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Home Media Reports 2002 Saying the …
Saying the ‘S’ word

DAWN - the Internet Edition

26 January 2002
11 Ziqa’ad 1422


Saying the ‘S’ word
By Irfan Husain

Convoluted thinking often results in muddled policies, unnecessary problems and frequent backtracking. It also prevents continuity and consistency.

Thus, when Zia inflicted his iniquitous system of separate electorates on our hapless minorities twenty years ago, even the malign dictator could not have foreseen the damage he was doing not just to our few million non-Muslims, but to the fabric of Pakistani society. Basically, his intention was to deny the PPP a solid vote bank in those areas where the minority communities were concentrated because the perception of most non-Muslims is that he People’s Party is more sympathetic, or at least less hostile, towards them than other political parties.

An immediate result of this policy was to disenfranchise the minorities for all intents and purposes. Under the separate electorate system, minorities could only vote for candidates of their own faith, no matter how far away they were based. For instance, Parsis in Karachi might have to choose between candidates in their own city, Lahore and Rawalpindi, because their community is small and scattered.

In a society where the state’s resources are limited, the lion’s share will always go to those with the right connections. And since the mainstream parties and their candidates no longer needed to solicit votes from the minorities, they were not indebted to them if they won. Thus, non-Muslim voters were denied access to local MPs and, through them, to government employment, water and power connections, and all the other amenities controlled by the state. But even more importantly, they were deprived of all political power. In this environment of weakness and vulnerability, the controversial Blasphemy Law was like rubbing salt into the wounds suffered by our minorities. Through its blatant misuse, poor, illiterate Christians have been accused of writing blasphemous screeds, and have actually been given the death sentence by lower courts. Only the intervention of the superior courts has halted this travesty.

The plight of the Ahmadis has been particularly poignant. As they consider themselves Muslims, they have refused to vote as a minority community, and have gone unrepresented in all the elections held since they were declared non-Muslims in 1974. Since then, they have been persecuted by a hostile majority, with the state being a silent witness. Dozens of them are languishing in jail for the ‘crime’ of reciting kalma.

I know I have written about our shameful treatment of minorities in the past, but I make no apology for repeating myself. Against this grim backdrop, the government’s decision to do away with separate electorates came as a welcome relief. Combined with the on-going crackdown on jihadis and the proposed monitoring of madressahs, this change in course might take Pakistan back into the mainstream of civilized behaviour towards minorities.

In this context, it was refreshing to read the current issue of Newsweek in which President Musharraf was cited as saying that his “real role model is Mohammad Ali Jinnah, Pakistan’s founder, who envisaged a modern, secular Muslim state”. This drew immediate flak from the reactionary section of the press which denied Jinnah’s secular vision for Pakistan. So much so that a spokesman for the general denied that he had used the word “secular”.

Such is the disrepute the word has fallen into over the years that politicians are mortally afraid of having it applied to them. One reason is that it is (mis) translated into Urdu as ‘ladeenyat’ or ‘irreligiosity’ when it actually means a separation of religion from public life. The truth is that anybody who has read Stanley Wolpert’s biography of Jinnah, or studied the great man’s life from other independent sources, cannot but fail to conclude that he was a secularist through and through.

Most Pakistanis erroneously equate western social mores and lifestyle with secularism, not realizing that it is possible to be a firm believer and yet live in a secular society. There is absolutely no contradiction between secularism and piety. Indeed, many Muslim states are secular with millions of believers living exemplary lives in accordance with the teachings of the Quran. Conversely, it is possible to have Islamic states with many of their citizens committing every sin in the book (and more besides).

The contradiction inherent in ideological states of any kind — be they Islamic, communist or Judaic — is that they have a problem with those citizens who do not adhere to the official dogma. Thus, non-Jewish citizens cannot buy property in Israel. Non-communists are denied top government jobs in China. And in Pakistan, non-Muslims are subjected to all kinds of discrimination and worse as we have seen above.

This brings one to the conclusion that democratic rights for every citizen can only be guaranteed in a secular state. In non-secular states where the law is based on religion, non-believers cannot be equal under the law, and this is the first principle of a democratic order.

Apart from the minorities, women have also been marginalized in Pakistan. While increasing their representation in the National Assembly will hopefully raise their profile, it will not do much for half of Pakistan’s population that, because of its gender, has been condemned to intolerable conditions. While much of this is due more to social conditioning rather than state policy, religious edicts certainly play a major role in determining the position of women in society.

Some people often point to Saudi Arabia as an exemplar of perfect religious observance. They feel that the low crime rate and high standard of living is all due to the strict enforcement of the Islamic code. They maintain that if we would only follow the Saudi example, all would be well in Pakistan. Unfortunately, they forget that Saudi society is afloat on oil, and any disruption in the sale of its black gold would result in massive turmoil. The state can afford to give its citizens all kinds of subsidies, so there is little economic incentive to steal. But many crimes take place behind the scenes.

A few months ago, I saw a brilliant play called “God only knows” in London in which the most fundamental tenets of Christianity were questioned. No protest demonstrations were held outside the theatre; no editorials condemning the playwright appeared in the press; and no death threats were sent to the director. For me, this is true democracy.

© The DAWN Group of Newspapers, 2000
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