A Secular Constitution?

Babar Ayaz has some interesting suggestions for amending the consitution in order to make it secular. This recalls an earlier discussion about whether or not Pakistan should follow the path of Bangladesh and ban the religious political parties. Islam is obviously at the very basic fabric of Pakistani culture and society. But is it necessary to include the religious articles in the constitution as currently exist? Or are these currently dormant articles a timebomb waiting to explode the fragile democracy?

The Iranian constitution provides for an institution of the ‘Religious Guardianship’ (Velayat Faqiye). This ‘Guardianship of the Just Man of Religious Law’ (Fiqiyeh-e-Adl) is on “the basis of the continuous Guardianship and leadership (Imamate)…under all conditions…” According to my limited knowledge, there is no precedent for such an institution in the Muslim state’s history. The ‘Religious Guardian’ and his council have a right to disqualify many potential candidates from contesting the elections of the Iranian parliament, as they do not consider them pious and religious enough to be elected by the people. Thus, the decision is not left to the people but is made by a small coterie of the clergy.

What reminds me of this institution is the recent decision on the National Reconciliation Ordinance (NRO). It has referred to some clauses of the constitution, which has raised alarm bells. General Ziaul Haq, who considered himself a kind of religious guardian of the country, added some disputable clauses to Article 62 of the 1973 Constitution of Pakistan. These clauses of Article 62 state: “A person shall not be qualified to be elected or chosen as a member of Majlis-e-Shoora (parliament) unless:

62 (d) “he is of good character and is not commonly known as one who violates Islamic injunctions;

62 (e) “he has adequate knowledge of Islamic teachings and practices obligatory duties prescribed by Islam as well as abstains from major sins;

62 (f) “he is sagacious, righteous and non-profligate and honest and ameen.”

Until the judgement of the honourable Supreme Court, these clauses of the constitution had remained dormant. Nobody has sought disqualification of any member of parliament, the president or the prime minister by invoking these clauses. Now if these clauses are invoked, will the superior judiciary acquire the role of the ‘religious guardian’ a la Iran? Who else would make a decision on such subjective issues whether a member of parliament (or for that matter the president who is the bull’s eye here) does not violate Islamic injunctions, has adequate knowledge of Islamic teachings, abstains from major sins and is honest and ameen?

Who would decide what are the Islamic injunctions? One sect believes that going to a saint’s shrine is sacrilegious; to the other it is sacred. Now if one would go with the Saudi version of Islam, then both our prime minister, foreign minister and many other parliamentarians should be disqualified because they are heirs of the saints of South Punjab or Sindh. Who would then decide what is adequate knowledge of Islamic teachings, what is a major or a minor sin, and which parliamentarian is honest or dishonest?

By invoking such dormant clauses, a window has been opened for ‘inspired litigants’ like Maulvi Iqbal Haider to challenge the qualification of more than half, if not more, of the members of parliament. Would our judges then be qualified to make decisions on such wide-ranging religion-loaded issues? Perhaps the honourable court would not like to be put in this tight spot.

One view is that the superior judiciary should not be blamed for referring to what is in the constitution. I asked a member of the Constitutional Amendment Committee headed by Mian Raza Rabbani whether the deletion of these clauses was on the agenda. He said we have bigger issues to discuss and nobody is interested in including these clauses. The point is that the court has heavily relied on the ‘Islamic’ clauses and the leading parties are in no mood to reform the constitution. While the PML-N is centre-right, the PPP has always tried to appease the mullahs unsuccessfully. Only the ANP and MQM, which are in parliament, are clear on the issue of separation of religion from politics.

The whole issue is ultimately attached to taking the Objectives Resolution and other religious clauses out of the constitution. Many analysts and rightist politicians scoff at the idea of a secular state. They have failed to understand that mixing of religion with politics has brought us today to the most violent juncture of our history. It gives enough space to the fundamentalists to operate in the country with impunity. Because we mix religion with politics we have not even deliberated seriously on the dangerous implications of this approach for our national security policy, on our relations with our neighbours, on our education system and on countering the ideology of the pro-jihad forces.

A recent survey done by a local weekly magazine asked a question of youngsters with a mean age of 21 years: “Do you think Pakistan should be an Islamic state?” 64 percent of the respondents said yes; 22 percent supported a secular state; and 12 percent were undecided. Interestingly, education-wise break up of the samples shows that 27 percent of the uneducated supported the secular state. But this rate dropped to 7.0 percent among the primary educated; but starts rising with the level of education and is around 32 percent among graduates and post-graduates. The supporters of a secular state were 56 percent among the students who were doing ‘A’ levels. This should be an eye-opener for the progressive secular forces, as it clearly shows that biased educational indoctrination reduces the support for a secular state among the less educated and that the students who have access to the expensive liberal curriculum of ‘O’ and ‘A’ levels are more inclined to support a secular state concept.

This survey also shows that in an environment where there is no space for discussing secular politics and ideas, still a sizeable number of youngsters are for a secular state. On the contrary, all the opinion-making forums are predominantly preaching ideas and politics that support the idea of an Islamic state. The progressive secular forces should be taking their cue from this and should claim their rightful place in preparing public opinion in favour of secularism.

In Bangladesh, the Supreme Court has recently upheld the ruling given by the court in 2005, which threw out the 5th Amendment to their constitution. This amendment had allowed formation of religion-based political parties. According to Bangladeshi politician Shafique Ahmed, now the Supreme Court decision would help in reinstating the original 1972 secular constitution.

Pakistan may not be able to ban religion-based political parties in the near future, but it should move towards expunging the ridiculous constitutional clauses mentioned above together with Article 247 and the Objectives Resolution. It would be a long and hard struggle, but it is doable. The leadership for such a courageous initiative will have to be provided by the ANP, MQM and the left parties. Otherwise we may have our holier than everybody ‘guardians’ upsetting the democratic evolutionary process — all in the name of Islamic morality.

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