Secular or Islamist?

By Niaz Murtaza

THE controversy about Jinnah’s vision for Pakistan rages on. Did Jinnah want a secular or a Sharia state? The two sides buttress their arguments by quoting his words selectively.

Liberals quote his Aug 11, 1947 speech which says, “You may belong to any religion or caste or creed — that has nothing to do with the business of the state”.

Furthermore, his broadcast to the Americans in 1948 said, “Pakistan is not going to be a theocratic state — to be ruled by priests with a divine mission”. However, the same speech also stated, “I do not know what the ultimate shape of this constitution is going to be, but I am sure that it will be of a democratic type, embodying the essential principles of Islam”.

Another speech says, “There are people who want to create mischief and make the propaganda that we will scrap the Sharia law. Islamic principles have no parallel”. What should one surmise from these seemingly contradictory speeches? I am a proud liberal secularist. However, being one means analysing reality objectively. In doing so, I find more in his speeches to warm a conservative heart than to delight a liberal mind, though the scales are not decisively tilted towards conservatism.

Nowhere in his speeches is there a clear statement saying ‘I want a secular Pakistan’. The Aug 11 speech promises religious freedom. It does not define the state’s ideological moorings. The American speech discounts a theocratic, priest-run state but not one with an official religion run by commoners. Thus, it is a stretch of liberal imagination to claim that he bequeathed an unambiguous secular legacy.

However, neither is the Sharia option crystal clear within Jinnah’s speeches. His speeches certainly present essential Islamic principles as an inspiration but nowhere does he specifically speak of amputating limbs or discounting women’s testimony at the hefty rate of 50 per cent. Moreover, as psychologists confirm, actions reflect one’s intentions better than words.

What do Jinnah’s actions as governor general reflect?

True, he had just a year at his disposal. However, while secular constitution-making is a tortuously long process, Sharia-inspired constitutionalism should not be so, for as Sharia supporters maintain, it is all there, fully understood and agreed upon universally by Muslims, waiting to be applied. Moreover, he could have banned liquor and night clubs, and enforced the veil, compulsory prayers and flogging by the mere stroke of an administrative pen, as the Taliban did. Thus, it is a stretch of conservative imagination to claim that he bequeathed an unambiguous Sharia legacy.

His true intentions seem to lie in between — to base the constitution on essential Islamic principles, e.g., justice, but to have the details decided democratically in line with the present requirements. This last point raises the important issue of whether it is even worthwhile trying to read Jinnah’s mind, for he was the founder of Pakistan, not its owner or a prophet. Sixty-three years after his death, the primary basis for fixing the nation’s ideological moorings should be the democratic will of the people rather than expeditions into the depths of the founder’s mind.

What does the collective Pakistani wisdom desire? In surveys, Pakistanis favour Sharia; in elections they reject the religious parties promising it. However, this choice is not an endorsement of secularism (which means separation of state and religion and not agnosticism), for a secular Pakistani party can fare worse than religious parties. Hence, ironically, Pakistani democratic choices reflect Jinnah’s position (confirming his genius as a politician in touch with the people’s mood despite his cerebral demeanour): a constitution with Islam as the state religion but not one based on detailed Sharia laws.

Thus, most Pakistanis may believe in an Islamic interpretation that mandates certain timeless essential principles but gives people the flexibility to craft details according to changing circumstances utilising the powers delegated to them as vice-regents rather than one that demands puzzling clerical obedience from the meticulously and proudly created lone intelligent species. Pakistanis recognise the disagreements which will surface in applying detailed laws from a distant era at the hands of the fallible mortals that even the best of us are and in the absence of the towering figures from that era.

These less than secular inclinations will still depress secular souls. However, liberalism mandates democracy along with its messy politics. Politics is the art of recognising the possible, the chore of building large coalitions and the will of compromising on non-essentials. Is having a state religion an unacceptable deviation from liberalism?

Inquiry reveals that several liberal states, even Sweden and Norway, have state religions or churches. Religious beliefs even affect specific laws infrequently among them, e.g. the abortion restrictions in Ireland, instigating counter-movements. Thus, the focus must be on specific laws rather than aspirational preambles. This may help build much larger coalitions than the secular platform, whose mere mention unfortunately repels moderate Pakistanis, in some cases towards extremism.

Clearly, that goal should remain a long-term aspiration. However, the practical calculus of coalition-building reveals that a secular Pakistan is a more distant dream than a Sharia-run one presently. But the achievement of more immediate and important goalposts may expand the menu of possibilities subsequently.

With respect to specific laws, Pakistan’s situation has been neither perfect nor horrific. Democratic mechanisms have thwarted several misguided legislative attempts. The Senate rejected Nawaz Sharif’s ‘khilafat movement’, courts scuttled the Hasba law and assemblies defanged the dictator-era Hudood laws. These successes should serve as inspiration for developing large coalitions around other issues, with incrementalism as the guiding principle.

Viewed so, Jinnah’s seeming contradictions become less puzzling — the nuanced speeches to different audiences and his transformation from the lawyer who left a dinner party because even the British criticised his wife’s dress to the Quaid-i-Azam who is said to have disowned his daughter for marrying her mother’s co-religionist. As another latter-day, mercurially brilliant Pakistani politician reminded us, foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of small minds.

The writer works as a research associate on political economy issues at the University of California, Berkeley.


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