During debates on the political role of Islam and secularism vis-à-vis Pakistan, ‘moderates’ often point out that since there is no concept of the Church in Islam, the faith is inherently secular. They argue that secularism is thus a product of Christian societies because the Church there was once an intermediary institution between man and God, and enjoyed political authority. 

So, from the 18th century onwards, when modernity and its many products created new realities, these required a new political paradigm to operate in. It is from this that secularism emerged, to separate the Church from the state and create spaces for the new realities to expand and thrive. Church authority had by then begun to be suspected as an impediment to human progress. 

The idea of defining Islam as inherently secular is not new. It was largely popularised by ‘Islamic Modernists’ in the 19th and early 20th centuries. And even though the modernists were often at pains to fully articulate exactly what ‘inherently secular’ really meant in the context of an organised religion, this idea remained problematic for forces who wanted to use Islam to create a theocracy. 

In the early and mid-20th century, those moving towards demanding the creation of a separate Muslim nation in South Asia, put forward similar ideas to circumvent their Islamist critics. For example, in 1949, Pakistan’s first prime minister, Liaquat Ali Khan, announced that Pakistan as a Muslim-majority state can never become a theocracy because there was no concept of the Church or priesthood in Islam. And despite the fact that the influence of those calling for a theocracy began to swell, their arguments in this regard continued to be challenged by the ‘Islam has no Church’ reasoning. 

In her 2019 book Faith and Feminism in Pakistan, Afiya S. Zia makes an interesting point by writing that ‘the Zia-ul-Haq dictatorship (1977-88) set up the Pakistani state as a Church.’ Indeed, a theocracy needs a Church empowered to interpret and implement scriptural texts, mostly to rationalise and sustain the political raison d’etre of the theocracy.

Instead of questioning the Zia regime’s establishment of the Pakistani state as the Islamic political equivalent of the Church, the new post-9/11 academics often rationalise piety and morality in this Church

Some of the first people to notice what the Zia dictatorship was attempting to do were leading members of the Women’s Action Forum (WAF). WAF was formed in 1981 to challenge many of Gen Zia’s ordinances, which WAF believed were aiming to repress women and keep them in the ‘chadar and chardiwari [veiled and within the house].’

Read: How Zia redefined Pakistan

In May 1986, a frontline member of WAF, the late lawyer Asma Jahangir, made a scathing speech at a WAF gathering, in which she asked why the dictatorship was turning the ulema [religious scholars] into a political class. She then added, ‘there is no wall of priesthood between a believer and God in Islam.’ 

WAF had initially used the ‘Islam has no Church’ argument to counter the ‘Islamisation’ of the Pakistani state in the 1980s. But soon it made a conscious decision to openly declare itself as a secular organisation. This created cleavages within WAF. Some members wanted to continue framing their arguments in the context of Islamic modernism and/or ‘Islam has no Church’ pretext, while others found this approach limiting in a fight against a rising theocracy.

The Islamic political equivalent of the Church as an institution of religious and political authority was finally established in Pakistan. One can trace the polity’s reaction to this through the response of women activists and scholars. A founding member of WAF, the late Shahla Zia wrote in Shaping Women’s Lives (1998) that the context of ‘no Church in Islam’ against Gen Zia hadn’t worked. She insisted that ‘women’s rights fall in the realm of secular human rights’ and this required WAF to seek the secularisation of laws. 

But voices such as Shahla’s that had been prominent in the women’s movement during the Gen Zia dictatorship, had already begun to be countered by those who, according to Afiya Zia, seemed to have accepted the ascendency of political Islam (and the formation of the Church). The newer so-called ‘scholar-activists’ had put the blame of the failure to stop Gen Zia from Islamicising the state, at WAF’s feet. According to them, WAF had refused to take into account the general non-secular nature of Pakistani society. Shahla responded by pointing out that those suggesting this mostly lived abroad and had no clue what activists had to go through in challenging a dictator. 

After 1999, the Gen Musharraf dictatorship attempted to somewhat soften the impact of the Islamicisation process that had continued through the 1990s. But the tragic 9/11 attacks in the US and the manner in which they impacted the Muslim diaspora in the West, saw many Muslim academics in the US adopt ‘postmodernist’ and ‘post-secular’ ideas. This was in response to the criticism that Muslims began to attract after the attacks. 

A most surreal scenario appeared in the some of the top Anglo-US universities and think-tanks. As US troops invaded Afghanistan, and Pakistan became a frontline state aiding the US against militant Islamists, and as Westerners grappled to understand why would a group of ‘pious Muslims’ ram planes into buildings full of ordinary people, a plethora of young Muslim academics were given space on campuses and in think-tanks to explain to the Americans what had transpired. 

The surreal bit was that this space was provided despite the fact that the academics were wagging their fingers at secularism, liberalism and modernism. These were not Islamic modernists of yore who would try to exhibit that things such as democracy and secularism were inherent in Islam. Nor were they insisting that radical Muslim states needed to be secularised. Instead, they were postmodernist caricatures, drenched in lifestyle liberalism and operating in Western institutions, but looking for a third way to define Muslims outside the ‘Western secular’ contexts and the context of Islamic modernism. 

These academics went about looking for examples in Muslim history where Islamic laws were used for the benefit of common men and women. They claimed that contemporary cultural traditions and exhibitions of piety in Muslim societies had a rational base, but that this rationalism was according to a societal ethos that was different from the secular ethos of western modernity. Indeed, this fascinated their Western patrons but, at the same time, Islamists gleefully adopted such narratives as well. 

For example, many US-based Pakistani ‘feminist-academics’ attacked their Pakistan-based contemporaries for facilitating attacks on Muslim culture by insisting on promoting secular and modernist feminist narratives. Ironically, this was exactly what conservatives and Islamists in Pakistan accused the ‘liberals’ of doing. Shahla Zia saw such post-9/11 scholarship as something born from a sense of defeatism. The Church had been constructed but, instead of questioning its construction, the new academics rationalised the ideas of piety and morality in this Church.

Moreover, they do so by sitting thousands of miles away in lands where the Church remains separated from the state and away from lands where this romanticised and rationalised piety and morality have been used over and over again to satisfy political and even violent social and personal impulses, especially against women and minority groups.

Published in Dawn, EOS, July 25th, 2021

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