Global Currents article

Pakistan: Between Betrayed Dream and Desire to Rebuild

What Pakistan Has Become

“The first duty of a government is to maintain law and order, so that the life, property and religious beliefs of its subjects are fully protected by the State…. You are free; you are free to go to your temples, you are free to go to your mosques or to any other place or worship in this State of Pakistan. You may belong to any religion or caste or creed that has nothing to do with the business of the State…. We are starting with this fundamental principle that we are all citizens and equal citizens of one State….you will find that in course of time Hindus would cease to be Hindus and Muslims would cease to be Muslims, not in the religious sense, because that is the personal faith of each individual, but in the political sense as citizens of the State.”

Mohammad Ali Jinnah, August 11, 1947

Unfortunately, Pakistan’s polity today does not reflect the ideals set by her founder, outlining a pluralistic democracy and religious freedom. Many believe that if this message by Mohammad Ali Jinnah in his Presidential address in the inaugural session of Pakistan’s constituent assembly had served as the state’s guiding principles, the country would have avoided crucial problems she is facing today. Subsequent regimes pushed the country closer and closer to a theocratic model for grounding political legitimacy and national unity.

Today, in 2011, places of worship, religious leaders, schools for girls, police stations, army bases, and advocates of liberalism and moderation are attacked almost daily by religious extremists trying to impose their version of religion. People offer their prayers in the shadow of armed guards. As Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan and allied groups establish their hold in several parts of the country, minority religions as well as some Muslim sects face an existential threat.

Since 2005, the death toll from suicide and other attacks runs into the thousands each year. The vanguards of a theocratic vision of the Pakistani polity use coercive power—effectively granted to them under laws such as the blasphemy laws—to silence dissenting voices such as those of Dr. Mohammad Farooq Khan, an Islamic scholar and psychiatrist; Governor Salman Taseer, critic of the blasphemy laws and advocate of religious freedom and the rights of minorities; and Minister Shahbaz Bhatti, the first Federal Minister for Minorities. All three of these leading stalwarts for tolerance and freedom were murdered in the last ten months.

The Struggle for Pakistan’s Soul Is Not Over

However, the struggle to shift the direction of Pakistan has not ceased. This battle—which is nothing less than a battle for Pakistan’s soul—continues in intense debate and political struggle, which assume many forms in the country’s public life. Despite the number of laws and policies discriminating on the basis of religion, their rationale is increasingly challenged.

While democrats refer to Jinnah’s speech to argue for separating state from religion, their opponents quote the “Muslim way of life” as the raison d’être for a “separate homeland” or and the partition of India in 1947. Indeed, they even cite some of Jinnah’s own speeches, in which he refers to “Islamic principles of social justice.” Furthermore, political parties and pressure groups of various shades that insist that the state must have an exclusive Muslim identity argue that Jinnah never used the term “secular” to define the state of Pakistan. Religio-political parties and the country’s political establishment increasingly equated secularism with “godlessness” in order to amass support for the “Ideology of Pakistan” and a militaristic social psyche based on Islamo-nationalism.

Liberals and democrats countered this argument by saying that learning from experience should be good enough. After all, how well have successive Islamization campaigns—beginning in the 1950s and accelerating in the 1970s—served Pakistan? What does the historical record show? Jinnah may not have expressly warned against theocracy or religious hegemony, but as a matter of fact he never prescribed shariah law as the basis of the polity or the law of Pakistan.

Furthermore, Pakistani “secular” thinking draws upon the historical religious and cultural plurality of the Indian subcontinent and the cultural produce consequences of living together for centuries rather than suppressing religious diversity. The Pakistani secular mind frankly admires the inclusive secularism practiced in neighboring India—recently adopted in Nepal and increasingly practiced in Bangladesh also—in which the state refrains from privileging a single religion or from maiming, discouraging or suppressing any religions. On the contrary, the state, at least officially aspires to play the role of a neutral arbiter.

Towards a New Pakistan

Violence and bigotry in Pakistan are a result of serious misadventures with religion, misadventures for which the political establishment and its collaborators are to be blamed. Religious liberties became the first casualty when the state assumed the role of defining and imposing religion—and one particular brand of religion at that—on public life. This in the face of the fact that the religious ethos of ordinary people carries—or at least carried till it was made to change—the visible imprint of Buddhist, Zoroastrian, Hindu and Sikh religious traditions, as well as the tradition of Muslim Sufi thought and practice. The Christian community in Pakistan is deservedly admired for its contributions in education and health care, and it has played a significant role in promoting interfaith and social harmony. This rich diversity was marginalized and suppressed.

Faith groups from majority and minority communities, along with liberals, democrats, and seculars, have made commendable efforts to stand together to save Pakistan from religious bigotry and build it into a modern, tolerant state. While the overall change or transformation of society and state is yet to be achieved, it must be underscored that these forces have enjoyed some significant successes in this long struggle.

Apart from their contribution to various social movements—for example, struggles for worker’s, women’s, and minorities’ rights—this critical mass of Pakistanis was able to defeat the Shariah Bill of 1998 and the insertion of a religion category in the National Identity card in 1992. More recently, a countrywide campaign had the separate electorate based on religious apartheid abolished in 2002, and another campaign won amendments to the Hudood laws—the laws governing Shariah-sanctioned criminal penalties—in 2006.

Pakistan today needs broad-based reforms. And however pessimistic some people might be about the future of this great South Asian nation, recent successes show that serious reforms can happen. The government and people need to make a collective effort to rectify past mistakes and ensure religious freedom for all citizens. The undying spirit of the Pakistani people and their enduring commitment to true democracy—which braved executions, imprisonments, flogging and torture to oppose and defeat four despotic military regimes in 60 years—demonstrate that a new Pakistan can be built.

I dedicate the following lines to the human rights defenders and peace workers in Pakistan.

Crying Is No Choice

With melting eyes and trembling hands

I stand aside my house in the street

My intestines boiling with fear amassed

Yet crying is no choice

Bodies falling one after another

We forget the count, each time we end

Bare hands pick injured, with heavy heart and cursing looks

While the armed fell innocent

Street where people sang and danced

Children grow up mourning

A fake ideology stands exposed

Yet crying is no choice

We have cried enough

A bullet has no eyes to weep

The gun has no tears

Alas it has not

God give bullet an eye, and let the gun have tears

It is time for them to cry


Peter Jacob
Peter Jacob studied law, political science and rural development and has been associated with human rights and peacebuilding work in Pakistan for since 1988.

One thought on “Pakistan: Between Betrayed Dream and Desire to Rebuild

  1. Your wisdom and thoughtful observations are inspiring. I was especially moved by “Crying is No Choice”.

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