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Blasphemy Law and the Marginalisation of Pakistan’s Moderate Muslims

Sushant Sareen is Consultant, Pakistan Project, at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi.
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  • January 17, 2011

    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. The real significance of Taseer’s murder lies in what it exemplifies viz. radicalisation has seeped far too deep into Pakistan’s society and is today the norm, while the liberals and moderates with whom the rest of the world interfaces are the exception.

    The outpouring of grief, condemnation and soul searching by liberal and moderate writers has conveyed an impression that there is widespread revulsion over the assassination. Nothing can be farther from 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 deluge of write-ups on Taseer’s killing in the English media illustrates the panic being felt by sections of the Pakistani elite, which until now had been unaffected by the tide of religious fanaticism sweeping Pakistan.

    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 this marginalised section, as is evident from million man marches in support of Qadri, the showering of rose petals on Qadri by Pakistani lawyers, and the difficulty of finding a cleric willing to read Taseer’s funeral prayers. Even worse, leading lights of the lawyers movement, who never tired of telling the world that they were fighting in defence of rule of law and a more liberal state, flatly refused to publicly condemn Qadri.

    If this was the ‘civil society’s’ reaction, the response of the state was no better. From the Prime Minister down all senior government functionaries distanced themselves from Taseer’s stand against the death sentence to Aasia Bibi for allegedly committing blasphemy. Interior Minister Rehman Malik advised a ruling party lawmaker, Sherry Rehman, to leave the country if she wants to live. Her crime: moving 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 response from the state against this blatant incitement to murder. What is worse, many police officials, including those involved in anti-terrorist operations, are reported to have voiced support for Qadri and justified his actions.

    With the Pakistani state leaning over backwards to appease the Islamists, the latter have latched on to the blasphemy law to stamp their domination on the social, political, cultural, legal and constitutional discourse. 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...charged with blasphemy, on the flimsiest of evidence...” The attitude of the superior judiciary is no better, with the Chief Justice 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 confronting 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 the 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 murder, when it comes to fanaticism, there is little to choose between the Barelvis and the Deobandis. In other words, the struggle in Pakistan is no longer between moderate and radical Islam, but between two competing versions of radical Islam.

    What has contributed to the unbridled rise in power and influence of the Islamists is the absence of a convincing and credible religious and ideological narrative that can counter them. The best that the ‘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.

    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 manner.