What kind of republic?


When it comes to birthdays, individuals have it rather easy compared to countries. Individuals are not the product of an ideology or an argument and therefore their existence does not need justification and critique at the same level as countries. Another birthday for our motherland Pakistan means another day of state sanctioned celebrations. This also means another year gone by without any serious analysis of the narrative that lies at the heart of Pakistan.
If Pakistan were a 64 year individual then today she would be significantly weak with wrinkles and bruises far beyond her years. Schizophrenia and the loss of a limb would ail her. If Pakistan was a promise then its creation alone surely was not its fulfillment but was only the first step in a long journey. That journey it seems was never really planned.
Yes, Mr. Jinnah did speak of Pakistan being a secular state in his first address to the Constituent Assembly; but in 1948 the same Mr. Jinnah also referred to Pakistan’s character as an Islamic state. Of course, it was never meant to be a theocracy and it is not one but the fact remains that even the founders made contradictory statements. An even more important question would be what people mean today when they refer to the need for making Pakistan a secular republic. Is our status as an Islamic Republic really the root of a majority of our problems?
As wonderful as the word secular may sound, it too involves engagement with and response to questions as difficult as those pertaining to the role of religion. The constitution of our country does declare it to be an Islamic Republic and the constitution ostensibly places Quran and Sunnah on a pedestal but how much of a difference does that really make in the life of our country? I would argue not a lot. The important point to note here is that I am not arguing that laws ostensibly based on Islam have an insignificant effect but that Pakistan’s status as an Islamic State is largely irrelevant in that regard.
Even if today someone was given a magic wand to instill in parliament the political will to declare Pakistan a secular republic, it would not change things drastically. The reason for that is simple — it is not the constitution that has given Wahhabi Islam the power that it has but our state and society’s practices. Making Pakistan a secular republic today will still not enable any government to do away with controversial laws on blasphemy nor will it remove the rhetoric of Islam from judicial pronouncements.
Similarly, if tomorrow we woke up in the secular republic of Pakistan it would still treat Ahmadis as secondary citizens because the discourse itself would not change. Therefore, people who lament Pakistan being an Islamic Republic need to wake up to the fact that the official status of a state towards a religion is often largely irrelevant. What matters is the discourse surrounding the populist view of a religion and responses to such discourse. Democratically elected governments and politicians in the secular republic of Pakistan would have been hostage to the Islamist discourse to the same degree that they are today.
The cure is not to form Facebook groups calling for the secular republic of Pakistan but to deal with issues that a democratic Pakistan must confront, regardless of the status of religion in the constitution. Laws relating to blasphemy and exclusionary citizenship could have been and would have been promulgated even if Pakistan was a secular republic. Islamist parties would still have used religion to ignite violence and unrest. Democracy itself would have facilitated all this since invoking God would be sacred for the voters regardless of whether the constitution validated it or not.
It is almost impossible to imagine that even the judiciary would have struck down laws discriminating against certain religions and sects because ‘the invisible Constitution’ (unwritten abstract principles) would still have given interpretations of Islam the same power to hurt our minorities. Judges too, more often than not, follow public opinion.
The answer, and we must acknowledge it this 64th birthday, is to debate and decide how Islam will be interpreted and applied in today’s world. Our status as an Islamic Republic has nothing to do with the answers we need. This answer involves debates that include but are not limited to the reform of curriculum taught at madrassahs and the place of minorities and women in a Muslim majority state. Pakistan’s confusions about Islam and its role stems from an abdication of responsibility on the part of public intellectuals and responsible officials to respond to interpretations of religion that were and remain detrimental to rights of women, minorities as well as the promise of a more inter-connected world. Deleting a line from the Constitution will not make a difference because this issue requires years of engagement. These debates must take place not only in our legislatures but more importantly in our homes, offices, schools, madrassahs etc.
Acknowledging one’s limitations and attempts at rectifying character flaws are hallmarks of maturity. If Pakistan wants to celebrate its birthdays with any semblance of dignity in the coming years, it must grow up and not just grow old. Otherwise, it risks being struck by a terminal illness.

The writer is a Barrister and has a special interest in Anti-trust/Competition law. He can be reached at [email protected]


  1. Thank you sir, for writing this piece. I found it quiet clarifying. Mostly the youth today is confused and cannot understand the complexities of the multifarious problems facing our country. Some amidst us support secularism to an extent that they would like to have constitutional amendments. But your point about a state separated or influenced by religion being irrelevant makes logical sense.

  2. The youth and most people imagine "secularism" to be a particular set of assortments. 1. Justice. 2. Women rights and emancipation. 3. End of corruption and beginning of thorough accountability. 4 merit based decisions etc.

    But these ideals also lie in Islam. What most people want is, the end to all segregated factions and ideologies. People do not want to inhibit women from taking the lead, from being on posts, especially not being the sole "problem" in Islam.

  3. Before debating whether we would like to see Pakistan a secular or Islamic country every one should focus on making it a JUST country, where law is applied equally for every one irrespective of status, wealth or heredity.

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