Published by Seth Oldmixon on May 4, 2018

How Secularism Protects Religion and Culture

In a recent interview with the Economist, Pakistani politician Imran Khan expressed his support for women, like his wife, who choose to wear a veil that fully covers their face. “The amount of clothes a person wants to wear – how much they want to wear or how little they want to wear – is a personal choice.” He went on to say that, “What I find shocking is when people force their views on other people.” Mr. Khan may not have realized it, but what he was espousing was the foundation of secularism.

Imran Khan is an unlikely advocate for secularism, particularly in Pakistan. In fact, he has been quite explicit in his opposition to secularism, which he describes as “an alien structure…imposed by our colonial rulers.” Even when speaking with the Economist, Mr. Khan fell back on this qualified support for personal choice, as long as it falls within the bounds of Pakistani cultural norms. Asked whether he would offer the same defense of a woman who wanted to wear a bikini on the beaches of Karachi as he does a woman who wants to wear a full face veil, Khan stumbled:

“I, for me, well, it’s a personal choice, but in every society, you know, if you expect someone, there are certain codes of conduct, culture, so, you know, that would not be looked upon in Karachi, they would not accept it. And so, that’s why they wouldn’t wear it. Similarly, in Pakistanis, we, they would have certain views about when they come to England. You, uh, no one can impose their views on your society, so what I think is much more important is you should respect people’s views, their culture. What should not happen is this cultural imperialism.”

Women may not wear bikinis on the beaches of Karachi, but that was not always the case. In the 1960s, Karachi was a global tourist destination and women lounged on the beach wearing bikinis without fear or shame.

Karachi beach 1960s

While the bikini may not be indigenous to Pakistan, neither is the burqa. In fact, it’s only recently that burqas and niqabs have spread throughout South Asia, due primarily to foreign cultural influence according to Pakistani historian Dr. Mubarak Ali. There was also a domestic element to these cultural shifts, most notably from the Islamist military dictator Gen. Zia-ul-Haq, who banned government officials, and discouraged private citizens, from wearing traditional dress like the sari in an effort to make people look more like what he thought Muslims were supposed to look like.

Sacrificing culture on the altar of religious nationalism is not a uniquely Pakistani problem. In 2001, the Afghan Taliban destroyed 2,000-year-old statues in an effort to erase the country’s pre-Islamic history. And in Bangladesh, Islamist extremist groups like Jamaat-e-Islami and Hefazat-e-Islam have been trying to end Mangal Shobajatra, the celebration of traditional Bengali culture that marks the beginning of a New Year.

Neither is the problem unique to Islamists. Last year, in India, the Taj Mahal was removed from tourism brochures after a Hindu nationalist monk declared that the UNESCO World Heritage Site “did not reflect Indian culture.”

Culture is not static; neither is it uniform. The bikini may not be an indigenous part of Pakistan’s cultural heritage – but neither is the burqa. But that doesn’t much matter. In reality, the music of rock band Junoon is just as Pakistani as a Qawwali; and cricket is indubitably a part of Pakistani culture, despite it being a product of Western “cultural imperialism.” Likewise, India’s mosques and madrassahs are just as much a part of its cultural fabric as its temples and ashrams. Religion CAN certainly influence culture, but it does not define it.

The greatest protection for both religion and culture is not religious nationalism, but secularism – restraint by state institutions from imposing any particular religious views or practices on the people. It is secularism that protects the rights of Imran Khan’s wife to wear a veil, and it is secularism that also protects the rights of Pakistanis to dress in accordance with traditional Pakistani culture as well.

#Bangladesh#Imran Khan#India#Pakistan#secularism