Last week, as reported in the press, during the Supreme Court proceedings involving the matter of constitutionality of twenty-first amendment, an incidental question arose whether Pakistan could be made a secular state? If so, how? Hamid Khan, a celebrated lawyer representing different bar associations, proposed the solution of referendum. One of the judges on the bench raised the point if parliament could declare Pakistan a constitutional state. The judge highlighted a significant issue remarking, ‘people and their ideologies change with the passage of time.’ This is a welcome debate, but, before that, an aspect that needs to be widely debated to clear up misconceptions in our society is why Pakistan should be a secular country? I would make the case for an ‘impartial secular’ state where ‘it refrains from officially endorsing any one religious creed, adopting a stance of impartiality towards all’. I out rightly reject the strand of ‘militant secularism’ where the state is officially promoting atheism or secularism through state action, as I dismiss militant religiosity.

My first argument is that secularism is the only means to provide guarantee of religious freedom to all sections of society. The separation of state and religion averts the possibility of a single religion monopolising the state machinery and coercing followers of other faiths into submission. The scenario of various religious sects fighting for domination of state is also avoided. A secular polity provides enabling environment for all its citizens to practice their respective religious beliefs in peace and fairness.

Second, the affiliation of state with a specific religion strengthens the impression that privileged treatment will be given to the adherents of religion of the majority while others will be at the receiving end, when it comes to the allocation of public resources, dispensation of justice or appointments to public offices. The constitutional guarantee of ‘equality of citizens’ in Pakistan is rendered ineffective when the public offices of the Prime Minister and the President have been restricted for Muslims.

A secular state does not deny religious identity to its people. It just does not advantage or disadvantage anyone one the basis of belief or lack of belief. Nobody will be classified as a second-class citizen and all will enjoy freedom to choose the way of their life. Neither a particular belief shall be established by the state nor atheism will be imposed. Secularism is simply a framework for ensuring equality throughout society – in politics, education, the law and elsewhere, for believers and non-believers alike.

Third, the skeptics point to the danger that a secular Pakistan will be an immoral or amoral state. But they miss the point that a secular state helps flourish the precepts of morality on more sound and logical bases. In a secular Pakistan, the religious establishment will not be able to dictate the code of morality on their skewed interpretation of a scripture. Rather this decision will be left to the general public that will make informed choices after an open and wide debate on different issues. The biggest benefit of a secular environment is that it allows free inquiry into different realms, without constraint. We have witnessed sharp division in our ‘religious state’ on dogmatic grounds while a secular society provides the grounds for uniting, across the artificial divides, invoking common humanistic values.

The Dalai Lama summed up the best defense of secularism in 2006 as, “Secularism does not mean rejection of all religions. It means respect for all religions and human beings including non-believers. Cultivating secular ethics - which has nothing to do with religion - benefits all human beings. Strengthening inner values of warm-heartedness and compassion benefits both believers and non-believers in leading a happy and meaningful life. Love and compassion attracts, hatred and anger repels.” In a secular Pakistan, there will be fewer incidents like that of Joseph Colony or the forced conversion of Hindus or the mass killing of Shias after checking their identity cards.

Fourth, the defenders of state religion rest their case on the ideological foundations of the country. But the argument is not sound as there will be no logical contradiction if a state established in the name of Islam chooses to have no state religion thereafter. The use of religious slogan for creation of Pakistan was just like the use of scaffolding for construction of a building. After the completion of construction work, the scaffolds must be removed or they will obscure the view. Thus, in today’s Pakistan, the 97 percent population of Muslims living here should not feel the need for state protection to preserve their religious freedom.