360° Analysis

Pakistan: Democracy in a Confessional State


May 10, 2013 08:29 EDT

There is no denying that the erstwhile modernist Pakistani leadership tried to make Pakistan both democratic and Islamic. However, no constitutional formula could find the proper balance.

The Pakistani  general election is most likely to be held as planned. After nearly 66 years, a milestone would be reached: an elected government will succeed another elected government with a brief interlude of a caretaker administration. The vetting process carried out by overzealous inquisitional examining officers has, mercifully, on instructions from their superiors, abated and the election commission has very wisely forbidden the invocation of religion and sect.

No doubt, democracy is better served if an elected government completes its full term and another one succeeds it. Institutional theory assures us that if democratic practices and procedures are followed and repeated, the institutionalisation of democracy takes place. The more consistently it happens the more democracy deepens. However, democracy is not simply a set or cycle of procedures, it is also an idea, a value and a worldview.

In Pakistan, the record of non-elected governments has on some counts been better in terms of democratisation of society. Field Marshal Ayub Khan had the guts to modernise Muslim Family Laws, which made polygamy conditional, a minimum marriage age was introduced and grandchildren could inherit property from the grandfather even if their father had deceased. It was General Pervez Musharraf who allowed the free media to flourish. It was also during his rule that the law related to rape was modernised and improved on behalf of women, as well as the abolishment of separate electorates. I am greatly saddened by the witch-hunt that has now started targeting him, which is not to absolve him of his highhanded politics when he ruled, but only to point out the irony. Culturally, we are still at the level of the Mughals, and indeed Aurangzeb is our role model.

On the other hand, the movement towards a reactionary interpretation of Islam has been a legacy of both democratic and dictatorial governments. Pakistan was won in the name of the Muslims of undivided India and with the very massive support of the Barelvi ulema and breakaway Deobandis. By rejecting the Indian National Congress’s model of a secular democracy and nationalism based on territorial criteria and not on religion or sect, the Muslim League rejected secular democracy. No amount of argumentative gymnastics can refute this fact.

Consequently, it is well-nigh impossible to exclude Islam from defining Pakistani national identity. It was Zulfikar Ali Bhutto who extended the policy of exclusion, underlying the Two Nation Theory to the Ahmadis; Machiavellian a move as it was, it was not illogical because a ‘Muslim nation’ is not a self-evident truth. This is especially true after the Bengali Muslims exposed its tenuous nature and broke away to establish Bangladesh.

On the other hand, Sunnis, Shias, Khwarijis and their various offshoots and sub-divisions have been there all along. Therefore, the question as to who will exercise power and in accordance with which interpretation of Islam was bound to be posed at some stage. The Pakistani Islamic sects and sub-sects are deeply divided on theology and law. This can easily be verified anytime by going through their polemical literature, which is available in abundance now on the Internet via Youtube and Facebook. Elsewhere too, Muslim-majority states are sectarian states. Iran makes no bones about its sectarian identity and the Jafari interpretation of Islam applies to its laws and the rights of its population. In Saudi Arabia, the Wahabis have the obvious prerogative and the Shias all the disadvantage. Shia-Sunni terrorism is now a regular feature of Iraqi politics.

Consequently, the question that continues to menace Pakistan is: Who is a Muslim? I am no admirer of General Ziaul Haq whose fundamentalist inclinations are well known, but he had not declared Pakistan or his regime Sunni entities. The zakat tax he introduced was meant to help all those in need. The Pakistani Shia leadership refused to pay zakat on the grounds that Shias did not pay zakat to a Sunni government. Whatever the theological fine point involved, it only served to deepen traditional cleavages between them and Sunnis and set in motion processes of estrangement. It is worth recalling that in 1951, both Shia and Sunni ulema (clerics) signed the 22-point programme for an Islamic state prepared by Maulana Maududi, and were one body in the 1953 campaign to have the Ahmadis declared non-Muslims. This time, on the zakat issue, their differences came out publicly and laid bare the fickle nature of such alliances.

There is, however, no denying that the erstwhile modernist Pakistani leadership tried to make Pakistan both democratic and Islamic, but no constitutional formula could find the proper balance. The reason is that modern democracy is incomplete, and in fact flawed if it does not fulfil two prerequisites: The individual should be guaranteed inalienable human rights, which should include the right to believe whatever one wants to; and all discriminatory laws and constitutional provisions should be repealed. Therefore, establishing a coherent Islamic democracy has defied all effort.

A Muslim/Islamic democracy of sorts is still possible if we try to be democratic the same way as Israel is. There is no doubt that Israel is a Jewish state that privileges Jews over non-Jews. In the Occupied Territories, it maintains a system of comprehensive discrimination and persecution. However, its Jewish citizens enjoy ample freedoms and rights. I am not sure if there is any serious demand in Israel to revive the harsh laws of the Old Testament as the law of the land, but in Pakistan we are far from such a civilised consensus against antiquated Islamic laws. That is what differentiates these two states based on religious nationalism from each other. Moreover, since the diverse non-Muslim population of Pakistan is not a conquered people whose land Pakistan is occupying, they should be provided all those civil and other rights that are compatible with an Islamic welfare state. Obviously, such a state cannot reasonably uphold the blasphemy law and other rabidly discriminatory and primitive laws, and claim simultaneously to be an Islamic welfare democracy. How to make such a state modern and tolerant within a confessional framework is where we need to reflect and theorise.

*This article was originally published by the Daily Times.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

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