Religion and state

Published July 18, 2014
The writer is senior adviser, Pakistan, at Open Society Foundations, associate professor of economics, LUMS, and a visiting fellow at IDEAS, Lahore.
The writer is senior adviser, Pakistan, at Open Society Foundations, associate professor of economics, LUMS, and a visiting fellow at IDEAS, Lahore.

TODAY’S world is the world of democracy and we cannot have our own system irrespective of who we are or where we are. Most people in Pakistan also agree that our system of governance should be some form of a democracy. People’s participation in elections, their support for elected representatives, and their explicit or implicit opposition to interventions of a non-democratic nature, as evidenced through the public discourse in the country and our history, clearly establish that.

The interdependence of all countries also demands that there should be one system of governance the world over and presently that system is called democracy. It is the only system at the moment that can give us the ability to live in peace and that can protect coexistence.

But if the system of governance has to be democratic how can the interpretation of one religion, one sect or a few sects be allowed to determine the laws and/or the basic structure of governance in the country? For instance, if the state is ‘Islamic’, how can it be neutral where other religions are concerned?

This is not to argue that people cannot follow a religion or that they cannot make institutions or norms that are governed by their religion. Religious rules within the personal space are not a problem anyway. Even in the public space, where a religion might require a certain type of behaviour, people can live according to the dictates of their religion — as long as they are willing to extend the same right to people belonging to other faiths or people who choose to live differently.

The state’s institutional structure needs to be either faith-blind or it needs to be, where being faith-blind is not possible, faith-neutral. If Muslims live under Muslim laws, Hindus, Christians, etc should have the right to live under their own laws. And for laws that need to apply to all citizens, they have to be neutral to all faiths and have to be based on the principles of human rights that are agreeable to people of all faiths.

At this level of generality, we are coming close to the Rawlsian idea of the ‘veil of ignorance’ that is needed to make laws that transcend our belonging to a particular religion.

But there is need for more. For the better part of six decades, we have lived with the consequences of allowing religion into politics. Our state has a religion. And we allow political parties to do politics on the basis of religion too.

Religious political parties, given that all such parties will necessarily have some ideological moorings in a sect/interpretation, will, by definition, be divisive and exclusionary. Are any religious parties just ‘Muslim’ parties that go across the Shia-Sunni divide? Are there any that even transcend the Deobandi-Barelvi divide? Separate parties might form coalitions for larger objectives but their own affiliation will be seen as narrow and divisive.

The results, at least in Pakistan, have been clear to all. Given the continued factionalism and divisiveness, how many of these parties can point to any achievements? In fact, the situation has been worsening, and ever more rapidly, in recent years. Today, we have many religious political parties and factions, but we also have more violence and hatred in society. We have a war going on in the northwest and our cities are being held hostage by one religious minority or the other.

Israel is a country that was created on the basis of religion. It has deep connections with the bigger powers of the world. Its ability to manipulate world opinion as well as the bigger powers is tremendous. It has demonstrated its ability and willingness for aggression time and again. And it has always found justification and solace for its aggression on a religious basis. The hatred which Israel has generated against itself and its state will not let the state live long but the human cost of Israeli actions has been and will be tremendous.

If democracy is to be preserved and we want to go back to some semblance of a peaceful existence, we need to think carefully about whether the religious political parties should have a role in mainstream politics.

Politics is not the space for absolutist beliefs of a fundamental nature that religion and some other ideologies purport to provide us. Communism was treated like a faith too and once it was observed that under that ‘faith’ countries could not move forward, many of them chose to come under the shelter of democracy.

Today’s world cannot afford mega-aggressions. The agreeable solution for all the countries of the world is only democracy.

Our energies must not be wasted in confrontations and in terror or anti-terror campaigns. The betterment of human kind, instead, should be the objective for all. Though the limits of a democracy can be constitutionally prescribed, sufficient resources need to be generated and utilised for the betterment and development of people so that we can claim our deserved place in the community of nations.

Raising slogans, based on religious beliefs, can be a game that we play but it will only push us further towards confusion and divisiveness.

Is it time for us to rethink the issue of religion in politics in Pakistan. Do we want democracy to survive and take deeper root here? Do we want to make a move towards peaceful coexistence from the very violent and factionalised place where we are right now? If so, we have no choice but to dispense with the role of faith in politics.

If we do not do that, whatever actions we might take against one group or another, we will not be able to rid ourselves of the divisions that exist. Neither will we be able to reduce the severity of our differences. The choice, as a nation, is ours to make.

The writer is senior adviser, Pakistan, at Open Society Foundations, associate professor of economics, LUMS, and a visiting fellow at IDEAS, Lahore.

Published in Dawn, July 18th, 2014

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