Making a case for secularism


It’s been a long time coming

“How can we save Pakistan from secularism?” was one of the questions at an exam I attended earlier this week. Isn’t it mind-boggling? The political idea which many in Pakistan have been struggling for years to popularize has been portrayed as something vile, cursing and damaging for the country.

The dilemma, however, is that while I have studied extensively about the topic and had enough prior knowledge to debunk what was taught to us in the classes, majority of my fellows were either unaware of the topic, or were too casual to know more about it. Thus: the narrative of secularism being a dark, terrible idea embraced by godless, immoral people.

The debate about secularizing the state of Pakistan goes way back to the year of its creation when Jinnah, in his famous speech provided a way forward to Pakistanis by asking them to cease to be Hindus or Muslims when it comes to state affairs. Promising equal rights for minorities, he announced Muslims were free to go to their mosques, Hindus to temples and Christians to churches. It is the simplest, comprehensive and most eloquent description of modern day secularism.

So, what is the chaos about? If Pakistan’s founder declared what type of country he wanted, where did it all go wrong? The answer to this question is not as simple as many secularists or Islamists would present it to be.

While reading ‘The Punjab Bloodied, Partitioned and Cleansed’, a comprehensive research on pre-partition Punjab and the effect its partition brought to the Punjabis. Contrary to what many liberals believe, Muslim League employed Islam as a driving force of its activism in Punjab, and elsewhere. Slogans like ‘Islam in danger’ were raised to fuel the public sentiments.

Referring to veteran journalist, Aziz Mazhar, Ahmed writes that a historian, Dr. Muhammad Baqir advised Jinnah to use Islamic slogans in his election campaign. (Page 104)

A poet from Sialkot, Asghar Sodai coined the slogan, ‘Pakistan ka na’ara kya? La ilaha ill-lilah’. “It is not surprising that Jinnah, a politician of considerable political acumen who hitherto had strictly confined his political campaign for Pakistan to constitutional arguments, began to sense that emotive Islamic appeal and slogans could prove crucial to winning mass support,” Ishtiaq Ahmed notes.

He further writes that students who were active that time, including Aziz Mazhar, Hukum Qureshi, Syed Ahmed Saeed Kirmani and many more confirmed that Islamist slogans were chanted in Muslim league rallies.

Then Punjab Governor, Glancy, in his Fortnightly Report observed on 27 December, 1946, “Among Muslims, the leaguers are increasing their efforts to appeal to the bigotry of the electors. Pirs and Maulvis have been enlisted in large numbers to tour the province to denounce all those who oppose the League as infidels.” (Quoted from The Punjab Bloodied, Partitioned and Cleansed, Page 106)

Famous Pir Mehr Ali Shah of Golra Sharif announced that non-Muslims would be able to live in peace in Pakistan by paying jizya. (Page 109)

These are just few of the references about how Islam was used to rally Muslims around the League. After Pakistan was created, the zeal and zest Muslims had to see it as an Islamic welfare state, which they were promised more than once, was undying.

Jinnah couldn’t do much to define the future pathway for Pakistan and left the infant country to the hands of politicians who laid the foundation of theo-democracy or demo-theocracy that Pakistan is today. With Objective Resolution of Pakistan, it was decided that sovereignty belonged to Allah.

The 1956 constitution declared that Pakistan was an ‘Islamic republic’.  With reference to what was taught in the class, democracy and Islamic political system are two opposite ends. How could Pakistan be a democracy, which means sovereignty and authority to make laws belong to the elected body and not a religious scripture?

The confused narrative was continued by Bhutto as well. Blending socialism with Islam, he presented a new discourse which failed miserably with Pakistan declaring Ahmadis as non-Muslims through 2nd amendment. Clerics, who Bhutto failed to control for obvious political reasons, came back haunting him with a movement to implement Sharia under Pakistan National Alliance.

Zia did what the previous leaders were reluctant to do – Islamizing the constitution fully. The confusion between democracy and theocracy came to a halt with draconian laws like Hudood Ordinance and Blasphemy Laws to name the few.

Many in Pakistan blame Zia alone for the Islamization of constitution when in fact, the process had started even before Pakistan was created. Muslim League used Pirs and Maulvis to apostatize those who opposed it – just like many religio-political parties in contemporary Pakistan do.

As I said earlier, it is a long journey which brought a Pakistani educational institute to ask its students about the ways to save Pakistan from secularism.

Historically speaking, the romantic idea of an Islamic Caliphate has never applicable. Prophet Muhammad’s death sparked differences within Muslims of that time, which were later resolved. However, we can’t deny the fact that 2 of the ‘Rightly Guided Caliphs’ were murdered by the hands of Muslims themselves. Never, after that, was an ideal caliphate discussed romantically was established.

Pakistan has lost hundreds of people in an ongoing sectarian war. Almost all the sects in Pakistan consider each other apostate and are very particular about their teachings. How, according to the proponents of theocratic Pakistan, is it possible to implement the interpretation of Islam acceptable for everyone?

Has anyone from Muslim world ever introduced a system based on Islamic Principles, which would be acceptable to both Sunnis and Shias?

There are some Islamic countries like Iran and Saudi Arabia where Sharia has been enforced. However, we get to hear stories of human rights violation in these countries on a regular basis. If Iran imprisoned two artists belonging to opposite sexes for shaking hands, Saudi Arabia has sentenced a secular blogger to regular lashings.

There are Taliban and ISIS’s versions of Sharia as well. Taliban era was one of the worst time for women and religious minorities of Afghanistan. ISIS has been committing horrendous crimes against humanity – from beheading non-Muslims to throwing homosexuals off roofs – all in the name of establishing a universal Islamic Caliphate.

Isn’t it a good time for Pakistan to realize that the idea of Sharia-based system is a bit too much? Lest we want to be ruled on Saudi Arabian or Taliban’s model.

Embracing secularism is the only way out of the mess Pakistan finds itself in, or else, there might not be anything left for far-right parties to save.



  1. I want to congratulate Umer Ali on this brilliant defence and pleading for secularism. He has very intelligently referred to evidence which shows the sources of the confusion that emerged during the campaign for Pakistan on what future Pakistan would be like. He argues persuasively that only a secular Pakistan can provide stability and normality to the Pakistani state and serve as a basis for peace within Pakistan and around Pakistan.

  2. I believe this rightist and leftist debate has gone too far. Both the groups are trying to "re-interpret" the Pakistan movement according to their views. Every group claims that the ONLY way forward for Pakistan is to adopt their line of action. This itself shows the extremist approach these groups uphold. Extremism in my view is to hold one's view in high esteem and denouncing every other opposing view; Extremism is to DENOUNCE logic, twist the facts to make them aligned to own's view.

    Umer Ali Sb, if democracy is about the choice of people, then please respect their choice even if its against your school of thought. If people want this to be an Islamic country, then let them make it one. You have every right to propagate your views without twisting the facts..!

  3. Umer Ali has elaborately traced the history of Pakistan's drift into the abyss of demo-theocracy.Contrary to popular view wherein Zia-ul-Haq is credited with Islamizing the state and society,Umer has demonstrated that the process began much before the creation of the state and once the genii was out of the bottle it was almost impossible to put it back. Today.secularism means anti-Islam and hence very difficult to explain to an ordinary person in this country. I have little hope that things are likely to improve. Anyway a great write-up by a young scholar.

  4. Mr. Siddique….People never voted for Islamic parties…they always voted the secular ones

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  10. This is a great appeal for secularism, well done! I hope this complex issue will be resolved some day, even if I can't see it happening any time soon. It is difficult to reconcile secular values with Islamic ones as concepts such as Jizyah and Dhimmi are so closely intertwined with Islam and its history. Still, one might hope that the current problems are an incentive to reevaluate how these two value systems are to relate to each other. Discourse is the way forward, always.

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