“Whereas sovereignty over the entire universe belongs to Almighty Allah alone, and the authority to be exercised by the people of Pakistan within the limits prescribed by Him is a sacred trust.” Thus begins the Constitution of the Islamic Democratic Republic of Pakistan. I have read these lines again and again throughout my life and have never been able to divine their meaning. Sovereignty, I take it, is a mundane, human concept. Why do we then need to drag the name of the Almighty into every line that we write? This question takes my imagination to the Almighty Himself. Would He, in his infinite wisdom, really care what these tiny insects crawling on a small blue-green planet write in a constitution that is seldom enforced? I think not. He could have forced us all to spend every single moment of our lives in worship. He could have advised us all to tattoo His name and attributes on our foreheads, but He did not command us to do that. Then why do we have to start the constitution of a republic with words that tell us that we have responsibilities to uphold but no rights whatsoever? That the sovereignty we are so vociferously protecting from Blackwater, and other waters, does not even belong to us?
These lines, and several other moral defences, advanced by the self-appointed guardians of the Islamic state often make me feel as though I am suffering from dyslexia. I think of this and realise that on this newspaper’s editorial pages a war is being waged for and against secularism. ‘A secular state is a moral state’ by Ishtiaq Ahmed (Daily Times, March 9, 2010) and ‘Amendments for a secular constitution’ by Babar Ayaz (Daily Times, February 2, 2010) are two good pieces that were not difficult to read, understand or subscribe to. But, of course, there was a passionate rebuttal of all things secular by Dr S M Rahman titled, ‘Is secularism that sacrosanct?’ (Daily Times, February 22, 2010). Since Mr Babar Ayaz mentions young citizens too and I consider myself among those who, like Peter Pan, refuse to grow up, I think I can add my perspective, if not anything substantially new, to the discussion. Hence I hope my puerile ramblings will also be forgiven this once.
Dr Rahman has given a number of references, both fictional and real, to qualify his central argument that a secular state ignores the due import of morality. To understand what morality actually means, I had to google the word and the following definition was returned by dictionary.com: “Conformity to the rules of right conduct; moral or virtuous conduct, moral quality or character, virtue in sexual matters; chastity, a doctrine or system of morals, moral instruction; a moral lesson, precept, discourse, or utterance.”
Through this I finally understand what Dr sahib means. However, my learning disorder bars me from seeing the bigger picture when I try to integrate this framework into politics or matters of the state.
Having written a recent column on the pernicious, even failing, censorship regime in the Islamic republic and having been thoroughly scoffed at, I have no problem in comprehending when morality is defined as virtue in sexual matters or chastity. Somehow the Islamic state is obsessed with preserving our modesty. And since the most defining feature of this obsession is the premium placed on virginity, you can always fear that one day the moral brigade will institute a law creating the posts of virginity inspectors and modesty registration officers. Our wafer thin apparel of morality is already visible though. A fire breaks out at a girl’s hostel in Rawalpindi on International Women’s Day and six girls perish because the hostel managers have built a chicken coop, rather than a dwelling place, to protect the shame and modesty of the residing girls.
Yet the zeal of the pious ones does not end here. Which are the critical laws that they can boast of as their contribution? The Hudood Ordinance, the Blasphemy Law, the Prohibition Law or the law declaring Qadianis (Ahmedis) to be non-Muslims? The details of the innocents who have suffered due to the exploitation of these laws will take several volumes to cover. Suffice it to say that these laws, in terms of Islam, are highly derivative and yet they have been projected as the critical mass of the great faith. And these laws are powerful enough to make almost any life miserable.
I am sure Dr Rahman is not defending the misuse of the above-mentioned laws, but many do. In fact, those who consciously framed these laws left ambiguities in them so that they could be abused just like other authoritarian tools. And this all comes down to one simple fact. While the majority minds its own business, there are those who want to enslave others and force them to lead lives according to their personal whims. This pattern is not at all new. In history, religion or so-called morality has not been their only tool. The supremacist few will stop at nothing to reduce options for you, make life a living hell and stymie all free and creative thought. All this never actually had anything to do with any religion. The opponents of secularism are then mere agents of the forces that want to subjugate us and keep us prisoners of contradictory, reductionist ideologies.
I could have presented a number of historical examples from my favourite tomes like Will and Ariel Durant’s Story of Civilisation and works of Russell or even Karen Armstrong’s books, but I will not. Only if you want to learn about the true damage the conservatives can do to you, read Karen Armstrong’s twin autobiographical books Through the Narrow Gate and The Spiral Staircase.
But I believe in a future for this country and I want it to succeed. The best examples of world nations that I can find have adopted liberal secular democracies and hence have succeeded in making a difference. If you have a more compelling contemporary alternative in mind, I would love to know about it. Till then we need to bring such changes to our constitution that will help us live and prosper.
Secularism can be as bad as they claim, but it has given hope and happiness to billions. Science can be bad too, but it has given us countless inventions and technology without which we cannot be called civilised. I want to live with the civilised world and can only wish Edward Said were alive to expose our Occidentalism as he had once exposed the Orientalism of the West.