A Secular State Is a Moral State

Ishtiaq Ahmed, Visiting Research Professor at the Institute of South Asian Studies (ISAS) and the South Asian Studies Programme at the National University of Singapore and Professor Emeritus of Political Science at Stockholm University, makes a great case for why a secular state is a moral state in his column for today’s Daily Times.

In the last few weeks the Daily
Times has carried a number of very interesting articles for and against making Pakistan a secular state. Babar Ayaz pleaded for amending the Pakistani constitution with a view to making it a secular state (‘Amendments for a secular constitution’, Daily Times, February 2, 2010). Dr S M Rahman of the Friends Foundation took a diametrically opposite stand, debunking the secular state as an immoral entity, which allegedly focuses entirely on the pursuit of hedonistic interests and pleasures (‘Is secularism that sacrosanct?’ Daily Times, February 22, 2010). Both authors have advanced seriously considered arguments in favour of their political and ideological preferences. I fully sympathise with Babar Ayaz as he has referred to the hard facts of the brutalisation of society that has taken place in Pakistan in recent years.

Some further arguments can be adduced in support of the secular state. The basic flaw in Dr Rahman’s thesis is that instead of reviewing contemporary views on the secular state, he eclectically quotes fictional literature and with a broad sweep the history of 2,000 years of Christendom, the Renaissance, the Reformation and so on, but does not attempt a review of the development in political theory and practice with regard to the contemporary secular state.

Not only Rousseau but some other Western writers have shown admiration for the state of Medina founded by the Prophet (PBUH) and sustained for a while by his pious successors (29 years according to the Sunnis and a mere six years according to the Shias). However, what those writers have not done but which any serious and honest scholar of today — Muslim or non-Muslim — cannot escape noticing is that subsequent attempts to resuscitate the ideal Islamic state have been unmitigated disasters.

I have shown in my doctoral dissertation (‘The Concept of an Islamic State: An Analysis of the Ideological Controversy in Pakistan’ published in 1987 and again in 1992), that the Quran does not provide a general theory of the state or government; it at most provides a sui generis idea of a Prophet-in-Authority. The Prophet (PBUH) was a lawgiver, a law enforcer or and a law adjudicator. Upon his death the role of lawgiver was over. The pious caliphs could at most claim the right to enforce the law and to adjudicate it when it was violated. With the assassination of Ali in 661 AD, the ideal Islamic state ceased to exist.

During the pre-modern period, education, information and knowledge were restricted to very small elites, pious or corrupt. In such circumstances, societies were lucky to have a benevolent despot in power but were mostly ruled by absolute rulers; many were tyrants. One can argue that at that period in history it was but natural that some gifted individuals could make a huge difference in the lives of people. Since the Prophet (PBUH) and his pious successors were in their own time revolutionaries who tried to establish a more just society than what was present contemporaneously in the 7th century, their achievements have admirers not only among Muslims but also others. With the advances in education, information, law, constitutionalism, moral philosophy and political theory, there is no need for pinning hope on gifted individuals. Rather the need is to build institutions that ensure respect for the rights of citizens.

The modern conception of the state begins with Machiavelli — an authority that Dr Rahman probably is referring to with regard to morality. That view of the secular state has indeed visited great suffering on humanity during the period of nationalism, and the two World Wars and the Holocaust are examples of it. However, the state as an entity upholding the rule of law and itself accepting limits to its power and authority by law has a long pedigree. It origins are undoubtedly the British Isles. The rule of law meant recognition of the rights of individuals to certain inalienable freedoms. Those freedoms included the freedom to conscience and religion as well.

It is such a secular state that has evolved during the 20th century into a welfare state, and after World War II it has become truly universal, requiring equal treatment of men and women, protection of the rights of minorities to their culture and religion, and committed the state to promote the welfare of its citizens. I do not find such developments immoral in any sense of the word. On the contrary, the modern secular state prescribes a very advanced morality — that its citizens have the right to be liberated from want and hunger, illiteracy and disempowerment, which has been the lot of the mass of the people throughout history. Moreover, the modern secular-democratic state must ensure that all individuals as well as majorities and minorities enjoy the freedom of religion and conscience and the political right to choose their government. There are of course many other rights that are now part of the UN conventions and national constitutions. The whole idea is that the government cannot arbitrarily repeal the human and civil rights of citizens.

No doubt the secular-democratic state is no guarantee that its constitution and laws will never allow abuse of power — the unlawful invasion of Iraq in 2003 by religious freaks like US President Bush and British Prime Minister Blair are some indication of the need to extend the rule of law beyond the state to international relations. In other words, there is an urgent need to ensure that the violation of international law that results in the deaths of innocent people is criminalised even more strongly. The International Criminal Court (ICC) has been assigned the task of ensuring that leaders who are guilty of crimes against humanity and acts of genocide are tried and punished.

It represents a secular morality that is far superior to all the ‘might-is-right’ conquests that were normal when warrior nations such as the Romans and Arabs or later the Europeans could embark upon and subjugate other peoples. Secular political thought, tempered by the growing realisation that human beings have to be treated as equal and free without regard to race, nationality or religion, has created vastly different possibilities for human beings to live in peace and enjoy a life of dignity under the law. Therefore, the modern secular state is a moral state.

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