The space for secularism in the national narrative
Pakistan is a strange country; the people who garner maximum news coverage are often shady. If January was the month of Mumtaz Qadri, then February and March definitely belonged to Raymond Davis and the man who hogged all the headlines across the globe in May was Osama Bin Laden. Last but not the least was Illyas Kashmiri who was killed in a drone strike in June.
It is even stranger that though all four of them were shady characters – murderers to be precise – the response of the popular media to their deeds, lives, and reasons have ranged from high praise to utter ridicule. While Davis was lynched by our media for killing two Pakistani men, Qadri was praised by a certain section of media as the saviour who, by shedding blood of another human being, has somehow restored balance in the universe and saved the religion, humanity and galaxy. The kind of debate bin Laden and Kashmiri spark is the stuff of legends. People have called them terrorists, warriors, messiahs and everything in between depending on their ‘ideological’ and ‘idiological’ leanings.
But the strangest common factor in all the cases is that the popular media has developed the narrative and catered to the incidents surrounding these characters on the basis of religion. All the discussions and responses on the subject have been based, not on the news worthiness of the issue, but on the perceived religious reasons for the actions of the perpetrators and on the basis or lack of their religiosity.
Qadri was hailed as a hero because he was defending his faith. Even his critics were at pains to point out that he was mislead because the religion was not interpreted in its true spirit by who so ever was inspiring him. The only person, Sherry Rahman, who actually said that this law needed to be amended, had to stay cooped up in her house for the fear of her life. The fact that a man was killed was either ignored or the victim was blamed for his own death. The focus of the discussion stayed on religion and religion inspired laws and how essential they are to the survival of this society. The condemnation of that murder was subdued because vociferous denunciation would have challenged the religiosity of the narrative. Even before the death of the slain governor, one anchor decided to act as the prosecutor, jury and the judge and held a public trial of Governor Salman Taseer. With media pandering to the dictates of the overtly religious groups, presenting secular arguments in mainstream media is neither desired nor is considered safe.
Davis, an American guilty of the same crime homicide, was labelled the devil incarnate because he was an infidel who killed two Muslim men in the land of pure. The fact that it was Federal Shariat Court supported Qisas and Diyat Law that saved him in the end was again ignored. No one either wrote or spoke against the law in the popular media. The fact that perpetrators of the same crime can have different punishments depending upon their social standing and the amount they are willing to shell out to stay out of the prison and that the law actually supports the criminal with a sizeable bank account are largely ignored by our esteemed media persons and anchors.
Apart from these cases, the television debates usually centre on the quest of making the country a “true’ Islamic state instead of a working state. How many times have we seen sanctimonious anchors and so called experts discussing whether a legislation or a verdict by the courts is religious enough or not. Hardly have we seen any debate on whether a course of action is workable or not, which basically gives sanction to bad governance.
There can be two probable reasons for such glaring omission of the secular content in any news debate in Pakistan. The country was created on the basis of religion, when the raison d’être for a country is its official religion, then any ideology contesting it kind of gets lost in the narration. The other is that there are some secular voices but they either submit to the views of majority for the fear of retaliation or they think that their voice will get lost. In either case, secular voices end up ceding political space and jeopardising their own long term future.
This is not limited to the fourth estate. The other three pillars of the country – Legislators, executives and judiciary are as much to blame as the media for it. Last year, the Chief Justice of Pakistan expressed ‘concern’ about Parliament’s ability to redraft the constitution in such a manner that it will make Pakistan a secular republic. It was painful to note that the secularity of the constitution was seen as a threat by the man presiding over the most august court in Pakistan. The chief Justice’s concerns were obviously unfounded because the parliament is housed with likes of Shiekh Waqas Akram, Maulana Fazlur Rehman and Rehman Malik who have repeatedly vowed to deal with anyone who dare speak against legislation based on theology.
In addition to them, the armed forces, perhaps the most powerful group in the country, owe their acceptance and popularity with the people on their stance as the defenders of not only the geographical boundaries of the country but also as the defenders of the faith. People are willing to forgive the armed forces for gobbling up the lion’s share of the resources in the country as long they stay vigilant against the threat of the infidel. That is why Pakistani nuclear capability is sold to its people as “Islamic atomic bomb” – a pan Islamic achievement rather than a national one.
Secularism cannot be pulled out of thin air like a genie. Just like fruitful discourse needs secular input, secularism cannot survive without debate, political space and social acceptance. It will not germinate in a vacuum but will arise out of liberal interpretation of theology and questioning the dogma which are not possible in current Pakistani milieu. Liberal research of the religion is virtually nonexistent. A few random liberal scholars like Dr Farooq Khan and Ghamdi were either killed or had to relocate to stay alive. If the country has to survive as a viable entity in future, its political, judicial, military and bureaucratic leadership must realise that giving space to dissenting voices is as necessary as bowing down to the wishes of majority.
Religion, in whatever way, has always been part of the discourse. Apart from Madrassah students, Islamic studies have been an integral part of the syllabus everywhere in Pakistan, from elementary school to degrees courses. The concept of secularism, on the other hand, has never been formally introduced in academia. We cannot move forward if this disparity is not addressed.
Tazeen Javed is a communications specialist, a blogger and a free lance writer.