Pakistan’s blasphemy law in context

The misuse of religion by the state and the fragmentation of Pakistan’s political society have both been evident since Pakistan’s birth in 1947, long before Pakistan became the ally of the US and Britain
Anita Inder Singh
18 January 2011

Even as Pakistan recovers from the shock of Salman Taseer’s assassination, President Asif Ali Zardari is engaged in the unenviable task of searching for a new governor of Punjab. A new liberal governor could be putting his life at risk: an illiberal favourite of the clerics and their military patrons could sound the Last Call of a weak Pakistani liberalism. 

Meanwhile, some political luminaries, notably Nawaz Sharif, former prime minister and leader of the Pakistani Muslim League (N) turned the screw on prime minister Yusuf Raza Gilani’s beleaguered government by indulging in divisive petty politics. As if that were not enough to provoke concern about Pakistan’s stability, early in January 2011, at a time of rising inflation, the survival of the Zardari-Gilani government has been threatened by the withdrawal of its political ally, the Muttahida Qaum Movement (MQM),  which opposed price increases. And a massive rally in Karachi in support of the blasphemy law throws a question mark about the sort of Islam that Pakistanis want and the influence of truculent clerics over the society and politics. 

All of these developments highlight the misuse of religion by the state and the fragmentation of Pakistan’s political society. Both have been evident since Pakistan’s birth in 1947, long before the General Ayub Khan staged the first successful coup in 1958 and Pakistan became the ally of the US (SEATO) and Britain (CENTO and the Baghdad Pact) in the mid-1950s. Instability has been noticeable in different ways.  In the first 11 years of its existence, Pakistan had seven prime ministers. Three of its four military leaders – Generals Ayub Khan, Zia-ul-Haq, and Musharraf enjoyed long spells in power, (1958–69, 1977–1988, 1999–2007 respectively); creating an impression of stable military rule. (General Yahya Khan had the shortest term: from 1969-71)

Pakistan’s definition as a religious state, which constrained its development as a democracy, is rooted in the religious politics all its rulers pursued even before it became the first Muslim-majority country to be defined by its constitution (in 1956) as an Islamic republic. It was inevitable that the constitutional definition and emphasis on Islam should encourage the country’s civilian and military elites to consolidate the state’s authority by exploiting religion with the help of the mullahs. The ideology of the religious nation-state hampers Pakistan’s evolution as a democracy, partly because it wrongly assumes that the society is a monolithic whole; partly because it limits the intellectual and political choices innate in democracy. Since 1947, every elected Pakistani ruler has governed with benefit of clergy to enhance his or her popularity, or in the case of the generals, to acquire legitimacy and as Stephen Cohen argued in The Pakistan Army (Berkeley 1984) to dominate politics. This idea has prevailed in Pakistan although it has long been a western ally.

Analysts often contrast the pre-eminence of the mullahs in contemporary Pakistan with the secularism of its founder, Muhammad Ali Jinnah. But it is hard to credit any leader with secularism if he exploits religion for political ends at the cost of tens of thousands of human lives, as Jinnah successfully did. To the extent that the Indian National Congress failed to mount a strong challenge to Jinnah’s Muslim League and to win mass support for its secular democratic platform in the Muslim-majority provinces of British India, it bore some of the responsibility for British India’s violent partition in 1947. Given that neither Jinnah nor Liaqat Ali Khan, nor Zulfiqar and Benazir Bhutto, nor Nawaz Sharif ever dispensed with the clergy, for political reasons, how can they be perceived as secular, which implies the separation of religion from state?

Pakistan first tried to sever Kashmir from India by declaring jihad in January 1948 while Jinnah was Governor-General, as recounted in a book by Husain Haqqani (currently Pakistan’s ambassador in Washington) entitled Between Mosque and Military, (2005). Islam has been the central issue in Pakistan since 1947, the leitmotif of the Pakistani state. This is not just because some 97 per cent of Pakistanis are Muslims, or because Pakistan was created as a Muslim homeland on the subcontinent. The constitutional appellation of ‘Islamic Republic’ empowered the clergy and created a nexus between them and the state.

Religion has therefore served as an instrument to cover up domestic discord (and also to justify jihad against India and, since 2001, against NATO in Afghanistan). The religious definition means that no laws can contravene the sharia. But who decides which version of Islam will steer the state? Instead a succession of inept politicians have paved the way for the successful staging of military coups since 1958. The emergence of the military as political kingmakers, as well as their wish to mask their illegitimate governance, has resulted in even closer ties with the clergy.  

After independence, Pakistan had no national elections until 1970. Fear of centrifugal tendencies was one of the reasons. Only a year after Pakistan’s birth the Bengali majority in East Pakistan demanded official status for their language. Their demand was rejected. Bengalis in East Pakistan, as well as Baluchis, Sindhis and Pathans in West Pakistan resented the domination of the country by the Urdu-speaking Punjabis. The Bengalis of East Pakistan seceded in 1971 and carved out the state of Bangladesh. Balochistan and the NWFP remain flashpoints. The Ahmadiyyas have suffered persecution. Conflict has also occurred between Shias and Sunnis, and between the Pakistani state and Baluchi insurgents.  

Pakistan’s democracy is weak partly because its political society has always been divided, partly because of the strength of Pakistan's anti-democratic forces, including extremist clergy and the military. The first and last time that the Muslim League (founded in 1906) won a majority of Muslim votes was in the elections of 1945-6 in British India. It was reduced to minority status after 1947 – and split into factions after independence. Its contemporary heirs include the Pakistan Muslim League, led by Nawaz Sharif, and the Pakistan Muslim League (Qureshi). In the 2008 elections, Zardari’s Pakistan’s People’s Party (PPP) won 30.6 per cent of the vote, Sharif’s Muslim League 19.6 per cent, the MQM 7.4 per cent. The rest of the vote was divided among other parties.

A series of squabbling and inept elected politicians have, like the country’s illegitimate military rulers, failed to cement a fragmented political base, instead combining with the clergy to shore up their political and moral standing.

Zulfikar Ali Bhutto – the former prime minister, (Benazir Bhutto's father) declared Islam to be the state religion and set up a council to align secular law with the sharia. General Zia-ul-Haq, who overthrew and executed him, introduced the blasphemy law. Nawaz Sharif, the subsequent prime minister, always in alliance with Islamist groups, introduced the death penalty for blasphemy. The Zardari-Gilani government legitimised the law in the 2010 Constitution of Pakistan. Gilani and other political leaders attended Taseer’s funeral, but there remains an air of déjà vu about the reluctance of Pakistan’s politicians to stand up to the mullahs who called on Pakistanis to boycott it. Many Pakistanis probably don’t favour extremists, but violence, sponsored and patchily checked by the state when it suits the civilian and - especially military - establishments, has created an environment in which people are afraid to speak out against them.

Meanwhile, education has been an instrument of political, intellectual and social engineering. It has been used to spread religious notions of jihad in Pakistan’s wars against India and to persecute its own minorities. Educational syllabi have been crafted to teach a warped Islamicized history. The media have been steered to disseminate official propaganda, and laws have been passed to discriminate against non-Muslims and limit critical discussions of political Islam. Education has been used to instil in Pakistanis the idea that loyalty to the state and to Islam are synonymous; that India, Israel and the US are enemies. The country's ruling elite has labelled most serious expressions of dissent as un-Islamic.

Since 2001, American efforts to moderate religious education in madrassahs, which are attended by about one-third of Pakistani children, have failed. In June 2004 General Musharraf admitted that many madrassahs were involved in militancy and extremism

What next?

If Sharif and the MQM refrained from calling for a vote of no-confidence it was probably because they wouldn’t have stood a chance of winning a majority of votes or parliamentary seats. Gilani reduced fuel prices to persuade the MQM to return to the coalition and to enable it to survive. Sharif and the Gilani government have also mended fences, at least for the time being. All this is not the same as having a stable and effective government.  With the central government apparently unable to fend off provincial and extremist challenges to its authority, as political and economic crises engulf Pakistan, how can the international community help to foster better governance?

A case could certainly be made that Pakistan should be given financial aid. But cynics could observe that Pakistan has, over the last decade, received as much military, development and humanitarian aid as it asked for. The vital question is:  can such an embattled government really fight home-grown terrorists, let alone help NATO to quash the Afghan Taliban? The chances are that the civilian and military establishments won’t dispense with hard-line mullahs: Gilani has ruled out changes in the blasphemy law. Meanwhile, Sherry Rehman, the former Information Minister who single-handedly defended Taseer in parliament, is in hiding.  Fundamentalist parties have not fared well in elections, so the clout of the extremists must surely owe much to their official benefactors and to the educated – the military, the politicians and the media. The elites have never presented a secular vision of Pakistan to its people and tested the appeal of secular democracy in free and fair elections. Instead they continue to allow elements of the military and the mosque to dominate Pakistan’s politics, implementing their version of sharia at home and exporting jihad abroad.

Successful democracy is always home-grown.  It is up to Pakistan’s civilian and military establishments to promote stability and strengthen democracy by stopping the misuse of religion for political ends. And it is for Pakistanis to forge consensus on the sort of state and society they want to live in.

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