Secularism and democracy, By Ishtiaq Ahmed.


We have to assign purely secular functions to the state and hold the competing elites responsible for their actions. This is not possible if the state takes upon itself transcendental functions such as achieving individual and corporate salvation.

There is no word that evokes so much antipathy in mainstream Pakistani political parlance as does secularism. This propensity probably originates in a basic error by Jamaluddin Afghani who translated secularism as "La-dinyat" or anti-religious. Taking his cue from Afghani, Allama Iqbal also adopted an inimical position on secularism. In his six lectures "The Reconstruction of Religious Thought in Islam" delivered in the late 1920s, Iqbal tried to prove that all reality was ultimately spiritual and, therefore, science with its empirical methodology was incapable of fathoming the ultimate truth. He consequently propounded the notion of a "spiritual democracy" as the proper framework for a Muslim polity and expressly rejected secularism as a necessary precondition for democracy.

The political implications of such formulations were such that people as diverse as the fundamentalist Abul Ala Maududi (who propounded the term "theo-democracy") and the rationalist Ghulam Ahmed Perwez (who suggested the idea of "Quranic democracy") remained essentially opposed to both secularism and democracy. This was an unfortunate development.

Historically some secular states and ideologies have been hostile to religion. One can even argue that whereas a secular state need not be a democracy a democracy must be secular in order to be a consistent, coherent and substantive political formula. Therefore, I would like to propose that secularism should be understood as a political norm prescribing religious neutrality on the part of the state with regard to the rights and status of citizens. Unless such an approach is adopted by the Muslim world in general and Pakistan in particular we will remain woefully alienated from the rest of the world.

At present there are more than 50 independent Muslim-majority states. None of them can possibly be an object of pride when compared to the state systems created elsewhere in the world. Islam is not particularly irreconcilable with a modern democratic state. Rather, one can make a universal statement that all religious states are based on discriminatory values and practices. It could be worthwhile to supplant the notion of a spiritual democracy with a more tangible and practical political formula in tune with current democratic thinking.

I would like to elaborate the notion of a secular rights-based democracy. This would be the appropriate framework for the Muslim world to move forward in a progressive manner. One can begin with the provocative statement that a democracy can be dangerous if clear and inviolable laws protecting the human rights of individuals and group rights of historically disadvantaged groups do not hedge it. The reason is that in a minimum sense democracy means the right of the majority to make binding decisions on behalf of the whole populace. Thus technically if a majority of the people of Pakistan were to decide that all men should grow beards and all non-Muslims should be put to death such a decision would be consonant with the minimum meaning of democracy.

I need not point out that such a decision would be grossly inappropriate with regard to the current connotations of democracy, which put a high premium on the rights of individuals and of minorities to enjoy equality, liberty and protection. It is the secular aspect which enables democracy to respect the rights of all individuals and people.

Consequently I would like to propose the following definition of a secular rights-based democratic state: A secular rights-based democracy guarantees individual and corporate freedom of religion, deals with the individual as a citizen irrespective of his religion, is not constitutionally connected to a particular religion nor does it seek either to promote or interfere with religion.

Why should such a state be preferred to another type of state? A number of reasons can be proffered in support, but I would give priority to the following argument: all states are in reality secular entities. Any metaphysical function claimed by the state can only be sustained through belief and is therefore a matter of speculation at best.

On the other hand, the origins of the state are rooted in the functional needs of societies to establish a common authority to efficiently perform functions which individuals or small groups cannot. Most significantly it refers to the division of labour with a view to producing things and objects that make possible a higher level of civilisation than what is possible on the individual or local level. Historically the ruling classes have been able to extract advantages from the state. This advantage could be purely materialistic as happens under capitalism or it can be in terms of distribution of power and influence or both as has happened in theocratic and totalitarian states. The accumulated historical experience from all directions seems to suggest that a perfect society or utopia in which all inequalities and asymmetries have been removed is not realisable. Therefore one has to look for a formula which, on the one hand, is universal and inclusive and, on the other, open to public scrutiny and censure. It should ensure that no one elite rules forever and it should establish rules which require that various elite factions compete for a mandate from the people to rule.

In this regard, we have to assign purely secular functions to the state and hold the competing elites responsible for their actions. This is not possible if the state takes upon itself transcendental functions such as achieving individual and corporate salvation. The secular rights-based democracy provides ample opportunity for all its citizens to pursue freely their quest for salvation in the private sphere while it caters for the rational common interests of all citizens. The common interests are of course the need for security, fulfilment of material needs, the provision of educational facilities and medical care, proper reward for physical and intellectual labour and other such items.

In an intellectual sense, it means that reality should be seen as both spiritual and material with different methodologies and standards applied to experience them and study them. Spiritual truth cannot be extricated from metaphysical phenomena and therefore it should be subjected to the requirements of faith and belief, but material truth should be subjected to experimentation and testing. A secular rights-based democracy can best allow both types of truths to flourish.

The author is an associate professor of Political Science at Stockholm University. He is the author of two books. His email address is

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