Religious zealots and rational secularists oftentimes share a similar interpretation of morals and religion where they convolute the actual separation between the spirituality and the politics of religion. The negative global views of Islam did not exist until it was weaponized by international militants, whose aim was purely political rather than based on any spiritual guidelines set forth in the religion. On the other hand, those who critique the spirituality of religion by issuing broad statements of the violence and victimization religion has caused, confuse spirituality with the political wrangling found in each society no matter the religion.
Before turning to Pakistan, whose schizophrenic search for its identity has been affected time and time again by the politics of Islam, one should look for societies who could draw the line between spirituality and politics. In examining U.S. history, one sees a highly religious society at the time of independence, where the Salem Witch Trials were drowning hundreds of women on allegations of “witchcraft,” and John Adams was screaming “We recognize no Sovereign but God, and no King but Jesus!” at British colonial officers during the Revolutionary War.
Yet, what emerged subsequent to the War was a body of politicians who separated their spirituality from politics not as a way of purifying their politics, but as a means to keep clean their spirituality. This was indeed a pious act that required the institutions and system to remain mute as to spiritual preference, placing further pressure on one to follow the guide of his own spirituality through his life. Therefore, the founders of the U.S. were not secularists who wanted no spirituality amongst the people; rather they felt if each soul was left to their own spiritual devices, there could be greater happiness and enlightenment.
In a letter to the Hebrew Congregation of Newport News, George Washington wrote, “It is now no more that toleration is spoken of as if it were the indulgence of one class of people that another enjoyed the exercise of their inherent natural rights, for, happily, the Government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance, requires only that they who live under its protection should demean themselves as good citizens.” This statement best codifies the idea of separating spirituality’s sphere from that of politics. President Washington was advocating for the protection of each person’s “inherent” spirituality which had no forbearance as to the person’s politics or citizenship as an American.
When I brought this topic up to my mother, she cited an interesting verse from the Koran where Prophet Mohammad (PBUH) told his followers to go to China, (which was a very far off land in those days) if that is where you can find knowledge. She focused on the “knowledge” element, explaining that the Prophet told Muslims to travel to new lands in order to expand their spirituality with knowledge, NOT to conquer or subjugate those lands in pursuance of political motivations. There are powerful statements such as these across the Koran, a far longer list than those which mandate violence as propagated by religious extremists.
In fact, one should realize that while extremists hide under the garb of spirituality in their “war against the infidel West,” these zealots have only political goals of expanding their areas of influence and increased profits from drug and weapons trades. Further, it is not only the religious extremists who have lodged attacks on the spiritual worth of Islam globally, it has been done by state-parties as well. The problem with many post-colonial nations has been creating legitimacy for the new government which is far more corrupt and slow-moving than its colonial predecessor. This has created the terror squads who were trained by Pakistani forces to fight the “God-less” Soviets and then to be used against the “infidel” Indians. However, by indoctrinating the public with this toxic ideology in pursuance of political goals of destabilizing the Soviet empire or challenging India’s primacy, the society has suffered.
Therefore, since independence nations like Pakistan and its people have become increasingly conflicted in their search for their spiritual identity as politicians have utilized Islam or Hinduism to camouflage their own political motivations. While many U.S. analysts have focused on the negative effect that Islam has had on the political and civil rights of those living in nations like Pakistan, the more important issue is how this politicization has harmed the spirituality of Islam.
In fact, in this convolution between politics and spirituality has been used to attack spiritual nerve-centers of Pakistan. One of those nerve centers is Sufism, a tradition native to the Indian subcontinent, which unlike the tribal deserts of the Arabia, housed a heterogeneous population with a wide array of spiritual traditions and beliefs. Adapting to this colorful environment required Sufis to allow each person the autonomy to follow their own spiritual path, unobstructed by the passage of judgments by fellow human beings. Not only did most Sufis separate their spirituality from politics, but lambasted politics all together as it distracts one from their divine path. The terrorist attacks on Sufi shrines across Pakistan are not just a terrifying sign of things to come, but are symbolic of the tearing down of the division between spirituality and politics.
Just as extremists convolute politics and spirituality, so too do their secularist nemeses in their condemnation of religion as an instrument fostering violence and close-mindedness, not realize that they are criticizing the political clothes concealing the spiritual body. If one were to look to the American example, while this society has swayed with periods of Christian extremism, the political institutions were kept completely separate from the religious ones. The way in which this secular order came about was that the spirituality was seen as a distinct inherent right of each human being that must remain undisturbed by politics. Without separating these two independent spheres, one cannot fully appreciate the value of spirituality that exists in different forms amongst humans. Recognizing this separation allows each person to love, respect and understand his fellow-man despite their divergent religious paths.