A Sermon is a Sermon!

Daily Times, July 24, 2005
A sermon is a sermon!
Iqbal Mustafa

As I watched the President’s address to the nation on Thursday, I had mixed feelings of hope and despair. First, his interpretation of history -- the occupation of Afghanistan by Russia and the liberation struggle by Afghan tribes assisted by Jihadis from many Muslim countries, who were "brought in" according to him, trained, armed and then abandoned by the US, for Pakistan to reap the consequences of their militancy -- conveniently omitted the pivotal role of Pakistan army. It did not mention the windfall bonanzas made by key military individuals. Putting all the blame on someone else’s doorstep and asking for more assistance indicated that the military establishment is still in denial.

More than that, before announcing new measures for curbing militant ideologies sprouting from the seminaries, he felt the compulsion to establish his own credentials as a devout Muslim -- a blue-blooded Syed. He talked of a distinction between an enlightened Islam and an antediluvian form of it that the Muslim clergy is propagating today, specifically highlighting that the Mullahs are 'behind times’. The logical inference of his line of argument leads to the suggestion that the Faith is subject to mutation with time, which is a fundamental denial of immutability of tenets of Islam. He even invoked the theological term of 'Jihad’ against the militants. In essence, I agree with what he is trying to achieve but his 'strategic logic’ is self-defeating. By starting an 'interpretation’ debate, he is playing on his opponents’ turf; it is a debate that has remained unresolved for centuries. I am quoting an excerpt from my book, 'Dysfunctional Democracy: A case for an alternative political system’, which presents a different logic towards the same end.

"Pakistan is trapped between an emotive resistance to abandon the past theological heritage (as if that would be disloyalty to faith) and a realistic compulsion to become a part of the global liberalism in politics and economics, which is secular in spirit. The society, as a whole, is not finding a way to dispel the myth that the two urges are contradicting. Hence, there is a dichotomy of thought and actions. In one’s private life it is relatively easy to pledge allegiance to faith while compromising on practical compliance, which is not so in matters of a communal commitment to a set of principles, let alone a sanctimonious creed.

A liberal democracy entails secular principles, which exclude theological injunctions from matters of public domain, in the sense that they are not enshrined verbatim in the statutes. Religious morality is exercised through public consensus rather than policing by clerical decrees. The process of democratisation began with renaissance in Europe when State was divorced from the Church explicitly. Hence, there exists considerable variation between the opinion of the Church and political consensus in all democracies of the West: e.g., divorce, abortion, birth control, laws on homosexuality and pornography, blasphemy, gambling, prostitution and use of alcohol. While on many of such issues, a part of public morality does not condone what the law permits; the State voluntarily abdicates the right to interfere in individual liberty, leaving it to be a matter between God and man. George Bush, a man driven by personal religious convictions, when he publicly denounced the papal comments on America’s intent to attack Iraq, demonstrated a glaring example of this dichotomy between State and Church.

The strings of Islamic injunctions embedded in Pakistan’s constitution and in statutes of civil and criminal law are in denial of the fundamental principles of a liberal democracy. Pakistan has earned international ill repute through implementation of many court rulings on matters of rape, marriage, blasphemy and interest in banking. As per the strict punishments laid out in Islamic Shariah, if an accused were to be publicly whipped, stoned or had limbs amputated, Pakistan would become a pagan society, just as the Taliban were.

A far more serious import of Islamisation of constitution and laws culminates in abdication of interpretation of Islam to the clergy. If Pakistan were acknowledged as a divine mission to be run according to the interpretation of a particular sect of theological schools then there would be no need for democratic process of elections, parliaments and constitutional structures. This ambivalence of constitutional essence dilutes the concept of liberal democracy, and as the process of reshaping Muslim countries unfolds, the international community is viewing it suspiciously as an impediment to progress. As referred to earlier, many dictatorial regimes have made economic and social progress but they all had one thing in common: a secular mindset. Only through natural resources have some Muslim countries prospered at a cost of social liberty like Saudi Arabia and Iran. Other Muslim countries that have progressed to join the middle-income countries, like Turkey and Malaysia, are secular constitutionally. Dubai and other Gulf States have grown exponentially in recent times through liberalisation of culture and economy.

In historical context, the ambiguity is older than Pakistan itself. Seeking guidance in the statements of the founding father for a clear concept of Pakistan is not of much help. His earlier statements endorse a theological vision while his latter addresses categorically call for a secular state. Are there any lessons in this diversity of thought from Quaid-e-Azam? Proponents of theological compulsion in State matters quote his previous statements while the liberals seek instruction in his latter speeches. This debate cannot be resolved easily in scholastic sense. There is enough evidence to suggest that Quaid-e-Azam altered his vision at different times in view of the situation that faced the Muslims. At the earlier stages there was a need to assert the rights of Muslims to seek political exclusivity but once that need was fulfilled, his vision of the future for Pakistan is quite clear. We may surmise two conclusions here: Nothing is immutable in matters of social perspectives; one must adapt to prevalent circumstances and needs of the times. Second, the future lies in moving away from a rigid view of religion towards a liberal democratic state. If the father of the nation could entertain such plurality of thought and liberalist view of faith, then a review of the constitution in contemporary terms is neither a heresy nor an act of disloyalty to the faith.

Until now, we have examined the external and internal forces that create exigencies to undertake a holistic review of Pakistan’s constitution. External, to align Pakistan with global standards of liberalisation and internal, to resolve two endemic problems -- find a cure for dysfunctional parliamentary system, discussed in earlier chapters, and prepare a valid legislative platform to neutralise Pakistan’s polity from theological bigotry, which can subsequently be translated into executive action against militant theological forces."

I was referring to a secular constitution without guilt or fear of betraying the Faith. President’s speech was a sermon. A sermon is a sermon whether delivered from a presidency or a preacher’s podium.

The writer is a consultant for agro economy and organisational management.
Email: mustafa@hujra.com; archives at www.hujra.com

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