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Separation of Religion and State
The First Principle to Eliminate Religious Violence and Build a Nation

by Zafar Khizer


Principle of Intellectual Freedom or Separation of Religion and State

Intellectual freedom is an essential principle followed by all developed countries. Without separating religion and state, a country cannot provide intellectual freedom to its people. People would otherwise not be free to think about and accept any idea they choose.  It is everyone’s fundamental right.


A country which keeps religion separate from state does not curb freedom of belief or expression. It does not promote or suppress any creed. It would intervene only if any actions, individual or collective, violate these rights. A citizen or a group may not use the state’s coercive powers to promote or hinder any ideas, faith or place of worship. If a citizen wants to hinder or support an idea, he must argue his case with others, not enact a law. Government has no power to persecute or establish religious ideas. No one, including those in government, may force their ideas on anyone.


So the principle of intellectual freedom or separation of religion and state is the first principle to follow if a country wants to BUILD A NATION and provide a fertile ground for scientific innovation and thus economic development. The ideas which initiated and maintained of Western society’s prosperity originated in the mind of a few geniuses, people who truly are one in a million. A country needs these people more than they need the country.


Countries that ignore this simple principle watch helplessly as the intellectuals and creative individuals including entrepreneurs and inventors flee the country and religious extremism spreads. That converts a country into a mindless and abrasive society in which masses believe in violent enforcement of their ideas rather than in rational discussion. Such societies that are non-modern or traditional retain tribal and feudal structures so people are often seen not as individuals but as members of families, clans, ethnic groups or religions. The concept of ghairat (honor) gets primacy over logic or reasoning. The eventual effect is a divided nation, without rule of law, violence, and economic disaster resulting in poverty and unemployment at a mass scale.

It takes Centuries to Separate Religion and State

Separation of religion and state and intellectual freedom are the major factors in the evolution of Europe from the dark ages to the modern era. If one of the main factors for a country to grow is intellectual power of its people, then one of the main factors for a country to be backward is a lack of intellectual freedom.

It should be of no surprise to people that ALL developed countries where, poverty and unemployment are at the minimum level, the state is able to take care of basic needs of its citizens, provide them opportunities to prosper, can protect the basic rights of people, and all religions are practiced and can grow in a peaceful environment, are secular in practice*.

Secularism means separation of the state from religious institutions. It also means that people of different religions and beliefs are equal before the law. Secularism ensures that religious groups don't interfere in affairs of state, and makes sure the state doesn't interfere in religious affairs.

Secularism is a model of state in which government is not under the control of a religious authority, and no religious groups or individuals are having their religious practice and beliefs, or non-belief, dictated by the government.

Only secularism can guarantee religious freedom for all.

So how long did it take the people of Europe to finally adopt the principle of the separation of church and state?  More than a few centuries.

Today in Europe (and other developed countries) words like heresy and blasphemy are most commonly used in a satirical context, but for five hundred years before 1600, they struck fear in every European soul. Anything a person said that displeased or challenged the power of church including but not limited to questioning its authority, its belief or its wealth could be punished by death by burning alive or by using the “old iron maid” and revolving knives.

Till the last days of the medieval period (1300 - 1500), the church held the kind of absolute ideological power that might have been envied by Stalin or Hitler. Punishment of reading any book not licensed by the Church such as a scientific book was punishable by death. On February 17, 1600, Italian philosopher Giordano Bruno was burned alive at the stake by the Church because he agreed with Polish astronomer Copernicus that the earth was in fact, not the center of the universe but rather itself revolved around the Sun.

Blinded with irrational and passionate faith in their ideology, religious extremists (Catholic vs. Protestant and Protestant vs. Protestant) killed each other in religious wars for almost one hundred years. Only then, when they became exhausted and weakened, countries were able to become tolerant and secular.

The power of the Church to control the minds of people kept the world in dark ages for about one thousand years. The clergy were about the only literate part of the community. They expected illiteracy and blind obedience from most of the population. It helped them control people’s minds and money. It might be the reason that it did not bother the average person of sixteenth-century in Europe that no real social, intellectual or scientific advancement had occurred for a thousand years.

[All the religious leaders condemned the printing press (1453) as a satanic device. The printing press helped average people to be literate, read and discuss Scripture themselves in Europe. But the printing press was banned for about a few centuries by Ottoman Empire at the behest of religious leaders. A newspaper was published in the 1870s, but was banned a few weeks later. Christians did not listen to their clergy because of enlightenment, Jews did not listen to their clergy either because it made record keeping in business much easier. Only the Muslims listened to the Mullah.]


Institutions Required for Economic Growth


I am paraphrasing the following from the famous book Birth of Plenty by William Bernstein:

Prosperity is NOT ACHIEVED merely by possessing hydroelectric dams, roads, telephone wires, factories, fertile farmlands, or even great quantities of money. Nor can prosperity be transplanted from one nation to another simply by transferring the key components of an economic infrastructure. In all but the most exceptional cases, national prosperity is not about physical objects or natural resources. Rather, it is about institutions – the framework within which human beings think, interact, and carry on business. Four such institutions stand out as prerequisite for economic growth:


    - Secure property rights, not only for physical property, but also for intellectual property and one’s own person – civil liberties


    - Reason: Scientific Rationalism/method – A systematic procedure for examining and interpreting the world


    - The Modern Capital Marketplace: A widely available and open source of funding for the development and production of new inventions


    - Fast and Efficient Communications and Transportation

In an Islamic country where the state enforces religious laws, at least three out of the above four factors will be absent. There will be no intellectual freedom or civil liberties for minorities. Laws will be made based on faith and not on reason and modern capital marketplace cannot be created as collecting interest is not allowed in Islam.


Religion and State in Pakistan


The Blasphemy law in Pakistan (in its current form) was enacted by the army dictator Zia-ul-Haq at the instance of religious parties. Majority of Pakistani and other Muslims believe that anyone who “insults” the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) must be punished by death. With blind obedience to religious leaders, not many people of the country are aware of the fact that even a non-Muslim in Pakistan who says (what he believes) that he does not consider the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) a prophet from God or Quran a book from God will be put in jail, tried and be liable to be punished by death.


The blasphemy law does not offer guidance on what constitutes blasphemy, no standards for evidence, no requirement to prove intent, and no safeguards to punish those who make the false allegations. Essentially, the standard for blasphemy is whatever offends the accuser. Accuser and witnesses can refuse to repeat the alleged blasphemy in court, in case they themselves become culpable. The law has created and facilitated a culture of intolerance and vigilantism. As soon as someone is accused of blasphemy, he lives under the threat of death. At least 52 people accused of blasphemy have been killed since 1990. Many were killed by angry mobs before they were convicted.


How is this ideological blindness any different from what the Church and their followers were doing a few hundred years ago?


Take the example of Dr. Abdus Salam, the first and only Nobel Prize winning “Muslim” Pakistani. He was the pride of Muslims all over the world and a pride for Pakistan. Then Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, in order to placate the religious leaders, gave in to their demand and made a law to declare Ahmadis non-Muslims. Overnight Dr. Salam, our most prominent scientist and all his sect members became second class citizens in their own country. They would be jailed if they claim or behave as Muslims, preach their faith and use Islamic terms for their places of worship and religious rituals.

Religion and Feudalism in Pakistan: Except for slavery, no other system denied property rights and individual liberty for masses as medieval feudalism did. Feudalism in Pakistan is not much different from what it was in Europe centuries ago. One of the major obstacles to abolish feudalism in Pakistan is the Federal Shariat Court which issued a fatwa that abolition of feudalism was un-Islamic.

Turkey, Indonesia, Malaysia and India

Turkey, Indonesia and Malaysia stand out as growing democratic Muslim countries.

Turkey: Turkey is the most developed Muslim country today. Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, father of the Turks, abolished office of Caliphate and converted Islamic Ottoman Empire into a modern, democratic and secular state (1924.)

He said: “We must liberate our concepts of justice, our laws and our legal institutions from the bonds which, even though they are incompatible with the needs of our century, still hold a tight grip on us.” He also said: “The religion of Islam will be elevated if it will cease to be a political instrument, as had been the case in the past.”

His reforms included free and compulsory education for all children and giving equal rights to women that were breakthroughs not only within the Islamic world but also in the western world at that time. He said to the women: “Win for us the battle of education and you will do yet more for your country than we have been able to do. It is to you that I appeal.”

Indonesia and Malaysia:  Both countries are among ambiguous countries where it is not very clear if the state is Islamic or secular. However, there is intellectual freedom for all of their citizens and neither of these countries punishes a Muslim or non-Muslim by death for blasphemy, as Pakistan does.


The Constitution of Indonesia guarantees freedom of religion among Indonesians. Indonesia prohibits blasphemy by its Criminal Code. The Code’s Article 156(a) targets those who deliberately, in public, express feelings of hostility, hatred, or contempt against religions with the purpose of preventing others from adhering to any religion, and targets those who disgrace a religion. The penalty for violating Article 156(a) is a maximum of five years imprisonment.

In 1988, the Lord President of the Supreme Court, Salleh Abas described Malaysia as a secular state given that its laws are drafted based on the English common law.


Articles 295-298A of the Malaysian Penal Code provides penalties for those who commit offenses against religion. The penalties range from up to three years in prison or a fine of up to USD $1,000 (approximately). Prosecutions for blasphemy usually target those who offend Islam, but an insult to any religion can give rise to prosecution.

India: India with the second largest Muslim population in the world is officially a secular state (total separation of religion and state mandated by the constitution as in USA.) Like the USA’s founding fathers, India’s founding leaders were well aware of Europe’s history and had a very clear vision about separation of religion and state. Father of Pakistan, Muhammad Ali Jinnah also perfectly understood the importance of this concept as is evidenced by his August 11, 1947 speech but unfortunately, for political reasons or under the pressure from organized religion, in different speeches, he confused people about whether he wanted a secular or Islamic Pakistan.

Selected text from the Jinnah speech on August 11, 1947:
You are free; you are free to go to your temples, you are free to go to your mosques or to any other place of worship in this state of Pakistan. You may belong to any religion or caste or creed that has nothing to do with the business of the state. As you know, history shows that in England, conditions, some time ago, were much worse than those prevailing in India today. The Roman Catholics and the Protestants persecuted each other. Even now there are some states in existence where there are discriminations made and bars imposed against a particular class. Thank God, we are not starting in those days. We are starting in the days where there is no discrimination, no distinction between one community and another, no discrimination between one caste or creed and another. We are starting with this fundamental principle that we are all citizens and equal citizens of one state. The people of England in course of time had to face the realities of the situation and had to discharge the responsibilities and burdens placed upon them by the government of their country and they went through that fire step by step. Today, you might say with justice that Roman Catholics and Protestants do not exist; what exists now is that every man is a citizen, an equal citizen of Great Britain and they are all members of the nation. Now I think we should keep that in front of us as our ideal and you will find that in course of time Hindus would cease to be Hindus and Muslims would 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.


Jinnah also referred to religious minorities when he discussed the importance attached to Islam and Islamic principles in the new state:


“In any case Pakistan is not going to be a theocratic State to be ruled by priests with a divine mission. We have many non-Muslims—Hindus, Christians, and Parsis — but they are all Pakistanis. They will enjoy the same rights and privileges as any other citizens and will play their rightful part in the affairs of Pakistan.” 

(Broadcast talk to the people of the United States on Pakistan recorded February, 1948.)


Secular vs Religious Pakistan


In a religious country laws are created based on faith of the group in power and not by reason. No discussion is allowed. Anyone who questions religious laws may be killed by law, as was the case in Europe about 500 years ago or by people as is the case in Pakistan today. There may be bad laws in a secular country but discussion is allowed and laws can be changed as needed by the society, without a threat of life by a law.


For example, in Pakistan since Sharia laws were implemented, the following have been supported by laws:


- If an 11-year-old girl has started her menses, she can be treated before the court as an adult. (On the other hand, a boy is not treated as an adult before reaching the age of 18.) Therefore, if an 11-year-old girl is raped by a landlord, and she cannot prove that she was raped, she could be sentenced to death for committing adultery. She needs 4 male witnesses who saw rape with their own eyes. Four women witnesses are counted only as two.


- A man has right to kill his wife if she is found committing adultery.


- A killer can get away with a murder by paying (blood) money (Qesas) or their daughters to the victim’s family.


The vast majority of Pakistanis who support Pakistan as an Islamic rather than a secular country do not clearly understand that they are not only taking away religious liberty from all minority sects but also giving their own liberty to religious leaders. In a religious or non-secular country, a religious group in power may implement by law the following:


- Polio shots are not allowed.

- Studying philosophy, geometry, or leaning English are not allowed.

- Shias (or any other minority sect) can be declared kafir (not Muslim) and asked to leave, convert, or will be killed.

- No girls are allowed to go to schools.

- No women are allowed to work with men.

- Women must cover their faces and bodies or will be put in jail.

- A person who accepted Islam but now wants to leave this religion will be killed.

- No photos, movies, and TV will be allowed or may be used just for Islamic teaching.

- Women will not be allowed to vote or their votes will be counted as half.

- A ban on men and women mixing in public; an end to “shameless behavior and dresses. (Demands of religious groups in Bangladesh, April, 2013.)

None of the above is or can be allowed in a secular country. Many countries in Europe, for example, had faith-based (as interpreted by the religious group in power) laws similar to the above but they got rid of them eventually and became secular. It is clear from the history that a secular country means path towards reason, knowledge, science, liberty, peace, and prosperity. A religious country means path towards enforced faith, persecution, fear, violence, ignorance, poverty and disease.


So, do Pakistanis want to keep their liberty and live without religious fear or violence by making Pakistan a secular country or do they want to be controlled by religious leaders by making it a religious country?


Pakistan’s Future is in the Hands of its Young Generation

Pakistan’s visionless and corrupt politicians and army dictators as well as leaders of organized religion have failed to introduce the above mentioned four institutions necessary for economic development. In fact they have worked hard to neutralize movements for reform by enforcing religious laws and keeping feudalism in place. Pakistan is surviving on short term basis only on borrowed money. There is no rule of law. Religious extremism and violence is at its worst. Poverty and unemployment are getting worse every day.

This situation will not get any better unless the Pakistani nation makes Pakistan a secular state and abolishes feudalism. These are the minimal first steps.


International analysts and many expatriate Pakistanis do not have much hope for Pakistan. But I believe that the vast majority of Pakistanis and the young generation of Pakistan want to make Pakistan an enlightened country. I hope they will take an urgent step towards the right direction before things go totally out of control. 




* In England the Queen is also Head of Church of England. So one can argue that England is not a secular country but England is still secular in nature because there are no laws against a particular religion or sect.




ReferencesMustafa Kemal Ataturk
Secular State
Blasphemy laws in Indonesia
Blasphemy laws in Malaysia
Muhammad Ali Jinnah’s first Presidential Address to the Constituent Assembly of Pakistan
Secularism in Pakistan
The Kafkaesque reality of Pakistan’s blasphemy laws
Let us become — proudly — bayghairat
Political violence in Bangladesh
Secularism – A short film