Idea of a religiously neutral state

In the wake of recent – and not so recent – sectarian violence in Pakistan, a flurry of responses can be observed in print, electronic and social media. Sectarian voices are being condemned – and rightly so. There is also a plea to shed sectarian identity and be a Muslim only. A few people have noted that the Pakistani state has been historically implicated in supporting sectarian politics. However, a matter that has not received enough attention is an investigation into the kind of state – political organisation – that is necessary if the specter of sectarianism is to be controlled. In this short piece I would like to engage with the idea of a religiously neutral state. This is of course only a small part of a much wider issue of the place and function of the state in modern times.

In our everyday life, being neutral is often seen as a virtue. We expect a referee to be neutral. We expect a judge in the court to be neutral. When friends or family members fall out, they seek someone who can reconcile them and a key quality required of such a person is neutrality. In all these situations, by neutrality we mean an attitude that is neither for nor against the parties or the causes involved. Of course, in reality no one can be perfectly neutral all the time but we retain the idea as a goal. A religiously neutral state is just that: it is neither for nor against religion(s). In reality, the state may often fall short of this ideal but having it ensures that the state is measured against it and, if needed, pressured to do better.

It is important to note that this neutrality is expected from the state only, which must be distinguished from the society of which it is a part. A society is a space created by individuals and collectives held together through bonds of kinship, friendship, religion and civic goals. The state is a political arm of the society organised to protect and promote its common interests. When we are talking about religiously neutral state we are referring to this political arm and not the society as whole.

Around the world there are many examples of countries where societies are highly religious, people practice religions individually and collectively, and the state acts neutrally towards all religions. From Tunisia to United States and from India to Turkey (even before the current regime) we have examples of countries where societies – people – are religious but the state is religiously neutral. A neutral state becomes responsible for protecting, if not in all cases promoting, religions in a society and for creating a climate in which people can freely practice and express their religious identities. The only limit to this expression is the equal rights of all to express themselves. A religiously neutral state ensures that this limit is respected and is entitled to use force to maintain it.

Why is the state neutrality important? The answer lies in the power that a state has. A modern state has a monopoly over legitimate use of violence. If a citizen of a modern state feels wronged, s/he is required to go to the state for redress and is not allowed to take the law unto his/her hands. Now, a religious group interested in imposing its beliefs on others may seek to either take over or to at least win the patronage of the state, thereby either using or at least gaining shelter from the state’s power for its benefits. When a state sides with a particular religious group or orientation, it essentially empowers and emboldens that particular orientation to impose itself onto the other people who do not share it. The extent of the state’s support could range from active imposition of one orientation to being a silent spectator when sectarian violence takes place. This is essentially what we have witnessed in the history of Pakistan.

A religiously neutral state, on the other hand, would not lend any active support to any religion. It would rather actively stop any attempt by the adherents of any religion to use violence to impose their will. It will not make laws that advantage one religion over another. This is what we have not witnessed in Pakistan but what is now urgently required.

Historical origins of the idea of religiously neutral states go back to the seventeenth century Europe. At that time, Europe was mired in sectarianism. With the emergence of Protestant Reformation in the sixteenth century, Europe suffered a series of wars that lasted till the middle of the seventeenth century. At that point a historic peace treaty called the Peace of Westphalia was signed. Among the tenets of this treaty was that Christians of all denominations were guaranteed the right to practice their faith in public freely. From this beginning, there emerged gradually the idea of a state that was equidistant from all religions.

From the above, it should be clear that religious neutrality of the state does not mean an anti-religious stance. It does not mean that people would only be able to practice religion privately, that is in their homes only. Neutrality does not mean removing religious belief and discourse from public life. No one is required to deny or hide the fact of his or her religiosity. It only means that no religion will have a privileged position. Religious people can be as much religious as they wish to be, free to go their places of worship, celebrate publicly and even benefit from state’s financial largess. In other words, a religious person should see no curtailment in his/her freedom to practice religion. In fact, in the context of Pakistan at its current juncture, a religiously neutral state will add immensely to religious freedom of all, including those in majority, who too currently live in fear. Indeed, it would be hard to deny that today a Muslim has more freedom to practice his/her religion under states which are religiously neutral compared to in countries where the state is not neutral.

Path to a religiously neutral state is not easy. But it is a journey that must begin.


2 thoughts on “Idea of a religiously neutral state

  1. plato says:

    I think you are trying to say that law should be neutral which ultimately might make the state neutral? I see a slight problem with this proposal. People (part of the society) who will be elected and responsible for running the state and until they have appreciation for a neutral law/state nothing will change. Unfortunately, for me, it is vicious cycle. Society must also play a role to promote neutral religious society.

    Having said that, I agree that this journey is hard but it must begin.

  2. Nadeem says:

    This is what Jinnah envisaged, according to his first presidential address to the constituent assembly of Pakistan. “You may belong to any religion or caste or creed — that has nothing to do with the business of the State.”

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