A review of Sadia Saeed’s Politics of Desecularization: Law and the Minority Question in Pakistan

In Politics of Desecularization: Law and the Minority Question in Pakistan, Sadia Saeed provides a thorough exploration of the shrinking political space accorded to Pakistan’s Ahmadi community as one example of the ways in which “contestations over religious truths become increasingly entangled with ordinary politics, nationalist classification struggles, and lawmaking” (210). In theorizing this process of “unsettled” desecularization, she demonstrates that “deep polarization” (28) among state authorities, courts, political parties, and ordinary citizens has kept alive foundational debates on the nature of state-religion relations in Pakistan.  

The question of the Ahmadi community’s ‘rightful place’ in Pakistan provides a particularly evocative lens through which to address the interplay between nationhood and religious identity. The founder of the Ahmadiyya movement, Mirza Ghulam Ahmad, while maintaining the supremacy of Prophet Muhammad, held that he had received divine revelations from God and that he himself was a Prophet. (A later branch of the movement, the Lahore group, regards Ahmad as a holy person rather than a prophet). In doing so, the movement—which began at the end of the nineteenth century under British colonial rule in India—poses theological challenges to traditional interpretations of Islam.  

According to figures from the 1998 census, Ahmadis make up just 0.2% of the country’s population. Even if this is an under-representation, Ahmadis make up a very small minority of Pakistan’s population by nearly any estimate. Yet, they have played an outsized role in the country’s imagination—indeed, from well before the country’s inception—and continue to do so today. In order for Pakistani citizens—including those belonging to the Ahmadi faith—to successfully renew their passports, for example, they must sign a declaration that Ahmadis are non-Muslim and that their founder is an “imposter.” In essence, this requires Ahmadis to renounce their own faith in order to enjoy full citizenship rights. In exploring the question of the Ahmadi community’s inclusion in both Islamic and Pakistani identity, Saeed therefore tackles larger questions about the boundaries of membership in nation-states—and what that membership means for a country ostensibly built as the homeland for a particular, bounded religious group. As such, this so-called ‘Ahmadi question’ is about much more than just the state’s use of Islam as a political tool. Rather, it “taps into core concerns of multiple social, religious, political, and state actors about the practical meanings of a Muslim nation-state, defining citizenship in such a state, and the state’s normative commitments towards Islam” (15). 

Saeed’s work is methodologically diverse. She relies on a mix of primary texts, including colonial and Pakistani state archives, newspapers, court cases, and pamphlets, and interviews with politicians, members of religious groups, and Ahmadiyya community leaders, among many others. Her use of close readings of court judgements as well as the various pamphlets and reports written by religious political parties and Ahmadi groups is intriguing for those with an interest in the history of Pakistan—and who have concerns about its future trajectory, particularly with regard to minority rights.

The 387-page Munir Report of 1954, for example, reads as an exceptional (and short-lived) moment in Pakistani history of state accommodation of Ahmadis. It was written by two judges shortly after the country’s first anti-Ahmadiyya movement, in which right-wing groups and ulema (religious scholars) demanded that Ahmadis be declared a non-Muslim minority, that they be removed from all key government posts, and that Zafarullah Khan, then Foreign Minister and an Ahmadi, be asked to resign. The Report made clear its discomfort with the role of Islam in political life, as well as its distrust of “the masses” who could be convinced to do anything “regardless of all considerations of discipline, loyalty, decency, morality, or civic sense” if they believed it to be religiously sanctioned. About the ulema, the Report wrote, that they “look for rain that their own small crop should thrive; they do not know or care where it injures another small crop five miles away,” while political parties are painted as exploiters of religion. About freedom of religion, it reads: “Faith is a matter for the individual and however, false, dishonest or ridiculous it may appear to be to another, it may still be held sincerely and honestly by the person who professes it...”

In response to these striking words, a prominent religious political party, the Jamaat-e-Islami, published its own exegesis entitled An Analysis of the Munir Report. The response draws a link between secular nationalism and anti-minority violence by providing examples drawn from Western democratic contexts of the mistreatment of racial and religious minorities. In contrast to this dismal state of affairs, the party argues, merely asking that Ahmadis be excluded from the category of “Muslim” is “innocuous” (104).

Saeed’s interviews with politicians and judges who were involved in pivotal movements surrounding Ahmadi rights are a similarly fascinating window into how varied political actors view religious policy formation. For example, Saeed speaks with some members of the national assembly which voted in favor of the Second Constitutional Amendment declaring Ahmadis a non-Muslim minority. She finds that, for many of them, the issue was not of religion per se, but a demand that they met for politically expedient purposes, out of fear, political pressure, or a lack of political autonomy on the part of the individual members of national assembly. Similarly, interviews with close aides of Zia-ul-Haq help us navigate the lead-up to the 1984 Ordinance, which made it a criminal offense for Ahmadis to refer to themselves as Muslims.

This exceptional analysis has numerous implications for the study of nationhood and minority rights more broadly, and desecularization in Pakistan more specifically. First, throughout her analysis, Saeed raises questions about the role of democracy in aiding the process of desecularization. The “turn towards democratic politics” in the colonial era, for example, worked to further entrench religious hostilities, and made explicit the extent to which the controversies surrounding Ahmadiyya religious belief were political. Membership in the Muslim League, the founding political party was predicated on being Muslim—and, as such, the eligibility of Ahmadis into the Muslim League became a “proxy. .for the religious status of Ahmadis” (73). Jinnah, while an avowed secularist himself, could not “afford to ignore the local sentiments” (72) of important constituencies as he sought to depict a “unified moral community of the proposed nation-state.” He therefore left this question open, refusing to make a specific statement about the status of Ahmadis.

Similarly, it was under the elected Zulfiqar Bhutto, leader of the Pakistan People’s Party, that the Ahmadi issue became one of political claim-making, rather than merely a religious demand. By prioritizing the symbolic role of Islam in Pakistan’s national identity—for example, in Bhutto’s discourse of “Islamic socialism”—secular parties such as the PPP opened the door for “the enactment of exclusionary policies through formal democratic professes in the name of official religious nationalism” (143).

Second, in highlighting the role played by the politics of fear and pressure, Saeed nicely encapsulates the role of religious parties and movements in lobbying politicians from outside of parliament. She explains that, by seeing continued success in their claims on the state, Islamist groups have managed to entrench such “belligerent repertoires of contention within the political field” (175). This success has been examined elsewhere as well, for example by Ahsan Butt in his 2016 piece on Islamist parties’ street power. He finds, in keeping with Saeed’s overarching argument, that Pakistan’s founding ideology of Muslim nationalism “acts as an ‘opportunity structure’ for Islamist collective action” (2). These important pieces open up several avenues for further research, particularly on the role of individual citizens in responding to these appeals made by religious parties and supporting their claims on the state.  

Third, where questions of nationhood and minority rights exist, the role of courts and judicial politics is not far behind. Saeed examines how “Islamic laws,” once introduced as such, can shape popular perceptions of Islamic norms by creating a shared language and social imaginary. Perhaps most concerning in Saeed’s analysis of the religio-politicization of the judiciary is the extent to which lower courts have endorsed moves by “vigilante ulema” (207) and ordinary citizens to discriminate against Ahmadis. The role of Pakistan’s judiciary vis-à-vis other power centers is a topic gaining greater scrutiny (e.g., Kureshi 2018) but remains underexplored.  

It is difficult to leave Saeed’s account feeling optimistic about the future of minority rights in Pakistan. In late 2017, the Ahmadi question came back into the public sphere in spectacular fashion. Three weeks of protests in Islamabad—spurred by a change to the oath taken by election candidates slightly altering the language declaring prophet Muhammad as the final prophet—resulted in the loss of 6 lives and 200 injured. Although this change was deemed to be a clerical error and quickly reversed, the protests only ended when the law minister resigned and assured the nation that he believed in the finality of the prophet.

Religion is never too far away from any discussion of Pakistan. This is perhaps not all that surprising given the burden of history discussed here, as well as by the contemporary reality of high levels of religious and sectarian violence. Yet, to many scholars of Pakistan, the conflation of Islam with all things Pakistan can be a frustrating hurdle to overcome. What Saeed’s book does so masterfully is bring to the forefront the many ways in which Islam is a necessary part of understanding Pakistan’s identity, while recognizing that how “Islam is articulated or deployed” is ultimately “a political question that finds its resolution through struggles and contestations among multiple social actors in diverse social spaces” (207).

References

Butt, Ahsan. 2016. “Street Power: Friday Prayers, Islamist Protests, and Islamization in Pakistan.” Politics & Religion 9(1).

Kureshi, Yasser. 2018. “Judging the Generals: Judicial-Military Interactions in Authoritarian and Post-Authoritarian States.” PhD diss, Brandeis University.

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Niloufer Siddiqui is an Assistant Professor at Rockefeller College in the Department of Political Science. Niloufer completed her PhD in Political Science at Yale University in 2017. Her book project examines why political parties engage in violence and the variation in violence strategies that they employ. Other research interests include political behavior, the politics of religion and ethnicity, electoral dynamics in developing or transitioning democracies, and voters and foreign policy. Siddiqui previously worked at the International Crisis Group (ICG) and the International Organization for Migration (IOM) in Islamabad and the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) in New York. She has an MA in International Relations from the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies and a BA in English from Haverford College.

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