Friday, January 14, 2011

BLASPHEMY LAW AND THE MARGINALISATION OF PAKISTAN'S MODERATE MUSLIMS

By

SUSHANT SAREEN

In a country where the man in charge of maintaining law and order and fighting Islamic terrorists, Interior Minister Rehman Malik, has no compunctions in declaring that he would personally shoot anyone committing blasphemy, where a minister for religious affairs justifies suicide bombings in Britain because of the knighthood given to author Salman Rushdie, and where the chief justice of Lahore High Court enunciates a new principle of jurisprudence under which the courts don't require any witness to establish a case of blasphemy against an accused, a Mumtaz Qadri (the assassin who murdered Punjab Governor Salman Taseer for calling the infamous Blasphemy Law a 'black law') is pretty much par for the course. But more than the act of assassination, or for that matter the motivation of the man who carried it out, the real significance of the event lies in what it exemplifies and portends viz. radicalisation has seeped far too deep into Pakistan's society and is today the norm, and the liberals and moderates with which the rest of the world interfaces are the exception.

The outpouring of grief, condemnation and soul searching by what is now clearly an endangered species of liberal and moderate writers has conveyed an impression that there is widespread revulsion in the country over the assassination. Nothing can be farther than the truth. According to Pakistani journalist Rahimullah Yusufzai, the 'moderates' have a strong presence only in the editorial pages of the English language press, the readership of which is not more than a few hundred thousand in a nation of close to 180 million people. More than anything else, the virtual deluge of write-ups on Salman Taseer's killing in the English media illustrates the panic being felt by sections of the Pakistani elite. Taseer's murder came as a rather rude shock to many of these people who until now had pretty much been untouched and unaffected by the tide of religious fanaticism that is sweeping Pakistan. Qadri has, however, demonstrated that they too are fair game for the Islamists if they either defy or even deviate from the norms dictated by the extremist mainstream.

The times when this tiny elite used to set the social, cultural and political agenda of Pakistan are long gone. Over the last couple of decades, street and state power has been steadily shifting away from the miniscule, so-called liberal and progressive elite. The reaction of both the street and the state to Taseer's killing stands testimony to the marginalisation of the so-called 'moderates', what with million man marches in support of Qadri, and not more than a handful of 'civil society' activists protesting against the assassination. And while rose petals were showered on Qadri by Pakistani lawyers, it was difficult to find a cleric who was willing to read Taseer's funeral prayers. Even worse, leading lights of the lawyers movement – Aitzaz Ahsan, Justice Tariq Mehmood, Justice Wajihuddin and Ali Ahmed Kurd – who never tired of telling the world that the movement was in defence of rule of law and a more liberal and caring Pakistani state, flatly refused to come out in public to condemn Qadri.

If this was the 'civil society's' reaction, the response of the state was no better. Reams have been written about how, from the Prime Minister down all senior government functionaries distanced themselves from the stand Taseer had taken against the death sentence given to a Christian woman, Aasia Bibi, for allegedly committing blasphemy. There is also the sorry spectacle of Interior Minister Rehman Malik advising a ruling party lawmaker, Sherry Rehman, to leave the country if she wants to live. Her crime: she moved a private member's bill seeking amendments in the blasphemy law to prevent its abuse and misuse. The mullahs are baying for her blood, issuing fatwas that hold her murder a righteous and obligatory act for Muslims, but there has been absolutely no action by the state machinery against this blatant incitement to murder. What is worse, many police officials, including those involved in anti-terrorist operations, are reported to have voiced their support for Qadri and justified his actions. Is it any surprise then that warnings about Qadri's Islamist leanings were ignored?

With the Pakistani state leaning over backwards to appease the extremists, the Islamists have latched on to the blasphemy law to stamp their domination on the social, political, cultural, legal and constitutional discourse in Pakistan. They have felt further emboldened by the judiciary's complicity with, if not capitulation to, Islamism. To quote Pakistani columnist and Member of National Assembly, Ayaz Amir: "lower-tier judges go out of their way to look for loopholes when dangerous terrorists are on trial, thus giving them the benefit of the doubt, and...close all loopholes and don spectacles of the utmost strictness when it comes to the trial of a poor Christian man or woman...charged with blasphemy, on the flimsiest of evidence or the most dubious of motives". The attitude of the superior judiciary is no better, with the chief justice of Pakistan declaring that the court couldn't be a mute bystander and let Pakistan become a secular state and the Lahore High Court forbidding the government from granting any clemency to Aasia Bibi.

The seriousness of the systemic crisis that confronts Pakistan can also be gauged from the fact that the mullahs who are in the vanguard of extolling Qadri's act belong to the anti-Taliban Barelvi sect which is being touted as face of moderate Islam and is being propped up by the Pakistani state as a counterforce to the pro-Taliban Deobandi sect. But as is clear from the Taseer episode, when it comes to fanaticism, there is little to choose between the shrine- worshipping Sufi syncretism of the Barelvis and the Puritanism of Wahabbi inspired Deobandis. In other words, the struggle in Pakistan is no longer between moderate and radical Islam; it is between two competing versions of radical Islam. The vortex of fanaticism has not left the security forces and other instruments of state untouched. How could it, considering that it was the security establishment itself that fanned the flames of fanaticism in pursuit of its political and foreign policy objectives. To expect the same security forces to now recognise the danger of radicalism and put the genie back in the bottle is utterly delusional.

What has contributed to the unbridled rise in power and influence of the Islamists is absence of a convincing and credible religious and ideological narrative that can counter the Islamists. The best that the so-called moderates can come up with is that the fundamentalists do not represent the 'silent majority', something that has been proved by the consistently poor performance of religious parties in successive elections. But as Hajrah Mumtaz writes: the phrase 'silent majority' in Pakistan can only be used in the context of its original meaning — it originates from Homer's Odyssey, and refers to the dead who are in the majority as compared to the living...if Pakistan has a 'silent majority at all, it is in this manner". What the 'moderates' cannot or don't want to understand is that the extremists don't need to win a majority in Parliament to push for what they want; they can easily force their way through the use of their street power and firepower. The reality of Pakistan is that even without a single seat in Parliament, the fundamentalists hold a veto over any and every progressive measure that the government might want to take.

Take for instance the issue of amending the procedure of the blasphemy law to prevent its abuse. If even the 'enlightened moderate' regime of the former military dictator Gen Pervez Musharraf was unable to make the smallest of procedural changes in the blasphemy law, what are the odds of the current crop of 'empowered' politicians doing the same, assuming they find the courage to even attempt such an amendment? In any case, the problem is not so much with the blasphemy law itself as it is with the society's attitude towards someone accused under the law. No sooner is someone accused of blasphemy, the person is condemned regardless of the existence or otherwise of any intent, let alone evidence, of having committed blasphemy. Even if the courts acquit someone – a rarity given that the judges are either too scared or too Islamised to do so – the people take it upon themselves to kill the person.

The point therefore is that unless this attitude, rather mindset, changes, no amendment in the procedure of the law will make a whit of a difference to those wrongly accused of blasphemy. By concentrating only on the inequities of the blasphemy law, the Pakistani moderates, as also the rest of the world, are missing the woods for the trees. The real battle to be fought is the one against radical Islamic thought and not for some minor changes in law. But this is a battle that has still not been joined in any serious and sustained manner and might have already been lost.

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    <1510 Words>                         14th January, 2011

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1 Comments:

Blogger cyber gipsy said...

Will Aasia Bibi be saved ? Why won't american govt. put pressure on Pak to grant clemency to her? Imponderable questions...

11:24 AM  

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