Pakistan: fighting religious extremism

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On 4 January Salman Taseer, the governor of Punjab, Pakistan’s largest province, was assassinated by Mumtaz Qadri, one of his own bodyguards. In the months prior to the assassination, Taseer had spoken publicly in favour of amending Pakistan’s controversial anti-blasphemy law, and this provided the pretext for his assassination.

The scope of the law against blasphemy, introduced in the colonial era, was widened in 1985 by the military regime of General Zia-ul-Haq who made blasphemy against Islam punishable by death. Between 1925 and 1985, fewer than two dozen people were ever tried for blasphemy. But since 1985, more than 4,000 people have been taken to court for alleged blasphemy, while thousands more await trial. Having someone imprisoned for blasphemy is ridiculously easy, and is often used to settle petty scores. While many of the accused are eventually acquitted, they may spend years in jail. Convictions are often based on the flimsiest of evidence. While higher courts have always commuted the sentences imposed by lower courts in these cases, ensuring that no one has yet been executed under this law, life imprisonment is guaranteed for convicted ‘blasphemers’. Furthermore, many of those convicted, and even some who are acquitted, are killed anyway, targeted by the police, fellow prisoners and, sometimes, mobs in the grip of religious frenzy.

The blasphemy law has been used to target Pakistan’s most vulnerable sections: the poor, women and religious minorities. Governor Taseer’s public opposition to the law was triggered by the case of Aasia Bibi, a Christian woman from a Punjabi village who was last year convicted of blasphemy and sentenced to death by stoning. Taseer campaigned for a presidential pardon, arguing that procedural loopholes in the law had allowed her conviction in the absence of any real evidence. He also highlighted the endemic abuse of the law and made an unprecedented call for its amendment.

Since 1947, Islam has been used as a legitimising ideology by Pakistan’s military and ruling classes. In the 1980s Zia-ul-Haq’s military government initiated a policy of Islamisation to bolster his regime; this also created conditions to help fight the US war against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan. Passing laws that discriminated against women and minorities in the name of Islam was inextricably linked to arming the mujahideen, with the former helping to create the ideological environment that made the latter possible.

Religious organisations were given complete freedom to shape the public discourse on religion, while progressive parties, trade unions, and students fell victim to state repression. Free to spread their virulent, parochial worldview, it was from the ranks of these religious parties and groups that the Taliban and other Islamist militant groups would emerge in the 1990s.

All this means that questioning Islamic laws in Pakistan is taboo. Any attempt to do so is guaranteed to unify the otherwise fractious elements of the religious right, who have proved more than willing to deploy their formidable street power in Pakistan’s cities. Following Taseer’s assassination, it has become depressingly clear that Zia’s ideological project has borne fruit: hundreds of thousands of Pakistanis across the country supported the assassin. Even religious scholars representing the moderate Barelvi Islamic tradition, to which the majority of Pakistanis belong, immediately declared that he was right. Thousands of ‘fans’ appeared on Facebook within minutes of the event. When Qadri was produced before a court, 200 of the lawyers who had campaigned against Musharraf’s military regime showered him with rose petals and vowed to defend him. Across the country’s media, the lone voices that unequivocally condemned the assassination were drowned out by pundits and commentators who, while decrying the loss of life, nonetheless reaffirmed the need to protect Islam in Pakistan. In the days that followed, members of the government rushed to prove their Islamic credentials, guaranteeing that the blasphemy law would not be touched.

Pakistan continues to reel from crisis to crisis: suicide bombings rock Pakistan’s towns and cities; religious militancy in the country’s North-West continues unabated; drone strikes by the US continue. Still recovering from the impact of last year’s flooding, Pakistan is facing a deficit of approximately $13 billion and will have to either take on more debt from the IMF or print more money to meet it. Either way, painful times lie ahead for the millions already mired in poverty. The country remains wracked by shortages of electricity and gas, and inflation continues to climb. Meanwhile, the PPP government remains unable to govern effectively, its weakness further exposed by the departure of some of its coalition partners earlier in the year.

In a context where mainstream politics has failed to improve the lives of the Pakistani working class, and progressive organisations have been systematically undermined, religion and its extremist representatives will continue to gain support. The use of these forces by the military and ruling elite to legitimise their own continued plunder and control has unleashed a hydra of bigotry and hatred in Pakistan which will be increasingly difficult to contain. It is undeniable that dispossession and destitution are what have allowed this pernicious ideology to flourish.

Nonetheless, isolated and numerically weak though they may be, some secular and progressive elements in Pakistan have courageously continued to question the role of Islam in Pakistan’s public sphere. Thousands of people attended Taseer’s funeral, despite a boycott by the religious establishment, and hundreds also attended vigils in his memory despite the very real threat of violence. While the ruling elite dithered in its response to the assassination, Citizens for Democracy, a broad coalition of workers’ and peasants’ organisations, intellectuals, and other groups, issued a statement against the killing, and organised a protest to counter the one called by the religious right in support of the assassin. While those who showed up to protest against Taseer’s murder were dwarfed by the 50,000 who gathered in the streets of Karachi to call for the assassin’s acquittal, it was nonetheless a reminder that the fight against religious extremism in Pakistan is intrinsically connected to the fight for social justice.

Hassan Javid

FRFI 219 February / March 2011

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