Religious freedom and political stability

There is a lot of religious freedom in Pakistan. Anybody can do anything in the name of religion, even kill a person. People can greet and garland a killer in the name of religion. However, this freedom is not equally available to the followers of all religions. Only Islamic hardliners, the orthodox and militants have this freedom. This type of freedom is not rooted in the constitution or law. They enjoy this freedom because the state institutions are unable to restrain them from using Islam to pursue their personal or group agendas.There are three major types of Islamic entities functioning currently in Pakistan. First, there are Islamic parties like the Jamaat-i-Islami, the Jamiat-e-Ulema-i-Islam-Fazlur Rahman (JUI-F), the JUI-Sami-ul-Haq (JUI-S) and different groups of Jamiat Ahle Hadith (JAH) that differ from each other in their Islamic orientations and contest elections. Although their electoral performance is poor, these parties do somewhat better in the elections if they are part of an electoral alliance or form an alliance of their own.

Second, there are a large number of madrassas and mosques and groups associated with these institutions. There are several Islamic movements initiated by religious scholars that wield influence through teaching and preaching. Some of the madrassas and mosques are associated with Islamic parties. There has been a proliferation of madrassas and the activities of Islamic movements since the mid-1980s.Third, there are militant Islamic groups, including sectarian groups and their breakaway factions that use violence and intimidation to pursue their Islamic-political and sectarian agendas. The Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) is one major umbrella group based in the tribal areas, but there are a number of small local groups in the tribal areas that have local agendas. Mainland Pakistan, especially Punjab, houses several militant and sectarian groups and their breakaway factions. Some of these groups operate openly under different names and the responsible members of the Punjab government are known for links with or a soft corner for some sectarian groups. In December 2008, when the federal government placed restrictions on the Jamaat-ud-Dawa after the Mumbai incident, the Punjab government took over their schools in Muridke. However, at the operational level, the Jamaat-ud-Dawa people continued to have a strong foothold in these schools.

All these political parties, groups and madrassa-based religious leadership have joined together in support of the blasphemy laws and they have established federations of different groups, each dominated by a particular Islamic orientation. Many street protests were joined by all the federations and madrassas were the main source of their street power, although others also participated who were mobilised by the sermons of prayer leaders and other religious leaders. Their rallies and marches also mobilised a good number of people not directly associated with any religious group. Even the people educated through the state education system were part of this movement because the state education system also inculcated the Islamic-orthodox worldview in them.The role of Maulana Fazlur Rahman is an interesting case study. His party, JUI-F, was part of the federal coalition. He was less active in the pro-blasphemy laws movement until he decided to quit the ruling coalition in protest against the removal of his party leader from the federal cabinet. The maulana and his loyalists jumped into this movement in order to build pressure on the prime minister.

Islamic parties and other Islamic groups and organisations have found an easy way to bring out their loyalists and others into the streets by projecting the issue in the binary manner of Islam versus secularism and they argued that the demand for any change in the blasphemy laws amounted to tampering with one of the basic principles of Islam.
This agitation is part of the effort of the Islamists and the far-right political groups and leaders to use street power to tilt the political system decisively in their favour. As they have little hope of asserting their role through elections or parliament, Islam is being conveniently used to pursue their political power agenda.Literalist in interpretation of the religious text, they hardly draw a distinction between the principle and the mode of implementing the principle or the structure. For them, the principle of respect is the same as the structure and procedures to implement this principle. Nor are most activists willing to give any space for the changes to remove the chances of the misuse of the blasphemy laws for personal reasons, financial considerations and material/property gains or to pursue denominational conflicts.The Islamic hardliners have succeeded in intimidating others because of the lack of moral courage on the part of the political parties and leaders to question their threatening political and religious discourse.

The government is so scared that it capitulated to the demand of the hardline clergy that there will be no change in the blasphemy laws. The opposition parties, including the PML-N, are deriving grudging satisfaction from the fact that the PPP-led federal government is in trouble. They would be happy if the federal government collapses on this issue.The counter-narrative on the blasphemy laws exists in Pakistan and there are people, even among Islamic circles, who feel perturbed by the current drift of events. Their views and opinions are likely to resurface in a couple of months. For the time being, they are afraid of contesting the perspective of the orthodox and militant groups because they know that the federal and provincial governments are unable to perform their basic responsibility of providing security to the citizens.The current environment is hostile to the counter-perspective because no rational debate can take place in an environment of intimidation and fear that the religious hardliners have created. You only hear the monologue of the orthodox and militant groups. Those who disagree with their perspective are not talking of abolishing the blasphemy laws but want certain changes in the procedures for applying these laws to avoid their misuse. There are suggestions for financial penalty or imprisonment for those making false charges in invoking these laws.
There is a need to find the middle ground through a sober dialogue among different religious and political groups, to study the problems that have arisen after these blasphemy laws were enforced and suggest remedies. This can only happen in a cool-headed discussion in a conference room rather than in public rallies that disrupt civic order and stability – Dailytimes – Dr Hasan Askari Rizvi