Pakistan and the taboo of secularism

January 8, 2011

graveFor everyone trying to understand the implications of Salman Taseer’s assassination, this essay from 2007 is good place to start (h/t Abu Muqawama).  “The Politics of God” is about why Europe decided, after years of warfare over the correct interpretation of Christianity, to separate church and state.  But it is also relevant to Pakistan, where the killing of the Punjab governor over his opposition to the country’s blasphemy laws has shown that what was left of Pakistani secularism, is, if not dead, at least in intensive care.

Read the opening paragraph to understand why it resonates:

“For more than two centuries, from the American and French Revolutions to the collapse of Soviet Communism, world politics revolved around eminently political problems. War and revolution, class and social justice, race and national identity — these were the questions that divided us. Today, we have progressed to the point where our problems again resemble those of the 16th century, as we find ourselves entangled in conflicts over competing revelations, dogmatic purity and divine duty. We in the West are disturbed and confused. Though we have our own fundamentalists, we find it incomprehensible that theological ideas still stir up messianic passions, leaving societies in ruin. We had assumed this was no longer possible, that human beings had learned to separate religious questions from political ones, that fanaticism was dead. We were wrong.”

The point of highlighting this essay is not to argue that Pakistan should emulate the west, nor indeed that secularism is necessarily the answer, but rather to suggest that there is still a debate to be had in a country where even using the word secular is becoming taboo. (And before anyone accuses me of orientalism, the advantage of looking at it through the lens of European history is that it also strips out some of the other factors which contribute to the nature of Pakistani society today — the war in Afghanistan, America’s response to 9/11, the role of the army, its past use of militant proxies, the weakness of its civilian governments, the fragility of the economy etc, etc).

As  the blogger kala kawa put it, ”too much space has been ceded. Too much PUBLIC space has been ceded. This debate cannot go underground. It must not be behind closed doors. We don’t have guns, and we don’t have bombs, and we don’t even want to kill anyone. We just want to talk it out.  Unfortunately, that’s enough for them to want to kill us.”

Or to quote Pakistan’s ideological father, Ellama Mohammad Iqbal, himself not a secularist, in one of his early letters: “Let the many-headed monster of public (opinion) give their dross of respect to others who act and live in accordance with their false ideals of religion and morality.  I cannot stoop to respect their conventions which suppress the innate freedom of man’s mind.”

So back to Europe and “The Politics of God”.  Author Mark Lilla traces the separation of church and state to the 17th century, at a time when Christians had wearied themselves with killing other Christians — just as much of today’s violence is a battle within Islam. In his treatise “Leviathan”, the English philosopher Thomas Hobbes laid down the idea that men would only be free of fear and war if they created political institutions without grounding them in religion.

“This liberal-democratic order is the only one we in the West recognize as legitimate today, and we owe it primarily to Hobbes. In order to escape the destructive passions of messianic faith, political theology centered on God was replaced by political philosophy centered on man. This was the Great Separation,” writes Lilla.

Do read the whole essay, but I want to scroll forward now to what Lilla had to say about the 1930s. It struck me as particularly interesting since that is where the idea of Pakistan finds its ideological moorings (for those who don’t know, this blog, Pakistan: Now or Never, is named after a 1933 pamphlet calling for the creation of Pakistan).

According to Lilla, the idea of political theology never really disappeared in the west with the separation of church and state, just as the human impulse to religious faith never disappears.  But it reappeared in a particularly distorted form in Europe after World War One in ”messianic” notions of how to transform society. And it reappeared especially in Weimar in Germany where that messianic faith in the possibility of human redemption, he argues, led to Nazism.

“All of which served to confirm Hobbes’s iron law: Messianic theology eventually breeds messianic politics. The idea of redemption is among the most powerful forces shaping human existence in all those societies touched by the biblical tradition. It has inspired people to endure suffering, overcome suffering and inflict suffering on others. It has offered hope and inspiration in times of darkness; it has also added to the darkness by arousing unrealistic expectations and justifying those who spill blood to satisfy them. All the biblical religions cultivate the idea of redemption, and all fear its power to inflame minds and deafen them to the voice of reason. In the writings of these Weimar figures, we encounter what those orthodox traditions always dreaded: the translation of religious notions of apocalypse and redemption into a justification of political messianism, now under frightening modern conditions. It was as if nothing had changed since the 17th century, when Thomas Hobbes first sat down to write his ‘Leviathan’.”

Many of the men who fought for the creation of Pakistan lived or studied in Europe and cannot have been immune to the political influences sweeping the region in those fateful years after World War One. At the time Europe was reeling from the sheer scale of death wrought by the war and looking for other ways to structure its political systems.  It was a time where people believed again in the possibility of an idealised and perfectible society, rather as they had done in medieval Europe when they fought over Christianity. Communism and international socialism was one such ideal. Fascism was another. It was only after the trauma of World War Two that modern liberal - and secular - democracy, really took root in Europe (and since it has been going for only 60 years, a short space of time compared to centuries of history, it’s impossible to predict whether it has taken root for good.)

It was in that feverish atmosphere that Choudhary Rahmat Ali’ proclaimed in ”Now or Never” – written in Cambridge, England - that the Muslims of South Asia might ”live or perish for ever” if they did not stand up for their faith and the existence of Pakistan. It is a fear that has found expression nowadays in an intense anti-Americanism.  (Interestingly, he also complains that Muslims were in danger of being sacrificed by their “so-called leaders”, who had gone along ”without any protest or demur” with plans for a united independent India, a criticism also levelled at today’s leaders for cooperating with the United States.)

Iqbal believed that only Islam, with its internationalist outlook and faith in common humanity, could break down the barriers of race and national greed which had led to World War One.

And in 1933, he wrote admiringly of Italian dictator Mussolini as an example of the essence of Islamic economics, which was ”to render the growth of large capitals impossible. Mussolini and Hitler think in the same way. Bolshevism has gone to the extreme of abolishing capitalism altogether.  In all aspects of life, Islam always takes the middle course.”

Yet Iqbal was also a scholar, who credited early Islamic scholarship, and its capacity for inductive rather than deductive reasoning, with laying the philosophical groundwork for European humanism — the same kind of reasoning that led Hobbes to reject the politics of religion.  Somewhere in that capacity for intellectual thought, and what he called “the innate freedom of man’s mind”, lies the space for debate.

(File photo of the grave dug for an earlier victim of violence in Pakistan)

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