Channel NewsAsia

Ideological battle brews in Pakistan between religious, secular factions

From the outset, a large number of Pakistanis believe that the country should become an Islamic state, but many others strongly contest the idea.

ISLAMABAD: Pakistan's top religious body, the Council of Islamic Ideology, is not new to controversies.

It recently spoke in favour of child marriage and asked the government to review a law that requires a man to seek permission from his wife before marrying another woman.

An ideological battle has been brewing in Pakistan between the religious and secular factions of society.

From the outset, a large number of its people believe that the country should become an Islamic state.

But many others strongly contest the idea, arguing that the country's religious and ethnic diversity requires it to be a secular and democratic state.

This ideological conflict was brought to the fore with recent controversies over some rulings of the Council of Islamic Ideology.

The Council was established to review Pakistan's existing legislation to be in line with religious shariah laws.

But many analysts believe its constitutional mandate is against the principles of the modern nation-state.

"It's not the state's business to decide one or another interpretation of Islam … The state has to legislate on the basis that it is a secular entity and that everyone in this state, regardless of their religion, is a Pakistani with equal rights.

“That, in fact, is a very clear message of the founder of this nation,” said Ejaz Haider, a political commentator.

The Council's recommendations have been criticised within the country's liberal circles.

It recently challenged a law that prohibits child marriage, claiming that it was against the spirit of Islam.

It also declared in the past that DNA tests were not acceptable as primary evidence in rape cases.

In addition, the council requested the government to fire all civil servants who were not regular in their prayers.

None of the Council's recommendations are binding on the government.

Yet, its members have managed to kick up a political storm in the country with the controversial rulings.

"The liberal-secular sections of the Pakistani society feel that there has been an encroachment on their rights as citizens of Pakistan. This is also something the minorities feel,” said Ejaz Haider.

Even some of the Council members are not happy with its performance. According to one of them, the country's top Islamic body has lost its significance since it has been used as a "political tool" by the ruling elite.

"In my opinion, the Council of Islamic Ideology should be reinvented. It should include people who understand religion and worldly affairs… I'm not accusing its members but, at present, a sick mindset prevails in the Council.

“This institution will not be able to progress without eradicating that mindset,” said Tahir Ashrafi, a member of the Council of Islamic Ideology.

The Council's chairman, Maulana Sherani, did not entertain Channel NewsAsia's interview requests for several days, even though he was present in Islamabad and the Council was not in session.

Pakistan has been fighting against religious extremism for many years. However, it has also been coddling those clerics who have frequently displayed a highly medieval mindset.

The question is -- does the country need scholars who can synthesise religion and modernity, or does it need those clergies who do not, and want to take it many centuries back in time? 

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