Reinventing the Islamic Republic

March 14, 2009

Content from the Brookings Doha Center is now archived. In September 2021, after 14 years of impactful partnership, Brookings and the Brookings Doha Center announced that they were ending their affiliation. The Brookings Doha Center is now the Middle East Council on Global Affairs, a separate public policy institution based in Qatar.

Political drama is reaching a momentous crescendo in Pakistan this week with the two major parties locking horns and various forces cheering for either reconciliation or confrontation. An undertone of dissent in this debacle pertains to Pakistan’s identity as an Islamic state.

The self-proclaimed vanguard of “enlightened moderation”, former President-General Pervez Musharraf joined the cacophony of voices on this theme after returning from a trip to India on Monday. Alarmingly, there was not a hint of contrition in Mr Musharraf’s tone about the current political crisis. He was instead keen to defend the truce in Swat with Islamic radicals while not recognising for a moment his government’s role in leading the country to this point of polarisation and discord.

When I started researching the alleged linkage between madrassas and conflict in Pakistan over four years ago, Mr Musharraf had launched his programme of “enlightened moderation”. At that time, many expatriate Pakistanis and progressive Muslims supported his call and considered him to be a promising leader in moving the country towards modernity.

However, his government appeared to follow a peculiar path of opportunistic appeasement followed by a misplaced show of force. We saw the failure of this strategy during the Lal Masjid episode when the government initially allowed the clerics to be armed in order to placate influential politicians. Several shipments of arms to the mosque were ignored by security forces. However, when the siege reached a pivotal pitch, they decided to have a rather uncompromising position in any negotiations, which led to an unfortunate loss of life, making martyrs out of alleged miscreants and giving an easy path for recruiting jihadis.

If we consider the efforts made by the Musharraf government in promoting progressive Islam at an institutional level, the results were also far from satisfactory. The government initially supported the initiative of 45 progressive Muslim scholars from 14 countries in establishing the Iqbal International Institute for Research Education and Dialogue. During a recent visit to Dhaka University in Bangladesh, I learned from secondary sources that this Institute held much promise but was considered too bold in its initiatives and thus quashed. The resulting entity was downsized considerably and moved to the International Islamic University in Islamabad where its scope of activities was considerably narrowed.

There was thus a half-hearted attempt at promoting moderation through institutional means without having the political will to endure attrition and patiently work through the mechanics of “moderation”. Sporadic and unenforceable truces were followed by opportunistic military strikes on militants in the northwest. Mixed messages abounded during this period leaving the country in a state of utter confusion about its identity.

In this state of cynicism, it was easy for radical elements to tighten their grip and even gain sympathy with the public. Was the goal of “enlightened moderation” simply too large a task for the government to accomplish or were there some significant steps that could have been taken to prevent our current predicament?

Since its inception, secularists have questioned the role of Islam in Pakistani society because the founder of the country was not a particularly religious individual. Mr Musharraf considered this a vindication of his approach to dealing with Islamic radicalism. However, there is little doubt that despite Mr Jinnah’s own secular proclivities, the country’s existence owed itself to religious differentiation. Ironically many religious scholars such as Maulana Azad and even Maulana Maududi had opposed the creation of Pakistan because they felt that the leadership was misusing the name of Islam for political opportunism or because the demographic strength of Muslims would be diluted in a united India.

History is often irrevocable and there is no point in considering the prudence of Partition at this juncture in time as many in India keep trying to do. The reality now is that over the past sixty years of its existence, the country has developed an identity that is often challenged and tested but still stands strong. Unfortunately, Pakistan’s identity as an Islamic state has itself been challenged by a pan-Islamic vision of many militant elements that are still inclined on some arcane vision of a Caliphate. Countries are by definition synthetic entities and positing a primordial state in any context, whether Akhand Bharat or some larger ummah is not particularly useful in the larger scheme of conflict resolution.

However, the most effective way of fighting such polarising forces that threaten Pakistan is to present a new vision for the Islamic Republic that highlights the religious lineage of the state but also defends pluralism within an Islamic context. Some aspects of the sharia doctrine as they are currently understood by a majority of Pakistani ulema are simply incompatible with pluralism, such as the doctrine of irtidad (which is often used to justify killing of anyone who reverts from a pristine vision of Islam). However, there are other elements of contemporary sharia such as a prohibition on alcohol that may well seem draconian to a Western audience but are quite compatible with modernity.

What is desperately needed is a national effort to reconsider what it means to be an Islamic Republic in our contemporary global society. It is high time Muslims appreciate various interpretations of religion will always coexist. Some Muslim will visit shrines while others will consider such practices repugnant. Both can disagree and can try to convince each other within the marketplace of ideas but cannot hold monopoly over what each may deem to be the truth.

It is the government’s fundamental duty to protect such pluralism. The bombing of a shrine in Peshawar by puritanical fanatics shows how fractured Muslim society within Pakistan has become. This has been the most potent problem that a confused and ambivalent policy regarding Islam and the state in Pakistan has caused.

Whoever holds the reins of power in coming months must give priority to a national process of consensus-building on what it means to be an Islamic state. We may need to recruit world-class mainstream but modern Muslim scholars such as Tariq Ramadan or Hamza Yusuf to facilitate such an effort and invite all ulema to participate in a new “Charter for the Islamic Republic”.

Certain fundamental human rights such as the status of women and minorities must be the starting premise of such an effort. Progressive Islamic scholars, many of whom were part of the original Iqbal institute that met an untimely end, have a clear theological vision of how to move forward with a win-win outcome. Established research centres such as the Jama’at-e Islami’s Institute for Policy Studies led by Dr Khurshid Ahmed can also play a significant harmonising role in this process.

No doubt there will still be some hardliners who will resist. For them there must be a clear and unequivocal message of law enforcement.

We cannot afford to play a double game with Pakistan’s Islamic identity. General Musharraf conveniently said that our constitution makes it clear that no law will be antithetical to Islam. Yet implementation of such generic edicts is far more complex than a linear sentence. Each Muslim country in the world has its unique ethno-religious identity and we need to craft our own rather than trying to cast ourselves into the mould of some illusory allegiance. This is a generational struggle for the soul of Islam in Pakistan and our political leaders have to play a pivotal role in facilitating the process of theological and societal reconciliation.