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Obama, Bhagwandas and the Battle for a Secular Politics

A fierce debate rages on at least one Pakistani internet discussion forum proposing Justice (Retired) Rana Bhagwandas as General (Retired) Musharraf’s replacement presidential candidate. In reality, this is not likely to happen. Not likely because Justice Bhagwandas has expressed no desire to step into Musharraf’s shoes. But also not likely because Bhagwandas belongs to the minority Hindu faith in a country where ninety-five percent of the population is Muslim.

His religion is of little consequence to his supporters, of which there are many. Justice Bhagwandas was not well-known prior to March 2007, when President Musharraf declared Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry “non functional”. Justice Bhagwandas hence took over as acting Chief Justice and presided over the Supreme Judicial Council that was to decide on the reference against Justice Chaudhry. The Supreme Judicial Council, under Justice Bhagwandas’ leadership, restored Justice Chaudhry and absolved him of all corruption charges alleged in the reference.

As a result, Justice Bhagwandas’ own popularity and respect amongst the people of Pakistan soared, most of whom saw Musharraf’s move against Chaudhry as an attack by an overly powerful executive on a judiciary desperately trying to assert its independence. Justice Chaudhry was reinstated in July, only to be deposed again in November. This time, he was not alone. In fact, sixty percent of Pakistan’s superior judiciary, including Justice Bhagwandas, refused to take oath under Musharraf’s Provisional Constitutional Order and was thus placed under house arrest.

A few weeks ago, Justice Bhagwandas retired and was allowed to return to his home in Karachi. He returned to his native city as a hero. Ironically, even hard-liners like Qazi Hussain Ahmad, leader of the Jamaat Islami, sing his praises and are at a loss for words when more liberal-minded Pakistanis ask him to acknowledge that the provision in the Pakistani Constitution, inserted at the behest of parties like the Jamaat, mandating that only a Muslim be allowed to become President and Prime Minister is shameful.

The secularists, for their part, are vindicated by Justice Bhagwandas’ honourable role in the recent judicial crisis. They cite the speeches of Mohammed Ali Jinnah and insist that Pakistan was not meant to be a theocratic state, but one where Pakistanis of all faiths would contribute equally to society. In his keynote address on 11 August 1947, Jinnah, Pakistan’s founding father, described his vision for Pakistan by stating that “In due course of time, Hindus will cease to be Hindus and Muslims will cease to be Muslims, not in the religious sense, because that is the personal faith of each individual, but in the political sense as citizens of the state.”

Remarkably similar reasoning has been offered by American founding fathers. James Madison, for example, commented that the “the [religious] devotion of the people has been manifestly increased by the total separation of the church from the state.”

Supreme Court Justice Hugo Black moreover best expressed the purpose and function of the Establishment Clause when he said that it rests “on the belief that a union of government and religion tends to destroy government and degrade religion.”

One is forced to question therefore if we, both in the Islamic world and in the Christian world, are straying from the guiding principles set by our founding fathers. Are we in fact losing the battle for secular politics and paving the way for religious clash and inept government? Isn’t it peculiar that in an age of globalization and technological advancement we seem to be more close-minded and less inclusive than visionaries who lived in a far less diverse age?

It is curious also that just as the internet has become a catalyst for fresh and new ideas in Pakistan and a rallying point for its youth, in the US, the internet is being used to launch smear campaigns and cast fear and doubt amongst a population almost ready to set aside race, gender and identity politics in its quest for change.

Barack Obama has to repeatedly fight off untruths about his faith, and assert his Christian connection so forcefully that even American Muslims are sympathetic to the fierce urgency of his disengagement. After all, “Islam” and “Muslim” are almost dirty words in the post 9/11 western world and no politician can run the risk of any such association.

Wouldn’t it be nice, however, if Obama could have said, “My faith is a personal matter and not relevant to the election or my credentials as a patriotic American.”

AYESHA IJAZ KHAN is a London-based lawyer and writer and can be contacted via her website www.ayeshaijazkhan.com

 

 

 

 

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Ayesha Khan is a lawyer and author of “Rodeo Drive to Raja Bazaar“.  Twitter:  @ayeshaijazkhan  Website:  www.ayeshaijazkhan.com

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