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Asian Tribune is published by World Institute For Asian Studies|Powered by WIAS Vol. 12 No. 2524

Pakistan and Sri Lanka versus secularism

By Janaka Perera

On Pakistan’s 62nd Independence anniversary last week her High Commissioner in Sri Lanka Shaheen A Gilani issued a statement that is of special significance to us in South Asia. He said his government and the Pakistani people are committed to achieving the goal of making their country a moderate, progressive, democratic, self-reliant and Islamic welfare state.

This brings into question the theory that it is only a secular state can serve the cause of social progress. Secularism is essentially a Western concept. For many years the West has been trying to market the idea that without secularism society stagnates – that human rights and democracy cannot be guaranteed. Religious extremism resulting in bloody conflicts and human rights violations the world has seen over the centuries in varying degrees has undoubtedly helped to boost secularist views.

These are rooted in the contradictions within European societies that witnessed intensifying conflicts between the Christian churches and social and political reformers since the Middle Ages. The watershed in this struggle was of course the French Revolution that inspired other revolutionaries and thinkers over the next two centuries.

The outcomes of these upheavals were both positive and negative. Marxism which called religion the opium of the masses, soon became a religion itself, breaking into ‘sects’. It preached a heaven on this earth – the classless and stateless society. But today – except for a few Trotskyite loonies - communists themselves no longer believe in such fantasies. Instead traditional religions are experiencing revival in Eastern Europe, China, Laos and Vietnam

India at independence was compelled to declare herself a secular state primarily because of the large Muslim population there - the largest in a non-Islamic country, But that ‘secularism’ has not succeeded in preventing India’s periodic Hindu-Muslim clashes over the past six decades or marginalizing Hindu zealots like Bal Thakaray. In the first place it was not secularism that led to partition but Hindu-Moslem rivalry. Before the European colonizers arrived the Muslim Mogul Empire extended from the North to almost to the Southern tip of the Indian subcontinent.

Although Pakistan as a State is not more than six decades old Sri Lanka’s cultural links with that land area go back to over two thousand years of years. Islamabad’s non-secular political vision has not prevented the Pakistan Government from protecting the Buddhist heritage of Gandhara, although there is no Buddhist community as such in that country today.

It was in Gandhara that a sculptural representation of the Buddha first emerged during the rule of Indo-Greek kings who finally embraced Buddhism. The statues - inspired by Greco-Roman art – became an inspiration for Buddhist art in Sri Lanka and other Asian Buddhist countries. Buddhist monks and scholars who traveled to Central Asia, China, Korea and Japan introduced Gandhara Art to those countries. The name Gandhara is virtually synonymous with Buddhist art and culture throughout the world. During Gandhara Week 2007 Pakistan's then Tourism Minister said, "We welcome people from all over the world to see the place that our history originates from."

The Islamic Government fully recognizes the religious freedom of the Hindu, Christian and other religious minorities in that country. Government policy has not prevented people from wearing fashionable clothes or building an entertainment industry.

Of course like many other countries Pakistan too has her a lunatic fringe that in the name of religion opposes the government’s progressive policies. But they have little clout among the large majority of Pakistan’s population.

We hope that Islamabad would continue to pursue her progressive policies in the spirit of those initiated by Mogul Emperor Akbar the Great (1556 to 1605) – ‘divine’ ruler, lover of nature and the arts, expert sportsman and philosopher. He practiced an unprecedented kindness, compassion and reverence for many religious other than his own Islamic faith.

Japan was forced to adopt a secular constitution because of her defeat in World War II. But from the dawn of the 20th Century to 1945 Japan was able to compete with the West under a non-secular Constitution centered on Emperor Worship.

A non-secular State does not necessarily mean a theocracy that has no tolerance for different religions. Sri Lanka, Pakistan, Bhutan, Nepal and Malaysia are good examples

Sri Lanka’s Constitution which gives special recognition to Buddhism has not prevented Hindus, Muslims or Christians from freely practicing their respective religions. The President himself often attends important functions held by the various religious organizations.

Yet there are some ‘civil rights’ and political groups that insist that this country should go secular. But the problem is will such secularism lead to a situation where like in Denmark, France and UK where people will be given the freedom to put up Buddha statues in liquor bars and call them ‘Buddha bars’ or draw newspaper caricatures of Prophet Mohamed?

Robin Waterfield in his Rene Guenon and the Future of the West gives an excellent insight to the issue of secularism. He clearly notes the West separated spirit from matter and created categories that did not traditionally exist in the East – notably separation between sacred and secular, between god and man, between heaven and earth, between mind and matter, body and spirit. None of these divisions were taken as valid in the East. There people maintained a remarkable way of unity with distinctions within that unity, but no divisions which destroy the unity.

East and West, according to Waterfield, are not primarily geographical or even cultural distinctions. They are symbols of two different fundamental attitudes towards reality. Yet the belief that the Western civilization is the highest and most successful embodiment of legitimate human resources is still maintained, although with increasing doubt and difficulty.

Civilizations adapt to one another. Says Dr. Chandra Muzaffar, Malaysian political scientist and Director of the Just World Trust:

“Islam for instance, through centuries of exchange with the West, laid the foundation for the growth of mathematics, science and medicine, agriculture, industry, architecture and so on in medieval Europe. Today, some of the leading ideas and institutions which have gained currency within the Muslim world whether politics or in economics, are imports from the West… The different civilizations embody many similar values and ideals. At the philosophical level at least Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Islam, Judaism, Sikhism and Taoism among other world religions share certain common perspectives on the relationship between the human being and his environment, the integrity of the community, the importance of the family, the significance of moral leadership[ and indeed the meaning and purpose of life” (Third World Network Features 1994).

No country in the world is one hundred percent equally multi-religious or multicultural. There is always a predominant culture and civilization that has evolved over the centuries and forms the basis of a country’s national identity. The problem starts when section of the citizenry refuses to identify with it or challenges that cultural norm, sometimes instigated by political elements and foreign backing. Sri Lanka is among the countries that have been victims of this trend.

- Asian Tribune -

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