Religious Intolerance Sweeping Pakistan


The brutal murder of a senior politician in Pakistan apparently for his opposition to a religious blasphemy law proves no one is safe from the intolerance sweeping the country.

It also suggests that the battle against militant Islamists must be fought with ideas, not just guns.

On the face of it the assassination of Salman Taseer, former Governor of Punjab province and a liberal lynchpin of the civilian government, was merely an act of crazed fanaticism. According to assassin Mumtaz Qadri, a member of the elite police force tasked with protecting dignitaries, he acted in response to Taseer’s vocal support for a poor Christian woman who had been sentenced to death under a flimsy claim of insulting the Prophet Muhammad.

Yet to understand this latest episode of politically motivated violence in Pakistan, one has to dig deeper than the usual suspects. Yes, a form of Islam that will countenance no criticism and sees violence as an appropriate form of dissent is growing in Pakistan. Nor is this violent form of political Islam limited to the Taliban insurgency being fought by the Pakistan Army and our Diggers in Afghanistan. In each of Pakistan’s four provinces there exist local militant outfits whose overall aim is to create a repressive, Islamic state and battle perceived enemies like India, the US or the Pakistan state itself.

But more significant than all these factors is the fact that although on paper Pakistan’s institutions reflect the liberal principles of modern statehood – like parliamentary democracy and a secular judiciary – corruption, inequality and decades of Army patronage of Islamist groups have left many sceptical of the virtues of these principles.

Like any country, Pakistan has entrenched disparities between rich and poor. But the disparity here is extreme and goes beyond mere economics to social and cultural divisions where people generally accept their status in the society. While the many poor in Pakistan have difficult lives locked in menial servitude to the powerful, ritualistic Islam is one of the few outlets for joy, grief, pride and disgust. This sense of ‘public’ Islam transcends class barriers, so the powerful are expected to abide and respect certain cultural norms deemed to be Islamic, even if these displays can be superficial public expressions that do not reflect private habits or beliefs. Even now, for example, most of the senior generals in the Army, the most powerful institution in the country, are known to privately imbibe while continuing to support Islamist groups.

In murdering Taseer, Munawar Qadri delivered the message that even the privileged are accountable before God. That they must be punished by death for blasphemy, and not one of the more immediate ills that have mired Pakistan in poverty, nepotism and violence, however, reflects the troubling reality that many have lost hope in improving the nation. Instead of trying to alleviate ills of this world, many of our citizens have chosen to focus on the profane, like violently protesting alleged acts of blasphemy.

Only a handful of people have publically decried Taseer’s assassination and most major political parties have responded in measured tones. Some, like the main opposition Pakistan Muslim League of Nawaz Sharif and most mainstream Muslim groups did not even send high representatives to Taseer’s funeral.

Pakistan’s religious lobby has been quick to describe Qadri as a religious hero, fighting to protect Islam against a wealthy, pro-Western businessman whose support for a poor Christian was in fact a cover for continued foreign attempts to undermine the state and Islam. Remarkably, Pakistan already has laws that criminalise incitement to kill, yet no one has been prosecuted despite several public statements by hardline religious figures to kill or punish Taseer for criticising the blasphemy law even weeks before he was murdered.

Of course, this has not occurred in vacuum, nor is it an organic development. Our Islamic heritage comes from the Sufi tradition whose most venerated saints preached in favour of love and compassion. But that tradition has been under assault ever since Pakistan’s pro-US Islamist dictator General Zia ul-Haq went on an aggressive drive to ‘Islamize’ the country in the 1980s in the hope of ensconcing himself in power. Understanding this development in Pakistan’s history is critical because the enforcement of rigid forms of Islam has always had political underpinnings.

Blasphemy laws were first introduced to the subcontinent by the British in the 19th century to divide the burgeoning independence movement along religious lines. General Zia took blasphemy to an entirely different level with vague offences against Prophet Muhammad and desecration of the Quran that have especially targeted religious minorities, the most vulnerable members of Pakistan society.

Liberal and progressive forces have fought hard to combat the institutionalised intolerance, but they have never constituted a major political force in a country dominated by the Army and feudal and business elites that have little interest in a more equitable and tolerant society. Sadly the vast majority of Pakistanis who live a modern lifestyle have largely done so quietly for fear of confronting the very forces that claimed Salman Taseer’s life.

Despite this, on paper Pakistan retains a robust constitution that enshrines key human rights protections, secular courts and parliamentary democracy. What is lacking is political and popular will to enforce laws that protect Pakistanis from politically-motivated violence in the name of Islam. Enforcing these laws will deal an infinitely more powerful blow to the violent intolerance than any drone strike or troop surge.

[This article first appeared in ABC Unleashed on January 14, 2010:]