When anti-Shia religious extremists kill people in the streets, why does it seem like everyone is afraid of secularism these days? From the Chief Justice to Syed Munawar Hassan, it seems that “secularism” has become the latest fad in bogeys. But what’s so scary about secularism?
To discover just how terrible secularism is, let us look at the example of two opposing approaches to hijab in France and Bangladesh.
The French parliament’s decision to ban public wearing of hijab is often incorrectly viewed as a law promoting “secularization”. This is quite incorrect. Actually, by prohibiting women from wearing hijab, the French are imposing a particular practice.
The Iranian government of Reza Shah made the same mistake in the 1940s when it was declared that women were to discard their veils on order of the state. This was not secularism, but a misguided attempt to counter radicalism. What was the result? The Shah swung the pendulum too far against religion, and the pendulum swung too far the other way in reaction.
But secularism does not mean “no religion”. It doesn’t mean “no hijab”. The UK has a national religion – the Christian “Church of England” – but it maintains a secular approach to religion in law and society. Anyone who has spent even a few short minutes wandering the streets of Tower Hamlets in London can tell you that there is no trouble finding any Qurans or hijabs or Mullahs who will be happy to talk to you for hours.
Compare this to Iqbal’s Allahabad address of December 1930, as referenced by IA Rehman today in Dawn:
In the last week of December 1930, Iqbal gave his Allahabad address. He declared that “Islam, regarded as an ethical ideal plus a certain kind of polity — by which expression I mean a social structure regulated by a legal system and animated by a specific ethical ideal — has been the chief formative factor in the life-history of the Muslims of India.” Then he added: “Indeed, it is no exaggeration to say that India is perhaps the only country in the world where Islam, as a people-building force, has worked at its best.” Since no Islamic theocracy was ever established by the Muslims in India, Iqbal could only be extolling their secular traditions.
Similarly, Education Ministry of Bangladesh last week circulated direction to authorities that no female students are to be forced to wear veils or any other religious attires. Do you see the difference, because it is an important one. Young girls and their families still have the freedom to wear veils if this is their choice. But if a girl’s mother-father does not think she needs to wear a veil, she is not forced by someone outside her home. This actually respects religion and culture. It allows people to practice freely, and does not discriminate or reduce religion to some command of the state.
Anti-secularist lobby is simply making the same mistake as the Shah of Iran and the Parliament of France. They are trying to take the place of mother-father in the family relationship as a reaction to political frustrations.
IA Rehman is correct:
While the common people of Pakistan have no reason to share the ashrafiya’s fears of secularism they have every reason to dread the anti-secularism lobby. The “principal institutions of a secular society” listed by Altaf Gauhar are: the elected legislature, the judiciary, and the press”. (Battle of Ideas)
It is quite clear that all these institutions have to bear with one another. The Supreme Court can never sack parliament or the media, nor will parliament ever be foolish or strong enough to abolish the Supreme Court or the media. But the extremist militants that are being reared by anti-secular elements, if they ever capture the state, will almost surely pack off parliament, the Supreme Court and the media into oblivion. The choice before the people of Pakistan has never been clearer.
The anti-secular lobby is not advocating religion, it is advocating tyranny. The antidote? Secularism.