Let me start the answer by quoting Karl Marx ~ “Die Religion … ist das Opium des Volkes”. Loosely translated, Religion is the opium of the masses. He must be churning in his grave in delight today at such sordid fruition of his prophesy.
I am not an overly religious person myself, if at all, but I do believe that religion has an indisputable place in human society. Apart from good universal values of love, forgiveness, compassion etc., it is also the glue that binds civilisations.
And no, we are not just talking Islam. If you take the case of the western world – Europe, UK, North America, and even far-flung Australia, they have cultural and linguistic disparities, not to mention geographical distances, and yet are “natural” allies. Such nature is embedded in values of democracy and the sickeningly overused American cliche of freedom, but there is also the implicit bind of Christian values.
Similarly, the countries of Centro-America, South America, and Mexico, are bound by language (except Brasil), also somewhat racially, but are really truly bound together by Catholicism. Even a nutcase like Hugo Chavez bowed his head in reverence at the Church and put aside his belligerence on special Christian occasions.
Take India for example, where there are dozens of languages and perhaps (as I am told) hundreds of dialects. What really binds the country together? Beneath the stellar pillars of democracy and secularism, and well-earned national pride, perhaps there is the glue of Hinduism.
Yet, there is a critical difference today between Islam and other religions – separation of religion and state. In the case of Islam, it is rather the entanglement of religion and state. Mind you, not too long ago Christianity had fallen into the same trap, causing the downfall of many great empires. Spain and Portugal, and even the mighty Russia, being a case in point.
So to answer your original question, yes there has been an emphasis on religion both in India and Pakistan, and in the case of the latter, needless to add the emphasis has been since it’s very inception, which itself was based on religion. It is not necessarily a bad thing, to be in touch with one’s inner spirituality, to follow the teachings of prophets and ancient religious texts to bring a sense of meaning to our lives.
However, as soon as religion and state are intertwined, both seem to lose the original purpose of their existence and both seem to further convolute the existence of the other. It is almost as if one corrupts the other. And that is the malady that faces the Islamic World today. It has never really quite separated religion from State. It’s obsession and single minded focus on religion, and religion alone, has caused it to end up in a very undesirable place. It is quite sad really, if one looks at the immense accomplishments and contributions of Islamic civilisations to the world.
And my Indian readers will be up in arms when I state that India has come dangerously close to the same precipice. India has a global standing, amongst other reasons, for its secularism, which is synonymous with tolerance. It has not quite reached the religion-state-entanglement tipping point yet in my opinion, but a balance quickly needs to be found between religious identity and keeping religion separate from politics. It is critical if India is to continue on its upward trajectory towards an almost there superpower.
In the case of Pakistan, the situation is a lot more complex because religion has intertwined not only with politics, but also with the military. And that is what makes it so dangerous.
In the end, I believe that the emphasis on religion is good, as long as it fulfils its original purpose, and as long as it stays out of politics and institutions such as the judiciary and especially the military. Any entanglement of religion with one or more of these institutions usually does not end well.
(Writer, , Ph.D Public Policy, New York University.)