Religion, Modernity and Politics

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RELIGION has remained a living topic in almost all ages. Many have discussed religion in different ways; some have even made religion a topic of acrimonious debate. Karl Marx has declared religion to be the opium of the people. He mentioned this while writing a Critique on Hegel’s Philosophy of Right published in Paris in February 1844. As a result of his writing, some Europeans developed misconceptions about religion while others confined it to special occasions such as childbirth, marriage, death etc.

Marx’s work also inspired the foundation of many communist regimes in the 20th century where religious practices were discouraged officially until these regimes ended in the 1990s. In Western notions of modernity, religion has often been labeled as primitive, regressive, outdated, and incompatible with the forward-thinking nature of modern existence.

The prevailing sentiment has been to dismiss religion, doctrines, creeds, and any form of restrictive lifestyle. Throughout history, numerous instances can be found where individuals have actively denied or discarded religious beliefs, while others have exploited or twisted religious teachings for their own purposes.

 Religion is an inner state: Throughout history, religion has been a deeply personal and introspective experience. Regrettably, religion has also been entangled with violent conflicts, the marginalization of women, the sacrifice of children, the enslavement of individuals, the branding of others as infidels, and the cruel punishments of imprisonment, exile, or even death.

Occasionally, misguided and peculiar interpretations of religion have led to fatalism, intolerance, fanaticism, superstition, internal conflicts, social isolation, and even instances of suicide.

Recently, in April of this year, there were disturbing reports of multiple murders allegedly perpetrated by a custodian of a shrine and his associates in Sargodha. This tragic event serves as a stark reminder of how religion can be wrongly manipulated within society, prompting important inquiries into the effectiveness of religious beliefs.

The allure of political power and financial gain has enticed numerous individuals to exploit religion as a means of personal enrichment, resulting in the abuse, misuse, and misinterpretation of religious teachings.

Many individuals have crafted religious ideologies to align with their own desires and interests. At times, religion has been wielded by tyrannical rulers for authoritarian ends, coercing people into unwarranted subjugation.

A historical example of this can be seen in 1492, when King Ferdinand ascended to power in Spain and positioned himself as the defender of the Christian faith, leading to the expulsion of Jews from Spain and the forced conversion of Muslims to Christianity.

In the context of Pakistani politics, whenever religion is brought up, it is often perceived merely as a means to manipulate the public’s religious sentiments for personal political advantages.

Although it is undeniable that religion has been and still is exploited for political purposes in Pakistan, such sweeping criticism tends to overlook the potential societal advantages that can arise from a thoughtful incorporation of religion into politics.

An illustrative instance of this phenomenon is the Riyasat-i-Madina model, which was promoted by the former Prime Minister, Imran Khan. Although there were indications of his utilization of religion prior to the 2018 elections, Khan’s religio-political narrative gained significant prominence after assuming the role of prime minister.

As observers who have witnessed similar patterns unfold in the past, we were swift to dismiss his ambitions as yet another instance of a supposedly ‘secular’ political leader exploiting religion for personal political advantages. As per the findings of the World Values Survey, a significant majority of 98 percent of Pakistan’s population identifies with the Muslim faith.

Nearly 90 percent of Pakistanis consider religion to be of utmost importance in their lives, while 37 percent express strong approval for a system governed by religious law, devoid of political parties or elections, and an additional 27 percent view it as moderately positive.

In a country where a substantial portion of the population supports religious influence in governance, the representation of religious perspectives in politics can be considered a democratic entitlement.

While the abuse of religion rightly deserves condemnation, its rightful and appropriate application deserves recognition and admiration. Is Imran Khan’s utilization of religion in politics comparable to that of Maulana Fazlur Rehman or other political leaders? Why does the employment of religion in politics often draw criticism from specific sections?

Should religious representation in politics solely rely on the platforms of religious leaders? The focal point should not be whether religion should be wielded as a political tool or not, but rather how religion can be effectively employed in politics to bring about societal benefits. Omitting faith from the realm of politics has the potential to inspire reactionary narratives.

What sets Khan apart is his proactive approach to realize his religious-political vision. He has demonstrated unwavering support for the Muslim world, leading to the UN designating March 15 as the International Day to Combat Islamophobia. Khan has also established the Rahmatul-lil-Alameen Authority in collaboration with esteemed Muslim scholars, aiming to offer practical solutions for prevalent social issues in Pakistan.

Additionally, he has founded the modern Islamic Al Qadir University, which aligns with the global trend of post-secular expansion of religious educational institutions. Furthermore, Khan has brought madrassas into the mainstream and placed a renewed emphasis on Islamic education through the implementation of the Single National Curriculum.

Khan’s comprehensive Ehsaas program, which has received international acclaim, embodies the realization of his vision for an Islamic welfare state. These initiatives deserve recognition as they illustrate a political leader who harnessed religion not primarily for personal political advantages, but for the greater social welfare of the populace. Casual criticism of religion in politics carries significant social consequences. When a strong social sentiment is denied an outlet for expression, it tends to manifest through more extremist channels.

Just as excluded Baloch individuals may seek solace within militant Baloch organizations, ordinary Muslims who feel unrepresented often find refuge in extremist groups driven by religious inspiration, as observed today with the rise of Tehreek-i-Labbaik Pakistan. The rapid ascension of TLP should not be viewed as surprising, considering the repeated exploitation of Islam by political and non-political entities, only to be disregarded once their objectives have been achieved.

The utilization of religion in politics is not inherently wrong but is contingent upon the objectives it serves. When religious-political rhetoric is substantiated by actions that bring about positive social transformation, it fosters a restoration of trust among the religious population, instilling a sense of representation and deterring them from embracing fringe narratives.

Disregarding religion in mainstream politics would only further legitimize reactionary narratives propagated by certain groups with religious inspiration. Granting faith its rightful place in Pakistan’s political discourse is crucial for fostering a progressive, democratic, and unified society.

Rana M. Umer
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Student of Political Science at School of Politics and IR, Quaid e Azam University Islamabad, and can be reached at umerphilosopher@gmail.com

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