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Politics of obscurantism

Dr. Ikramul Haq

We lost East Wing (Mushraqi Pakistan) in 1971 due to sheer shortsightedness and highhandedness of ruling military junta and its political cronies. In the name of defending “ideological frontiers”, the generals not only gave away big land mass but also committed heinous war crimes against ordinary citizens. Tragically, no one was punished. On the contrary, the populist political party of the day decorated the key persons behind the dismemberment, awarded them state lands and even gave them high political posts in Pakistan People’s Party. It was a suicidal path as history proved it.

In the wake of humiliating defeat, no war tribunal was constituted and military complex was allowed to flourish. The powerful military soon joined hands with mullah and forced Zulfikar Ali Bhutto to push Pakistan towards a theocratic State—his announcements after meeting head of Jamaat-i-Islami at Zaildar Park, Ichra, Lahore, were grave political mistakes. On 5 July 1977, yet another dark day in our history, Ziaul Haq, having strong support of religious parties, overthrew the elected government and murdered Zulfikar Ali Bhutto with the help of judges. Zia’s 11- year-rule brought “Islamic McCarthyism” to Pakistan, instigating witch-hunts and eliminating political opponents calling them ladeen (infidels).        

Both Pakistan and Bangladesh since 1971 have been facing problems for establishing democratic institutions. In Pakistan military-mullah onslaughts using religion as a tool for self-aggrandizement have destroyed the very fabric of society. Facing perpetual crises of all sorts—the worst amongst them being bigotry and increasing role of clergy in politics—Pakistan is now fighting battle for survival. Economically in deep trouble and politically shaken, Pakistani leadership—both civil and military—should immediately sit together and look into recent developments in Bangladesh. They specifically need to study the judgement of Supreme Court of Bangladesh rejecting use of religion by political parties.

Our leadership has acted irresponsibly through the history and result is that today’s Pakistan is driven by hate e.g. the storm troopers of various sects milling around street-corners, haranguing passers-by, subjecting them to aggressive proselytizing. Ubiquitous armed police, on mosque-protection duties, watch warily from tops of minarets converted into watch towers. Mosques, proliferating more than ever, resemble ancient fortresses with battlements to ward off attack. Some minarets contain gun emplacements. Though the mosques remain largely empty – even the most dedicated righteous are daunted by bombs – the loudspeakers blare out not just azans (calls to prayer), but the entire prayer ritual at top volume. But little is understood because every loudspeaker-equipped mosque is faced by another across the street with the same decibel count and its own strident mullah. The wages of bigotry are now showing ugliest results where the zealots are taking life of a fellow citizen in the name of religion. After 63 years of nationhood, there is mayhem, chaos, anarchy and total collapse.

The fitna (mischief) and fisad-fil-ardh (disorder), created by military-mullah alliance, laid the grounds for sectarian and communal warfare all around. Pakistan through the 1980s and 1990s witnessed sectarian violence that spilled over the borders of religious belief into those that separate political ideologies, as well as ethnic, racial, linguistic and tribal identities. It undermined an assiduously nurtured, barely credible, Pakistani nationalism and breathed fresh life into separatist movements. The situation is persisting and going from bad to worse every day. Those at the helm of affairs will have to take remedial measures without wasting any time, if we have to halt the further disaster.

According to many rightist thinkers, the two-nation theory, based on the foundation of religious divide of Hindus and Muslims, was the real motive behind the partition of sub-continent. The radical camp argues that economic interests of Muslim feudal class paved the way for establishment of Pakistan. While this debate will continue, the fact remains that so-called Islamists received irrecoverable setback when the Bengalis, maltreated by the ruling elite of West Pakistan, decided to part ways.  The division of Pakistan—in fact further subdivision of sub-continent—proved that economic interests play decisive role in politics. Religion is just one of the ploys to achieve these goals by some vested interests. Abuse of Islam by military dictators and their cronies in the wake of partition of subcontinent played havoc in both the eastern and western wings of the newly-independent State.

It is well-documented in Secular and Nationalist Jinnah by Dr. Ajeet Jawed that Quaid-i-Azam did not want a theocratic Pakistan. Throughout his political career, he struggled against both Hindu and Muslim extremists. After independence, the feudal class with the help of its cronies—bureaucrats, clergymen and men in khaki—managed to hijack the new state and for their vested interest converted it into so-called Islamic Republic—a mere nomenclature whereas the system remains un-Islamic. Islam does not permit feudalism and authoritarianism. The main stress of Islam is on the empowerment of the have-nots, creation of an egalitarian welfare State.

From the very beginning, the vested interests in Pakistan tampered with the famous speech of the Quaid, but failed to do so as Dr. Ajeet revealed in his book: “it was allowed to be published in full only after Dawn’s editor, Altaf Hussain, threatened those who were trying to tamper with it to go to Jinnah himself if the press advice was not withdrawn”. For building a democratic Pakistan, Dr. Ajeet writes, Quaid sought the help of Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan, because, as he said in his letter to Badshah Khan, he was “surrounded by thieves and scoundrels” through whom he could do nothing. With a mass of evidence, Dr. Ajeet has established that Quaid remained anti-theocracy and constitutionalist democrat up to the last moment of his life.  

The ideas of the Quaid echoed in the decision of the Bangladesh Supreme Court last year. It barred use of religion in politics and reaffirmed the ideology of the founder fathers. It has restored the original constitution of the People’s Republic of Bangladesh. In the wake of this verdict, the Election Commission of Bangladesh on January 26, 2010 asked the three Islamic parties—Jamaat-e-Islami, Bangladesh Khelataf Andolan and Tarikat Federation—to amend their charters being in conflict with the supreme law of the country.    

Just as Quaid was betrayed by the feudal class in his party, the founding father of Bangladesh met the same fate. Sheikh Mujib’s Awami League gave the nation its first constitution within one year of independence, based on four cardinal principles—secularism, nationalism, socialism and democracy. Bangladesh became the third major Muslim country to officially embrace secularism after Turkey and Tunis. On August 15, 1975, Sheikh Mujib was assassinated along with his family. Luckily, Rehana and Hasina, his two daughters, residing outside Bangladesh, survived. In the wake of Sheikh Mujib’s assassination, the country unfortunately witnessed coups and countercoups within a very short span of time—from August 15 to November 7, 1975.

The successor of Sheikh Mujib, Moshtaque Khondkar, selected Chief Justice Abu Sadat Mohammad Sayem as President. Deriving power through martial law proclamations, he abolished secularism from the constitution by amending Article 38. The lifting of ban on religion-based politics paved the way for theocratic parties to campaign in the name of religion. Abu Sadat transferred powers to Ziaur Rehman on November 26, 1976 after a deal that he would indemnify his illegal takeover, all actions taken between August 15, 1975 and April 9, 1979, passing of the Fifth Amendment that ratified martial law proclamations including desecularisation of the constitution. Ziaur Rehman was assassinated at the hands of junior army officers and General Ershad took over the control declaring martial law on March 24, 1982.

General Ershad, like the Pakistani General Ziaul Haq used religion for perpetuation of his unlawful rule—Islam was made state religion. In the wake of popular democratic movement the military rule came to an end and democracy was restored in 1991. In 1996, the Awami League once again won elections and abrogated all the unconstitutional amendments to sanction the trial of the assassins of the founding father. In 2005, the Fifth Amendment was struck down by the High Court. The Court emphasized secularism as the guiding state policy. The Court held that religious non-discrimination, protection for all faiths, even for non-believers, should be the main responsibility of the State. It explained that secularism means ensuring religious tolerance and freedom of faith without any favour or discrimination. The Court, in unequivocal terms, condemned the actions of military junta to convert secular Bangladesh into a theocratic state.

The Court’s ruling was contested by Bangladesh National Party (BNP), led by the widow of Ziaur Rehman, Khalida Zia. The Court granted a stay order that was ultimately vacated on January 3, 2010. Resultantly, original Article 38 of the Constitution became operative barring the use of religion or communal connotations in politics. This has been termed as a major development not only in Bangladesh but in the entire Muslim world. It is commonly advocated in the West that Islam and pluralistic democracy are incompatible. The very use of Islam as state religion, critics of Muslim world say, negates the concept of democracy. Secularism requires that at the State level there should be no propagation of religion—it should be the personal matter of citizens.

In Pakistan and elsewhere in the Muslim world, religion has become a tool in the hands of the vested-interest. The mushroom growth of so-called Islamic political parties is a cause of concern for all. These parties, backed by forces of obscurantism, exploit the masses in the name of Islam. Militants are their front men, terrorism is their weapon and they themselves are the pawns of neo-imperialism. In the face of these realities, Supreme Court of Bangladesh took a bold stand and upheld High Court’s ruling delivered in 2005 declaring the Fifth Amendment in the constitution unlawful that allowed religion-based politics, not envisaged by the framers of the original document.

Article 41 of the Constitution of Bangladesh guarantees freedom of religion. It says:

  • Subject to law, public order and morality-
  • every citizen has the right to profess, practice or propagate any religion;
  • every religious community or denomination has the right to establish, maintain and manage its religious institutions.
  • No person attending any educational institution shall be required to receive religious instruction, or to take part in or to attend any religious ceremony or worship, if that instruction, ceremony or worship relates to a religion other than his own. 

The same position prevails under Articles 20, 21 and 22 of 1973 Constitution of Pakistan that guarantees religious freedom for all, no taxation of a person for the propagation or maintenance of any religion other than his own and safeguards as to educational institutions in respect of religion. In the presence of these Constitutionals provisions, there should be no room for religious-based politics and parties in Pakistan as the case in Bangladesh since January 2010. The concept of theocratic State is alien to Islam. The use of religion in politics only creates divisions, rather than achieving unity which is the central message of holy Quran.

The verdict of Bangladesh Supreme Court restoring true character of country’s Constitution holds a promise of progress and democratization of the society and sets a good example for other Muslim states, especially Pakistan of today. It is high time that legislators should restore the original Constitution of Pakistan and remove the patchwork done by military dictators to hoodwink people and perpetuate their undemocratic rule. Islamic democracy is on much higher pedestal than western as it gives no immunity to head of State. Democracy is essentially anti-thesis of theocracy. An overwhelming Muslim State, Bangladesh, has proved it and other Muslim countries should follow if they want to get rid of bigotry.  


The writers, legal historians, are Adjunct Professors at Lahore University of Management Sciences (LUMS).

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