Space is said to be the final frontier. The world is preparing to go to Mars. Even our neighbouring country, India, has sent a successful Mars probe. Yet there seems to be no serious discussion on the future in Pakistan. This is despite the fact that Pakistan’s space programme predates the Indian space programme by almost a decade. It was in 1961 that the Science adviser to the then President Ayub Khan, the great Dr Abdus Salam, advised the government of Pakistan to initiate the space sciences wing of the Pakistan Atomic Energy Commission. Within one year of this, Dr Salam had managed to launch two rockets into the upper atmosphere and Pakistan became only the third country to have achieved this milestone. Soon thereafter Space and Upper Atmosphere Research Corporation (SUPARCO) was created as a separate body. In his efforts Dr Abdus Salam was aided by another great son of Pakistan, the Polish born Air Commodore WJM Turowicz. Since the 1970s SUPARCO has gone downwards with nothing to its credit.
Pakistan was a different country before the 1970s. Talent was respected and religious controversies were just not important. No one questioned the allegiance of people on the basis of theology. What was important was whether or not one performed. Even though Pakistan was an Islamic Republic since 1956, there were no religious tests prescribed for loyalty. Under the 1973 Constitution, especially after 1974’s amendment, all of this changed. Despite promises of equality to all citizens, the very nature of citizenship underwent a profound change. This was followed by the so-called Islamisation of the 1980s, which narrowed the little space there was for patriotic citizens who thought or believed differently from the majority. Two of Pakistan’s greatest heroes, Zafrullah Khan and Dr Abdus Salam, are now widely reviled because of their faith. This is the trajectory that we have followed. I call it “so-called Islamisation” or even a cheap attempt to confuse the people because those who have sought to force their narrow minded interpretation of religion on the body politic of Pakistan have missed out entirely on the higher purposes or the maqasid of Islam. The main underpinning of Islamic doctrine is the provision of social justice not imposition of a few eye wash punishments or to prohibit the free exercise of faith or free speech. By conflating Islam with the latter our Islamists have done the great faith a major disservice. Compare this to the progress of Ennahdha in Tunisia, where since the 2011 revolution, the party has transformed itself from an Islamist party to a Muslim democratic party. This was a party that had stood up for Islamic identity since 1981. However on achieving power it did not insist on any departure from constitutionalism and fundamental rights. How one wishes our Islamists were like Rached Ghannouchi but instead we are stuck with people like Khadim Rizvi who block roads, call for killings in the name of religion and use the choicest abuses against their opponents.
There is nothing in Islam that it is incompatible with modern democracy so long as the modern democracy does not prohibit its exercise. A Muslim majority state that is democratic and allows its citizens to freely practise their faith, whether it be Islam or any other faith, is so far as Islam is concerned perfectly Islamic. What constitutes free exercise of Islam is also an important question. It does not mean for example that a Muslim majority state cannot place restrictions on such practices it deems to have a compelling interest in prohibiting. Allama Iqbal famously said that such a Muslim majority state could even prohibit polygamy and that would be considered ijtehad. Free exercise means the practice of those tenets that are central to Islamic faith. In order to be a good Muslim you do not need to marry more than once. Therefore, polygamy is not a central tenet of Islam. Similarly giving women equal rights as citizens is not a violation of this centrality. Islam gave women rights when there were no guaranteed rights for women.
How then can Islam be said to stand in the way of gender equality? Pakistan’s Constitution promises equality of citizenship regardless of religion, ethnic origin and gender but in practice these rights are not given due to this damnable mindset that our so called Islamists are carrying on with.
This brings me to another issue that has been of grave concern. Since the 1980s every Pakistani citizen who wants to list Islam as his religion on official documents has to sign a statement declaring Ahmadis as Non-Muslims and the founder of their community as an “imposter”. It was this declaration that became the bone of contention last year. If indeed it is the position that Khatm-e-Nabuwat is sine qua non to the Muslim faith — a position that itself is contestable given evidence to the contrary from Islamic history- surely the statement of such a position can be made in neutral terms. A neutral declaration may include that you do not consider any person after Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) to be a prophet in any sense of the word. This would achieve the purpose. However, to force people to sit in judgment over the beliefs of a class of people by name simply reinforces the hatred and bigotry against them. The great irony therefore is that the statement as a Muslim on official documents including passports does not include Kalima Shahada. On the contrary includes the name of Mirza Ghulam Ahmad Quadiani, whose negation seems to be more central to the Islamic creed than the basic statement of profession taught to us by Holy Prophet Muhammad (PBUH). I had the opportunity of discussing this with an Arab scholar of Islamic Law at Harvard who described this state of affairs as horrifying. From a purely Islamic point of view this statement introduced by the Pakistani government amounts to ‘bidah’ and an alteration of the Kalima. This is what happens when the state tries to legislate on the basis of religion. It ends up denigrating the religion itself.
I have always believed in the potential of Pakistan to be that great state that ushers in a Muslim renaissance and reformation through becoming a truly great democracy. That will not happen unless we ensure that Islam is not instrumentalised as a tool of oppression of minorities and women. As we go into the election season, is it too much to ask that some political party takes up the cause of a truly progressive idea of Islam?