorial pages a war is being waged for and against secularism. ‘A secular state is a moral state’ by Ishtiaq Ahmed (Daily Times, March 9, 2010) and ‘Amendments for a secular constitution’ by Babar Ayaz (Daily Times, February 2, 2010) are two good pieces that were not difficult to read, understand or subscribe to. But, of course, there was a passionate rebuttal of all things secular by Dr S M Rahman titled, ‘Is secularism that sacrosanct?’ (Daily Times, February 22, 2010). Since Mr Babar Ayaz mentions young citizens too and I consider myself among those who, like Peter Pan, refuse to grow up, I think I can add my perspective, if not anything substantially new, to the discussion. Hence I hope my puerile ramblings will also be forgiven this once.

    Dr Rahman has given a number of references, both fictional and real, to qualify his central argument that a secular state ignores the due import of morality. To understand what morality actually means, I had to google the word and the following definition was returned by “Conformity to the rules of right conduct; moral or virtuous conduct, moral quality or character, virtue in sexual matters; chastity, a doctrine or system of morals, moral instruction; a moral lesson, precept, discourse, or utterance.”

    Through this I finally understand what Dr sahib means. However, my learning disorder bars me from seeing the bigger picture when I try to integrate this framework into politics or matters of the state.

    Having written a recent column on the pernicious, even failing, censorship regime in the Islamic republic and having been thoroughly scoffed at, I have no problem in comprehending when morality is defined as virtue in sexual matters or chastity. Somehow the Islamic state is obsessed with preserving our modesty. And since the most defining feature of this obsession is the premium placed on virginity, you can always fear that one day the moral brigade will institute a law creating the posts of virginity inspectors and modesty registration officers. Our wafer thin apparel of morality is already visible though. A fire breaks out at a girl’s hostel in Rawalpindi on International Women’s Day and six girls perish because the hostel managers have built a chicken coop, rather than a dwelling place, to protect the shame and modesty of the residing girls.

    Yet the zeal of the pious ones does not end here. Which are the critical laws that they can boast of as their contribution? The Hudood Ordinance, the Blasphemy Law, the Prohibition Law or the law declaring Qadianis (Ahmedis) to be non-Muslims? The details of the innocents who have suffered due to the exploitation of these laws will take several volumes to cover. Suffice it to say that these laws, in terms of Islam, are highly derivative and yet they have been projected as the critical mass of the great faith. And these laws are powerful enough to make almost any life miserable.

    I am sure Dr Rahman is not defending the misuse of the above-mentioned laws, but many do. In fact, those who consciously framed these laws left ambiguities in them so that they could be abused just like other authoritarian tools. And this all comes down to one simple fact. While the majority minds its own business, there are those who want to enslave others and force them to lead lives according to their personal whims. This pattern is not at all new. In history, religion or so-called morality has not been their only tool. The supremacist few will stop at nothing to reduce options for you, make life a living hell and stymie all free and creative thought. All this never actually had anything to do with any religion. The opponents of secularism are then mere agents of the forces that want to subjugate us and keep us prisoners of contradictory, reductionist ideologies.

    I could have presented a number of historical examples from my favourite tomes like Will and Ariel Durant’s Story of Civilisation and works of Russell or even Karen Armstrong’s books, but I will not. Only if you want to learn about the true damage the conservatives can do to you, read Karen Armstrong’s twin autobiographical books Through the Narrow Gate and The Spiral Staircase.

    But I believe in a future for this country and I want it to succeed. The best examples of world nations that I can find have adopted liberal secular democracies and hence have succeeded in making a difference. If you have a more compelling contemporary alternative in mind, I would love to know about it. Till then we need to bring such changes to our constitution that will help us live and prosper.

    Secularism can be as bad as they claim, but it has given hope and happiness to billions. Science can be bad too, but it has given us countless inventions and technology without which we cannot be called civilised. I want to live with the civilised world and can only wish Edward Said were alive to expose our Occidentalism as he had once exposed the Orientalism of the West.

    The writer is an independent columnist and a talk show host. He can be reached at\03\11\story_11-3-2010_pg3_5