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The space for secularism in the national narrative

Published Jun 22, 2011 09:13am

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Pakistani police officer receives flowers and Valentine's Day cards for Mumtaz Qadri, the confessed killer of a liberal Pakistani governor, given by students during a rally out side the Adiala Jail where Qadri's special court hearing held, Monday, Feb. 14, 2011 in Rawalpindi, Pakistan. Qadri pleaded guilty to murder, telling a judge he didn't regret gunning the politician down because he killed "an apostate" as required under his interpretation of Islamic law, lawyers said. – AP Photo

Pakistan is a strange country; the people who garner maximum news coverage are often shady. If January was the month of Mumtaz Qadri, then February and March definitely belonged to Raymond Davis and the man who hogged all the headlines across the globe in May was Osama Bin Laden. Last but not the least was Illyas Kashmiri who was killed in a drone strike in June.

It is even stranger that though all four of them were shady characters – murderers to be precise – the response of the popular media to their deeds, lives, and reasons have ranged from high praise to utter ridicule.  While Davis was lynched by our media for killing two Pakistani men, Qadri was praised by a certain section of media as the saviour who, by shedding blood of another human being, has somehow restored balance in the universe and saved the religion, humanity and galaxy. The kind of debate bin Laden and Kashmiri spark is the stuff of legends. People have called them terrorists, warriors, messiahs and everything in between depending on their ‘ideological’ and ‘idiological’ leanings.

But the strangest common factor in all the cases is that the popular media has developed the narrative and catered to the incidents surrounding these characters on the basis of religion. All the discussions and responses on the subject have been based, not on the news worthiness of the issue, but on the perceived religious reasons for the actions of the perpetrators and on the basis or lack of their religiosity.

Qadri was hailed as a hero because he was defending his faith. Even his critics were at pains to point out that he was mislead because the religion was not interpreted in its true spirit by who so ever was inspiring him. The only person, Sherry Rahman, who actually said that this law needed to be amended, had to stay cooped up in her house for the fear of her life. The fact that a man was killed was either ignored or the victim was blamed for his own death. The focus of the discussion stayed on religion and religion inspired laws and how essential they are to the survival of this society. The condemnation of that murder was subdued because vociferous denunciation would have challenged the religiosity of the narrative. Even before the death of the slain governor, one anchor decided to act as the prosecutor, jury and the judge and held a public trial of Governor Salman Taseer. With media pandering to the dictates of the overtly religious groups, presenting secular arguments in mainstream media is neither desired nor is considered safe.

Davis, an American guilty of the same crime homicide, was labelled the devil incarnate because he was an infidel who killed two Muslim men in the land of pure. The fact that it was Federal Shariat Court supported Qisas and Diyat Law that saved him in the end was again ignored. No one either wrote or spoke against the law in the popular media. The fact that perpetrators of the same crime can have different punishments depending upon their social standing and the amount they are willing to shell out to stay out of the prison and that the law actually supports the criminal with a sizeable bank account are largely ignored by our esteemed media persons and anchors.

Apart from these cases, the television debates usually centre on the quest of making the country a “true’ Islamic state instead of a working state. How many times have we seen sanctimonious anchors and so called experts discussing whether a legislation or a verdict by the courts is religious enough or not. Hardly have we seen any debate on whether a course of action is workable or not, which basically gives sanction to bad governance.

There can be two probable reasons for such glaring omission of the secular content in any news debate in Pakistan. The country was created on the basis of religion, when the raison d'être for a country is its official religion, then any ideology contesting it kind of gets lost in the narration. The other is that there are some secular voices but they either submit to the views of majority for the fear of retaliation or they think that their voice will get lost. In either case, secular voices end up ceding political space and jeopardising their own long term future.

This is not limited to the fourth estate. The other three pillars of the country – Legislators, executives and judiciary are as much to blame as the media for it. Last year, the Chief Justice of Pakistan expressed ‘concern’ about Parliament’s ability to redraft the constitution in such a manner that it will make Pakistan a secular republic. It was painful to note that the secularity of the constitution was seen as a threat by the man presiding over the most august court in Pakistan. The chief Justice’s concerns were obviously unfounded because the parliament is housed with likes of Shiekh Waqas Akram, Maulana Fazlur Rehman and Rehman Malik who have repeatedly vowed to deal with anyone who dare speak against legislation based on theology.

In addition to them, the armed forces, perhaps the most powerful group in the country, owe their acceptance and popularity with the people on their stance as the defenders of not only the geographical boundaries of the country but also as the defenders of the faith. People are willing to forgive the armed forces for gobbling up the lion’s share of the resources in the country as long they stay vigilant against the threat of the infidel. That is why Pakistani nuclear capability is sold to its people as “Islamic atomic bomb” – a pan Islamic achievement rather than a national one.

Secularism cannot be pulled out of thin air like a genie. Just like fruitful discourse needs secular input, secularism cannot survive without debate, political space and social acceptance. It will not germinate in a vacuum but will arise out of liberal interpretation of theology and questioning the dogma which are not possible in current Pakistani milieu. Liberal research of the religion is virtually nonexistent. A few random liberal scholars like Dr Farooq Khan and Ghamdi were either killed or had to relocate to stay alive.  If the country has to survive as a viable entity in future, its political, judicial, military and bureaucratic leadership must realise that giving space to dissenting voices is as necessary as bowing down to the wishes of majority.

Religion, in whatever way, has always been part of the discourse. Apart from Madrassah students, Islamic studies have been an integral part of the syllabus everywhere in Pakistan, from elementary school to degrees courses. The concept of secularism, on the other hand, has never been formally introduced in academia. We cannot move forward if this disparity is not addressed.

Tazeen Javed is a communications specialist, a blogger and a free lance writer.

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Comments (27) Closed



BS Murthy Jun 22, 2011 03:37pm
"...We cannot move forward if this disparity is not addressed." - true but..
Nagaraj Jun 22, 2011 04:13pm
In Pakistan, Religion is mixed with everything. Pakistan's woos are not going to end unless religion is separated from administration. The most successful and developed Nations have drawn a clear line between religion and National Politics.
KMR Overseas Jun 22, 2011 04:33pm
“true’ Islamic state can't be at peace with-itself. It is proved time and again. It is always the case, when state of affairs being conducted terribly wrong way nobody comes forward to rise their voice. But to calm the public anger after every tragic event, the defenders claim "the religion was not interpreted in its true spirit". I guess world has seen enough of this (pseudo-peace) dramas.
Navneet Jha Jun 22, 2011 05:00pm
Hi, In my opinion any county where majority is muslim can never be secular as muslim can never tolerate other faith. Ironically, whereever muslims are in minority, they always talk about secularism...
Porterhouse Jun 22, 2011 06:12pm
I feel real sorrow for the small minority in pakistan who have not been infected by religious brainwashing. Your country has become a literal nightmare to you and the rest of the world. How to treat this disease is the million dollar question. I've not heard a realistic answer.
Concerned Citizen Jun 22, 2011 06:12pm
Very true indeed.
wajahat ali Jun 22, 2011 06:14pm
if something is misunderstood. it does not mean it is wrong ... to get to know about something get to the source, one is not supposed to judge the ,mercidies, car by the driver ... secularism cant take anyone along ... who is supposed to make the rules when we all consider ourselves equally eligible for this..
Agha Ata (USA) Jun 22, 2011 06:22pm
Education education, education. That is the answer. Offering flowers to a murderer of a good man is ignorance. Education is the answer.
matta reddy Jun 22, 2011 06:34pm
students giving flowers to qadri..........future is bleak for pakistan.
Ali Jun 22, 2011 06:48pm
The only way forward is secularism... we have to remove religion from our constitution!
Javaid Jun 22, 2011 07:08pm
Great article!
BRR Jun 22, 2011 07:19pm
Ideological states don't survive, logical states have a chance. Old cultures that have survived had chosen reason, logic and thirst for education.
Lucky Ali Jun 22, 2011 07:24pm
Sometimes i feel is there nothing that can be done to fix all this depressing mess.. there is so much suffering due to religion. I prefer the religion of humanity and common sense. That's the best religion.
Haroon Jun 22, 2011 07:33pm
The cold-blooded murder of the governor was indeed very sad. But with all due respect, our problem is not that the Pakistani state is secular or not. The problem is that our political structure is not based upon uplifting the Pakistani state and people rather its sole purpose is access to state power and resources. Consequently, the state is plundered and simply becomes a vehicle for distributing patronage. Hence it would not make an iota of a difference if tomorrow you declared Pakistan to be a secular state because the underlying political structure will remain the same.
Abdul Jun 23, 2011 09:55am
u r right
Asee Jun 23, 2011 10:07am
Liberals in Pakistan are living in isolation. They have restricted themselves from common populace and seems frustrated. Future of liberalism is bleak because they are still not able to create their space among the youth of Pakistan. For majority of youth liberalism is an ideology which is very opposite to Islam. With such understanding of liberalism the youth of Pakistan even not imagine to stand against the giant and omnipotent groups of extremists.
Ravi Jun 23, 2011 11:27am
The fundamental question that needs to be asked, not just in Pakistan but elsewhere as well, is whether any religion needs constitutional guarantees, blasphemy laws, violent responses to dissent and so on in order to survive. Are religions so weak and devoid of inherent merit that they would collapse without some form of enforcement?
Tahir Jun 23, 2011 12:24pm
Wither Pakistan. So so sad. Religion has got to be removed from the running of the state.
Irshad Khan Jun 23, 2011 12:28pm
The society where-in killers and murderers are appreciated is a society of uncivilised persons. Salman Taseer was one of the best human being.
jamil Jun 23, 2011 12:37pm
pakistan survival is in secular approach to politics and life.Relegion should be left to individuals as a personal choice.
malay Jun 23, 2011 01:25pm
It is very good sign. All comments from Pakistan is for secularism. Though it is not clear if Pakistan adopt secularism, her problem will be solved, but surely it will be a first step towards modernity & welfare state.
Aarij Jun 23, 2011 01:33pm
The religious extremities pointed of our society pointed out by the author are correct BUT the problem is not religion nor the solution to it is SECULARISM. The problem is extremism in our society both religious and non-religious. IF an ideology is used to oppress masses then the use is wrong and not necessarily the ideology. Unfortunately, even muslims think or like to think that ISLAM is what muslims do and hence the conclusions that State should be separated from Religion. Can anyone point out(with references offcourse) what stops free debate, open criticism of the ruler, equal status to every citizen regardless of religion, religious liberty in ISLAM??
K- Jun 23, 2011 10:06pm
Without liberalism the state of Pakistan will not be changed ..
Tarek Masud Jun 24, 2011 08:40am
How can religion be the villain in Pakistan when all the rulers and ruling parties in its history have been secular? Pakistan faces the same problem faced by ninety five percent of the Muslim states. These states have been ruled by secular figures like Ben Ali, Mubarak and Saleh ever since they got independence and that is the core of the problem. Under secular rule whenever there's a conflict of interest between the western interest and the national interest the western interest gets the upper-hand. Secularism allows corruption, nepotism and of course, repressions in the name safeguarding secularism as seen in Turkey. As long as Turkey was ruled by secular politicians it was a symbol of a failed state, economically and politically. The revival of Turkey is an achievement not of the secular politicians but of the Islamic politicians in Turkey and that is an example of what Islamic influence can do to a Muslim state.
oh wow Jun 24, 2011 10:01am
Oh I did not know that beside being a true Muslim.Qadri celebrated Valentine's day also! Well I dont blv in any isms and I dont know how secularism will work for Pakistan. All we need is education, tolerance and not judging each other's piety and religiosity. I do blv in eradicating evil but why not start with ourselves first before preaching. I wonder what kind of Islam these people want for a country where basic needs are not even.provided by Govt yet so much pressure to make Pakistan an Islamic state.... Wake up people!
Mohammad Ali Khan Jun 27, 2011 08:34am
What is our cultural ethos? Are we a society of honest,disciplined,compassionate,hardworking people who feel a sense of wellbeing in the wellbeing of fellow country men? Or, are we a society of impatient,dishonest and indisciplined people, who don't care for any one but self. Islam,democracy,communism,secularism,and any other form will fail if belong to the second category.
Raies Ahmad Jul 03, 2011 03:05pm
A Democratic setup is the only soultion to the problem.the view of the majority should be accepted and respected,it will either result in an Islamic state or a secular state.