Miscellaneous

Unity of Pakistan: Cultural Pluralism is the Answer

Pakistan is passing through contortions of an epic struggle against the twin evils of militancy and extremism, which until a few years ago were threatening to rip it apart. While the armed forces are in the forefront of the fight, they need the society to stand behind them completely, categorically and unflinchingly to put down these dark, diabolical forces, which are bent upon turning a multicultural society into a monolithic one. By the same token, ensuring the writ of the government is of paramount importance, but such efforts will come a cropper unless the society shakes off these cataclysmic forces, refuses to have truck with their deleterious narrative, and reposes its full faith in cultural pluralism.
The 19th century English philosopher J.S. Mills in his celebrated treatise, “On Liberty”, notes that the most serious threat to civil liberties stems not from the government but from the society itself, which cannot bring itself to embrace diversity of views.

This astute observation is especially relevant to a multi-cultural society like Pakistan, which is composed of people professing different creeds and speaking different languages. In such a society, the edifice of the social order must rest on the pillars of a pluralistic philosophy: full religious freedom to all communities, tolerance of religious and ethnic differences within the society and permitting various groups to practise their distinctive cultures while cooperating in larger social, economic and political life.


The 19th century English philosopher J.S. Mills in his celebrated treatise, “On Liberty”, notes that the most serious threat to civil liberties stems not from the government but from the society itself, which cannot bring itself to embracing diversity of views. This astute observation is especially relevant to a multi-cultural society like Pakistan, which is composed of people professing different creeds and speaking different languages.

Pluralism also underlies democracy, which stipulates that people regardless of their ethnic or religious affiliations should be given equal rights and opportunities. As one political scientist puts it, democracy is multi-valued rather than single-valued and is disposed to share rather than to hoard or monopolize.
In order to fully appreciate the significance of cultural pluralism for Pakistan, it is important to go back to the genesis of the country. The partition of the British India in August 1947 was done on the basis of religion; there was no other ground: linguistic, ethnic, racial, or geographic. Muslim majority regions made up Pakistan; the rest went to India. However, the purpose of carving out a separate territory was not to put in place a theocratic, monolithic state but to safeguard the social, economic and political rights of Indian Muslims. In fact, it was the attempts by the majority community to turn India into a monolithic society that prompted Muslims to first come up with the demand for separate electorates and finally call for a separate state.

Even today India, which on the face of it is a secular state, is being held hostage by the tantrums of the exponents of Hindu values or Hindutva working under the umbrella of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). As the Encyclopedia Britannica puts it, the BJP's roots can be traced to the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), or the National Volunteer Corps, and its political arm, the Bharatiya Jana Sangh (BJS) or Indian People's Association. The BJS was wedded to rebuilding India into a strong, unified state fashioned on Hindutva. Since the early 1990s, secularism has been on the retreat and Hindutva and the BJP on the ascendency in the country, ushering in the election of Narendra Modi, the man widely seen to be the prime mover behind the 2002 carnage of Muslims in communal riots in the state of Gujarat.
Coming back to Pakistan, in his historic address to the First Constituent Assembly on August 11, 1947, the founder of Pakistan, late Muhammad Ali Jinnah, stated: “You are free, you are free to go to your temples, you are free to go to your mosques or to any other place of worship in the State of Pakistan. You may belong to any religion or caste or creed, that has nothing to do with the business of the state…. Now, I think that we should keep that in front of us as our ideal, and you will find that in course of time Hindus will cease to be Hindus and Muslims would cease to be Muslims, not in the religious sense, because that is the personal faith of each individual, but in the political sense as citizens of the State.”    

The vision of Pakistan, as outlined by its founder in the above quoted extract, was that of a pluralistic society. Being a statesman, Mr. Jinnah knew well that in a multicultural society like Pakistan discrimination on the basis of religion could cut a swathe through the very fabric of society. In accordance with the vision of the Father of the Nation, the constitution of Pakistan guarantees religious freedom by giving every citizen the right to “profess, practise and promote his religion.” With the exception of the President and Prime Minister, all elected and non-elected offices are open to non-Muslims. Our key institutions are national institutions; they don’t represent a particular creed. In the past, two non-Muslims occupied the highest judicial office of the land.
The national institutions have always upheld pluralistic principles. A few years back, the Supreme Court upheld the death penalty awarded to the assassin of Punjab Governor Salman Taseer. Very recently, the apex court acquitted a Christian woman of blasphemy charges because of lack of evidence. The principle established in both cases is that although blasphemy is punishable with death, citizens on their own can’t act as judge, jury or executioner. The conviction is to be done, and sentence is to be awarded by the courts on the basis of hardcore evidence.

To quote a paragraph from the apex court’s recent landmark verdict: “In case of the commission of such crime, only the state has the authority to bring the machinery of law into operation, bringing the accused before court of the competent jurisdiction for trial in accordance with law. However, it is not for the individuals, or a gathering, to decide as to whether any act falling within the purview of Section 295-C [dealing with blasphemy] has been committed or not, because as stated earlier, it is the mandate of the court to make such a decision after conducting a fully-qualified trial on the basis of credible evidence brought before it. No such parallel authority could in any circumstances be bestowed upon any individual or a group of persons.”


Thus it is not the constitutional, legal or institutional set-up that is at fault. Instead, culpability is on the part of the people who are promoting intolerance in the name of protecting religion. To be sure, Pakistan is essentially a moderate society. No one should run away with the impression that our society by and large is in thrall of extremist notions head over heels. Only a small section of society, which scruples at nothing, is wedded to extremism.


Thus it is not the constitutional, legal or institutional set-up that is at fault. Instead, culpability is on the part of the people who are promoting intolerance in the name of protecting religion. To be sure, Pakistan is essentially a moderate society. No one should run away with the impression that our society by and large is in thrall of extremist notions head over heels. Only a small section of society, which scruples at nothing, is wedded to extremism.
Be that as it may, just as bad money drives out good money, saner voices tend to peter out in the bubbling cacophony of extremist propaganda and the people’s thoughts are liable to be run away with toxic chicanery. Being gullible when it comes to matters of faith, the masses are apt to be overawed when some clerics, who command considerable following, quote the Scriptures out of context or come out with a rancorous interpretation of religious doctrines. The stage is thus set for glorifying fanaticism and bigotry and sanctifying violence and brutality in the name of protecting faith.

Religious intolerance upends the teachings of all great religions of the world. Each puts a high premium on a change in the heart – a change that can’t be affected by coercion. Islam in particular is stranger to forcible conversion of the creed. Though Islam preaches the unity of mankind, it also teaches religious tolerance. In Islam, faith is essentially a matter of the heart and not that of mere external conformity. A corollary of this belief is that the followers of different creeds can peacefully co-exist without interfering in each other’s religious practices. This noble principle was embodied by the Holy Prophet (PBUH) in the famous Charter of Medina.
The extremist ideology, however, would seek to turn the glorious message on religious intolerance on its head by having us believe that Islam provides only for a monolithic society in which different cultures or sub-cultures cannot co-exist; rather they have to be merged with the “Islamic” culture. If preaching cannot affect that merger, force can be, and must be, employed. If such an interpretation of Islam were to be accepted, then the use of force to remove cultural diversity would become legitimate and freedom of conscience, which underlies all moral freedom, becomes meaningless. There would be only one creed and one moral code, not by choice but by force. Such an interpretation of Islam would not only denude society of all ethical freedom but also bring in its train of mayhem and chaos, as extremists would wade through blood if need be to purge society of what they consider to be un-Islamic beliefs and practices.

In the eyes of the exponents of extremism, killing innocent non-Muslims or Muslims of another sect is justified if it helps promote the cause of their creed. Their worldview precludes tolerance of any dissent, difference or opposition as, they believe, tolerating any antithesis would constitute kufr. Those who profess a different creed or have a different moral standard are looked upon as an evil. Women who do not put on veil or men who do not grow a beard are considered impious. Men and women who mix with one another are regarded as malefactor to the bone. Those who listen to music are believed to commit a mortal sin.
Extremism has enormous social and economic costs. Victimization, or even discrimination, on the strength of religious affiliations, may lead to the alienation of a community from the mainstream and breed inter-creed hostility, which if gone unchecked, may shake the entire social order. On their part, social convulsions can throw the economy into a tailspin. Even the best business friendly policies creak under the strain of public disorder.

The constitution of Pakistan guarantees freedom of expression and of assembly as fundamental rights. However, these rights are not absolute and their exercise is subject to such limitations as public order, national security, decency, morality and incitement to an offence. At any rate, rights are created by society and enforced by the state. In the hypothetical state of nature, there are no rights but only naked power. It follows, therefore, that scandalizing or otherwise running at national institutions for upholding the law of the land not only exposes a morbid mindset; it also goes beyond the scope of fundamental rights.


The constitution of Pakistan guarantees freedom of expression and of assembly as fundamental rights. However, these rights are not absolute and their exercise is subject to such limitations as public order, national security, decency, morality and incitement to an offence. At any rate, rights are created by society and enforced by the state.


A society is as strong or weak as its institutions. It is the sturdy and stable institutions which create conditions conducive to the exercise of civil liberties. At the other end of the scale, mob ‘justice’ clashes with the principle of the rule of law, which is the lifeblood of the body politic. It’s not for a mob but for formal public institutions to prosecute, convict and punish an offender. The mob is neither a reliable judge of what is fair; nor is it interested in doing justice per se. It only itches for exacting revenge upon a convenient target for its allegedly mischievous actions.
Alive to the perils of extremism, the authors of the National Action Plan (NAP) drawn up in the wake of the December 2014 gruesome Army Public School, Peshawar tragedy stipulated strict action against hate material and glorification of extremism, sectarianism, and religious intolerance; effective steps against religious persecution; ban on glorification of terrorists; and measures against abuse of internet and social media. It is for the government to implement these and other components of the NAP to the letter.       

More than 97 percent of Pakistanis are Muslims, who occupy the key slots in government, business, industry and civil society. So contrary to the claims of the exponents of extremism, who exult in springing a trap for credulous citizens, Islam is not in danger in the country. If people don’t allow themselves to be swept off their feet by such forces, extremism doesn’t stand a cat in hell’s chance of winning in the country.


The writer is a frequent contributer to national print media on issues of politics and economy.
E-mail: [email protected]

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