Jefferson and Jinnah: Founding Fathers
By Prof Akbar S. Ahmed


On September 11, 2001, the world of Thomas Jefferson, founding father of the USA, and that of Muhammad All Jinnah, the founding father of Pakistan, came dramatically and tragically face to face with each other.

The events of that day would impact on both societies in ways that the respective founding fathers could not imagine. America launched a war against terrorism. The immediate target was the Taliban regime and the Al-Qaeda with its leader Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan. Considering that the Taliban were nurtured and educated in neighboring Pakistani schools and the movement supported by Pakistan the role of that country in America's war against terrorism became crucial.

Two leaders working in two different cultural contexts on two different continents and yet both echoing ideas of liberty, religious freedom and the importance of education. Their example suggests that these ideas are universal, transcending culture, religion and nation.

Given the fact that the two leaders come from such different cultural and historical backgrounds, can a valid comparison be made? Surely, the belief of both in the ideals of liberty, the inalienable rights to religious freedom, life and property suggests a meeting of minds transcending time and space.

I believe that ideas of individual liberty, religious freedom and respect for universal education are not exclusive to Western civilization but also to be found in Islamic civilization. This is illustrated through the comparison of Jefferson and Jinnah. But these ideas grew in one society and were thwarted in another. We note then that while the individual leaders represent humanist ideals the socio-logical dispensation of their society determines the possibility of implementing or developing them.

September 11 again created dilemmas in society. Jefferson would have balked at the talk of secret evidence, wire-tapping, arrest without evidence and the casual approach to the notion of habeas corpus. The Muslim community in America, feeling itself the target, would have invoked Jeffersonian ideals of liberty. There were far too many com-plaints from the Muslim community. The actions of Osama Bin Laden were challenging the very heart of the Jeffersonian ideal.

Jinnah's Pakistan was also challenged by the actions of Osama Bin Laden. The war against terrorism allowed President Pervez Musharraf to declare a state of emergency. People were picked up to be locked away and civil liberties, in any case not very strongly developed, appeared to vanish. Politicians demanding elections were either banned or their leaders arrested or Income Tax Officials harassed them. It was easy to label people as "terrorists" and do away with them. Clearing the way for his rule, Musharraf held a widely questioned referendum so that he could stay on for another five years. Thus Pakistan entered the new millennium under a military dictator. Jinnah's dream of a democratic Pakistan was once again lost.

There are interesting personal comparisons to be made between Jefferson and Jinnah apart from the striking similarity of ideas. Both were self-made men not belonging to any aristocratic lineage; both found it difficult to have comfortable personal relations with people around them; both were involved in relationships that raised eyebrows (Jefferson and his slave girl; Jinnah and his bride half his age); both were accused by their critics of inconsistency (Jefferson for not being robust in defending Virginia from an invading British fleet with Benedict Arnold in command; Jinnah for abandoning his role as ambassador of Hindu-Muslim unity and becoming the champion of Pakistan); both were cerebral and not sensual men; both are cast in heroic terms by their followers as fathers of their nations and attract people from across the political spectrum; both men are remembered in national monuments which are on the visiting list of tourists (the Jefferson memorial in Washington DC and Jinnah's mausoleum in Karachi).

Both Jefferson and Jinnah were lawyers and in love with the idea that the Constitution which reflects the finest of human reason and civilization can guide citizens and ensure their political and religious rights. Both their nations were born in situations of revolution, murder and mayhem. Both nations were born with great hopes.

Both men would emphasize religious and political freedom and equally emphasize education. Jefferson's love of education helped him to create the University of Virginia which still honors his name. He always maintained his affection for the College of William and Mary which he entered in 1760. After leaving the presidency he spent his energy in supporting the university.

Jinnah too would keep in close touch with several educational institutions, including the Sindh Madressah in Karachi where he was educated. He had a close relationship with Aligarh University and the students from Aligarh would act as his most loyal troops in the battle for Pakistan. When his will was disclosed people were amazed to see that he had left his fortune to the Sindh Madressah, Aligarh and colleges in Delhi and Bombay. They were amazed because Delhi, Aligarh and Bombay were not in Pakistan but in India. Jinnah never changed his will even after he left India for Pakistan in 1947.

Both were born as subjects of the British Empire; both ended their careers by leading a successful revolution against the British. Both were religious in a general, broad sense and not dogmatic or what today would be called fundamentalist. Both had little time for the obsessive minutiae of religion while respecting the moral strength that religious tradition provides. The two icons of their nations would have found much in common in each other.

(The writer holds the Ibn Khaldun Chair of Islamic Studies at American Unversity, Washington, DC)


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