Peace and Secularism in Pakistan

By Dawood Shah

Pakistani activists of Institute for Peace Secular Studies shout slogans during a protest in Lahore


Pakistan is an immensely plural country characterized by religious, sectarian and ethnolinguistic diversities. After a long regime of military dictatorship, we have become a democratic state from the last three years, though democracy still has to grow and nurture. The women movement of Pakistan has also achieved some milestones in the last few years by successfully replacing some of the discriminatory laws against women, with laws which protect the rights of women. Many young people of Pakistan have started feeling the responsibility towards the disturbing peace and political situation in Pakistan, which is very positive for youth-led organizations like us.
Now coming to the issues and challenges faced by the movement of Peace and Secularism in Pakistan. I would like to start by giving a recent example. In the start of this year, Salman Taseer, governor of one of the Province of Pakistan was killed by his guard when he stood up for the rights of minorities of Pakistan When he defended Asia Bibi, a Christian woman, accused of blasphemy. He termed the discriminatory blasphemy laws as black laws and demanded a change of these laws. The Blasphemy law is an oppressive law in Pakistan, which permit death penality to any person defaming the name of the Prophet Muhammad. This law is intensively used in Pakistan against the religious minorities to violate their rights as citizens and to oppress them. The assassination of Salman Taseer by his guard was celebrated throughout the country by thousands of people, and the murderer became a hero. A large number of lawyers offered to defend the murderer, many people all over Pakistan commented on the death that they would have done the same if they were in the position of the murderer. A month later Minister for the Minorities, Shahbaz Bhatti was assassinated for the same reason. The celebration of the assassination was a backlash on the peace and secularism movement in Pakistan, it showed that the people have lost their tolerance for opposing views, and secularism. The incident depicts how brutality and violence have become an accepted political tool.
This is just one example, violence against the religious minorities in very common such as continuous violence and suicide attacks against another religious minority group known as Ahmadiya. The constitution has declared them as Non-Muslims, while they identify themselves as Muslims. Every Pakistani must sign a document for making national identity cards and passport, which mentions that “Ahmadiya” are non-muslims. Thus the sate is directly violating the rights of this religious minority group. Brutality and violence such as suicide attacks against them, attacks on their religious places and ceremonies are also a fact. The attitude of the nation towards other religious minorities such as Christians and Hindus is also very violent. Hundreds of people from religious minorities lose their lives each year in violence against them, their religious places are destroyed, and they are always at the risk of being becoming a victim of the blasphemy laws. Not only violence against the religious minorities is common, but also the mainstream Muslims are becoming a threat for each other, many mainstream Muslims now fear other mainstream Muslims. I am talking about sectarian violence, violence which is happening among the different Islamic groups of Pakistan such as Shia and Sunni sects; the two major sects of Muslims. The sectarian violence is claiming hundreds of lives each year. There have been frequent clashes between Sunni and Shia groups across the country.
Today, Pakistan is facing multiple conflicts linked to religion, the largest of which is the issue of Talibanization, the Taliban movement is working for implementing Sharia system in Pakistan. The roots of Taliban movement trace back to the Russian invasion of Afghanistan in 1979 when Pakistan played a central role in the fight against Russia. Back in 1979, millions of Jehadi’s were trained in Pakistan to achieve U.S. interests of containing the Soviet Union in Afghanistan. Soon after the war ended these Jehadi’s were left ruined by their Masters, and after 9/11 they were termed as a terrorist, who fled to Pakistan after the American attack on Afghanistan. Today, Pakistan is bleeding at the hands of monsters which it created decades ago to fight Russia in Afghanistan. The Taliban are now aiming to take control of the sate of Pakistan for implementing a system of Sharia, and for doing so they are using violence as a tool. These religious militant organizations have disrupted the social fabric of Pakistan, each year thousands of people are losing their lives and livelihoods in hundreds of suicide attacks. The Taliban have blown up hundreds of girls and boys schools, have targeted universities, health facilities, recreation centers, and public places. The Taliban movement though has accepted the responsibility of the violent attacks, but many Pakistanis will still choose to believe that an outside hand is involved in the violent activities inside Pakistan, thus denying that they are part of the problem. It is also an irony that even after all these destructions caused by religious extremists, the majority of Pakistanis are demanding an ever greater role for religion in public life. They find the violence done by Taliban hateful, but even then they want a strict application of Sharia in Pakistan, a survey conducted has proved that total 79% of the population wanted Sharia to be implemented in the country. Public discussions on the issue of religious extremism are non-existent. When the issues of Pakistan are analyzed, the majority of the people think that they are facing all these issues because they have forgotten their Islamic principles, and getting far away from the true essence of Islam, therefore, they think that the solution lies in the strict implementation of Sharia in all aspects of their lives. There are some strange perceptions of the majority of the Muslims of Pakistan because of which they are dreaming for a more religious state, and not only they are aiming strict implementation of Sharia in Pakistan, but also in the entire world. I will like to share these perceptions with you so that you can trace the roots of religious extremism in it. The perceptions are:
Islam is a complete code of life and the Quran has the best solution of all these issues. The Muslim can dominate all the world with teachings of Islam
Islam is for all the periods and times, therefore Sharia system should be implemented the same as it was implemented by Prophet Muhammad.
Islam is the only reality, all other religions became invalid after Islam and it is the utmost responsibility of all the Muslims to implement this reality and to demolish the false religions.
It is the order of God to make Islam dominant on all religions and systems because every other system except Islam is based on ignorance and insurgency from God. Non-Muslims are enemies of God and it is the responsibility of each Muslim to fight against the enemies of God.
The Muslims are the best Nation of the world, they have been selected by God for ruling the world and have been awarded the Quran which is the best system. therefore they must spread Islam through different means including war, and to bring all states under the flag of Islam.
The process of dominating Islam on the entire world and defeating the non-Islamic forces is Holly war is mandatory for every Muslim and those who are killed in this process are martyrs. The martyrs will be awarded Heaven where there will be at least 80 Beautiful virgin women for each of them. Isn’t it a good reason for war?
Three levels of “faith” are described; the highest level, the moderate level, and the weakest level. The weakest level is, if you see something bad is happening and you can’t stop it consider it bad; the 2nd level of faith is to speak against any bad thing happening, and the highest level of faith is to stop any bad act with your hand, s to achieve the highest level of faith many tend to stop every action they consider bad through violence. And as we know good and bad are subjective, so if they think you are doing anything bad in the public or private sphere they can impose violence on you.

  1. The knowledge of religion Islam is superior to every kind of education, and therefore a Scholar of Islam is superior to every scholar and every scientist. Therefore, a large number of Muslim in Pakistan take pride in schooling from the madrassas rather than normal public schools.
  2. We know that the number of Muslims is increasing in the world because they consider it their right to preach Islam and convert people, but in Pakistan, they deny the right of Muslims to adopt other life stances. And if they do so, they are at the risk of being killed. Therefore, humanists and atheists can’t show their status publically, otherwise, they are at the risk of being killed.
    The perceptions about the superiority of Islam and Muslims are just one part of the problem, many other factors are playing its role in the religious extremism in Pakistan, let’s start from the Education System of Pakistan. According to the National guidelines of the Primary School Education, one of the objectives of Education is to prepare children for Jihad in every aspect of their life. Just imagine, young school kids are taught in the school that they have to fight for the invasion of Islam. In the School books, they are taught about all the perceptions I talked about. The school books are breeding hatred against non-muslims especially Indians. The non-muslims are termed as enemies in the textbooks. Thus, the education system is promoting religious extremism among young people.
    Not only in formal schools the agenda of extremism and Jihad is promoted, but also a huge number of non-formal religious schools known as Madrassas are active in breeding religious extremism and militants. It is an irony that even today the number of these schools is increasing, and the state has no control over their syllabus. Millions of children and young people are living in studying in these madrassas. The madrassas are especially attracting the poor, by providing incentives such as free food, accommodation, and a monthly stipend. But not only the poor people but people from all socio-economical classes are also being attracted by these religious schools. It is such an irony that the today the Heroes of young people of Pakistan are atomic scientists and invaders, not intellectuals or activists.
    Now coming to the role of media, the media. It is one of the most independent institutions in Pakistan, and have the freedom of speech, but unfortunately, it has always been reluctant in presenting a good analysis of the issue of religious extremism. It is at the forefront of spreading anti-west and extremist agenda. I still remember many songs and Drama from my childhood played on TV which was aimed at promoting the spirit of Holy War among the youth.
    The religious political parties are playing a crucial role in spreading religious extremism in the population, their open hate speeches, and anti-west speeches trigger violence and hatred in society. These religious political parties portray themselves the leaders of Islam and use every opportunity to trigger hatred against non-muslims and the west. They have a strong influence on the mindset of people.
    The most vital role of oppressing religious minorities and spreading religious extremism has been played by the Constitution of Pakistan. The preamble of the Constitution of Pakistan which is known as “Objective Resolution” clearly states that all the rules and regulations of the country should be framed according to Islam. In the effort to have a different political identity from India which is a secular state, Pakistani leaders wanted to create a pronounced Muslim society, as a result over the succeeding decades especially in the 1970s and 1980s, the Pakistani state instead of guaranteeing equal rights and equal opportunities to all its citizens, it pushed Islam on its people as a matter of policy thus affecting the civil rights of Pakistani especially minorities.
    The Constitution of Pakistan tried to present itself as a reflection of the Muslim majority, the constitution defined religion of the state as “Islam”, whereas it was clearly mentioned in the constitution of Pakistan that no law repugnant to Islam can be enforced in Pakistan, Islamic way of life will be promoted by the government, while the two highest offices in the country – the President and Prime Minister – can be occupied by Muslims only. Thus minorities having no chance of assuming leading roles, and acquired second class citizenship. The Islamization of the constitution led to the institutional exclusion and segregation of minorities.
    During this Islamization process of the Constitution of Pakistan, discriminatory laws against minorities and women were introduced in Pakistan such as “Blasphemy Law”. It was meant to counter blasphemy against the Holy Book of Muslims Quran and the Prophet Muhammad through severe punishments such as sentence to death. This law prohibited women and minorities from initiating blasphemy cases, thus making minorities and atheists, more disempowered and to be easily accused by the majority Muslim Society. This law institutionalized prohibitions on thinking in a rationale and humanist manner. And the only way left with the people is not to express their humanistic views and keep quiet; otherwise, they can be sentenced to death. The Islamization of the constitution increased insecurity for humanists and religious minorities, and as a result of Physical attacks, large scale killings, social stigmatization, psychological insecurity, forced conversions and continued institutional degradation characterize the position of humanists and religious minorities
    The support and spread of religious extremism through the different institutions of states such as Education, Media, Religious Political Parties, and Constitution have directly and indirectly led to the strengthening of the movement of Taliban in Pakistan. It seems that the government is interested to keep the Taliban movement alive because of some economic and political reasons. The economic reason is “Pakistan receives millions of foreign aid to fight against the Taliban, and ceasing of Taliban movement can also lead to the ceasing of foreign aid, therefore it is better to keep the movement alive. The political reason behind keeping the Taliban movement alive is strategic depth, as they supplement and support the Pakistan Armed Forces in conflict Zones such as Kashmir.
    The growing religious extremist has badly affected young people and women of Pakistan. Young people who comprise more than 60% of the total population are brainwashed regularly through the biased education system, media, and propaganda of religious political parties. These young people are thus an easy target for the militant organizations, who recruit these young people. The Talibanization has claimed thousands of lives in hundreds of suicide attacks and leaving many traumatized behind.
    The tale of issues will not end, even if I keep on talking for the whole day, therefore I would like to move towards what I and my Organization are doing in this situation.
    We are also working for a secular Pakistan, last year we did a signature campaign for a secular Pakistan, and we were able to collect few thousand signatures, which means we still have to go long way to promote secular approach among the youth of Pakistan.

    I hope that decades from now Pakistan will become a secular country, which will not discriminate between its citizens of different religious identities; its public schools will not poison young minds with hatred; Pakistanis will look for human qualities rather than an individuals’ religious affiliation; and the life and property of all citizens will be considered equally valuable. The concept of “extremism and Talibanization” shall have become irrelevant. Tolerance and non-violence will become the norm, and everyone will have the freedom to be religious or non-religious. There will be space for open dialogue between religious and nonreligious people, and we Humanist have to be careful also not to be extremist in our discourse. We have to work for a moderate, secular, pluralistic, and tolerant societies. Though these dreams appear difficult today but are not impossible, and our continuous struggle will lead to these goals.