- A global shift towards theocracy?
An Indian member of parliament and opposition party leader struck a controversy recently when he blamed the ruling party of destroying the country’s policy of secular government, and that its securing another term by winning the next elections would mean the creation of a ‘Hindu Pakistan’!
Shashi Tharoor, known for his unflinching hatred for imperialism and the British raj in particular, suggested that BJP’s – India’s ruling party – idea of creating a ‘Hindu Rashtra’ is a mirror image of Pakistan, ‘where rights of minorities are suppressed’.
While Pakistanis were too busy gearing up for their elections to lodge a complaint, the comment in India led to a heated verbal duel in its parliament and beyond. Tharoor’s remark stems from the fact that since Narendra Modi became India’s prime minister in 2014, there has been a spike in religious violence. Lynching of Muslims for carrying beef has become rather common in the country. Muslims have been harassed during Friday prayers when they spread mats on a street and in another occasion, were about to break their fast during Ramazan on the street. There has been an open talk of revising the country’s curriculum, where the Mughal heritage has been blamed for not being Indian and hence not worthy to be included. There has even been controversy about Taj Mahal not being a tourist icon.
The founder of Pakistan, Muhammad Ali Jinnah, having used the Two Nation theory successfully to campaign his separatist movement, wished to run the country on secular grounds
But how appropriate was the move by Tharoor to drag a neighbouring country’s name to prove his point is a serious debate and his allegations against Pakistan are also a matter of grave concern. More importantly, they are a witness to a global trend, which is a shift towards using religion in running the affairs of a nation and also power politics; in other words, theocracy.
The founder of Pakistan, Muhammad Ali Jinnah, having used the Two Nation theory successfully to campaign his separatist movement, wished to run the country on secular grounds. An astute visionary, he knew that if minorities in Pakistan are not treated as equal citizens, it would lead to a situation similar to what Muslims were facing in pre-partition India. His aspirations were no different from Mustafa Kamal Pasha, the founder of secular Turkey who was keen to break away from the decadence of the Ottoman Empire and grasp the modernity of Europe.
However, it wasn’t too long after the death of Jinnah that Pakistan began to tread on the path of becoming an Islamic State. From the adoption of Objectives Resolution in 1949 to the naming of the country as an Islamic Republic and introduction of the Sharia Council in the wide scale Islamisation movement by Zia ul Haq in the country, Pakistan increasingly brought religion in its affairs, with an overwhelming majority of Muslims throwing their weight around.
But how correctly did the country understand and enforce Islamic injunctions has remained the centre of many debates. Political agendas in Pakistan played a key role in the very definition of a true Muslim, resulting in demarcations of sects and their alleged persecutions. Enforcement of strict sharia laws without understanding their true theology or incorporating regional and societal factors, like in the case of the controversial law for punishing rapists where the victim was expected to produce eye witnesses, the compulsory deduction of zakat from Muslim bank account holders, the Qisas and Diyat ordinance where grieving relatives and survivors of a loved one murdered could be silenced with blood money and above all, the blasphemy law, has led to a confusing mingle of religious and civic laws.
Where do the non-Muslims stand in this scenario is another aspect. While maintaining their distinct identity and worshipping places to some extent, the fact remains that the minorities in Pakistan continue to be a shrinking community. From 23 percent in 1947, the population in Pakistan of religious minorities has decreased to around four percent of the population today. Despite them having reserved seats in the parliaments, reserved quotas in education and employment and having right to own property, non Muslims in Pakistan are not to be seen in the mainstream, with a few exceptions. They still claim to be facing threats of forced conversion, even after a legislation in at least the Sindh province denouncing the act.
The truth is, that while Pakistan is struggling to revive its democracy, it has been increasingly wishing to blend in theocracy in the hope of creating a modern Islamic state. But while Pakistan, for most part of its history, has undeniably sought the role of religion in governing the nation, there are other countries which are visibly making a shift from their secular background towards that of religious.
In Turkey, still one of the most modern Islamic states, where the citizens have openly embraced the western culture while holding proudly their Muslim heritage, many decisions taken by the Erdogan government show a tilt towards a religious base. Last year, the educational institutions of Turkey dropped altogether Darwinian evolution theory from their course books, terming it as ‘unnecessary’ and ‘confusing’. In an interview to The Washington Post, celebrated Turkish author Elif Shafak shared that ‘we will see an increase in Islamism and nationalism as dominant ideologies, spreading through society and reshaping the education system… Turkey now has a much more religious, nationalistic education system’.
But an even more pronounced blend of authoritarianism and religion influenced government decision was seen in the United States of America, a centuries old secular nation, when Donald Trump’s decision to separate families illegally immigrating in the US was justified with a Biblical verse by the attorney general, Jeff Sessions, suggesting that ‘God supports the government’. Those in Trump’s cabal insist Americans must obey their president because ‘God had him elected’, prompting British journalist Mehdi Hassan to dub the US as ‘Trump’s Caliphate’ and his congressmen as ‘Christian Taliban’.
In Thailand, with its 2017 constitution the government’s approach towards religion has taken a radical turn. Although 93 percent of the population is Buddhist, Thailand allows the free exercise of other religious beliefs. In 1997 and again in 2007, a group of Buddhists campaigned for Buddhism to become the official state religion. The constitutional drafters rejected such requests for fear of breaking religious harmony and raising social tension.
The 2017 mandate, however, can be seen as a compromise. The Constitution now requires that ‘the state only direct its assistance to the Theravada school of Buddhism and that the government guard Buddhism against all forms of desecration’.
And the world knows that Myanmar, which also does not have a state religion, openly assists its Buddhist practitioners, who with an aim of ethnic cleansing, have been viciously torturing and forcing the Muslim followers in an exodus.
Muyiwa Kayode, a Nigerian writes about his country in The Guardian that ‘This criminal alliance between our political and religious leaders has turned our democracy into a pseudo-theocracy with the sole objective of perpetual deceit. It has indeed evolved into the biggest scam known to man as it has subjected the world’s largest black population to perennial poverty and slavery’.
Coming back to India, from where my argument started, while Shashi Tharoor compared his country’s present situation with Pakistan probably to gain immediate attention, the Indian media itself was quick to remind him that his Congress party has to take blame for the mostly intolerant society that India has become. For it was the Congress government which was responsible for the shocking anti Sikh riots in 1984 and raid on the Golden Temple. And when Hindu priests in Ayodhya suddenly marched to raze Babri Masjid and also started praying there, it was also under a Congress regime.
Nevertheless, Tharoor did find some support for India to go back to secular grounds, when the same media opined explicitly. ‘Civilisations, we are told, start as theocracies and end up as democracies. This is a historical fact, and it needs to be heeded, even if the mouthpieces of theocracy clamour, “faith is above facts”. For a democracy to regress to theocracy is thus disastrous, like progressing from determining truth through an examination of evidence to divining it by the entrails of birds, as in ancient Athens’.