Dark Clouds Over Pakistan
It all began in June 2009. Asia Bibi, a farm hand from the village of Ittan Wali in Sheikhupura District of the Punjab province in Pakistan, was asked to fetch water. Bibi, whose is the only Christina family in the village, complied, but some of her Muslim fellow workers refused to drink the water as they considered Christians to be “unclean”. Apparently some arguments ensued. There had already been a running feud between Bibi and a neighbour about some property damage. Later some coworkers complained to a cleric that Bibi made derogatory comments about Prophet Muhammad that “the Quran is fake and your prophet remained in bed for one month before his death because he had worms in his ears and mouth. He married Khadija just for money and after looting her kicked her out of the house.” A mob came to her house, beating her and members of her family before she was rescued by the police. However, the police initiated an investigation about her remarks resulting in her arrest and prosecution. She was subsequently awarded death sentence for “blasphemy” in Pakistan, the first conviction of its kind for a woman.
It may be noted that “blasphemy law” was formulated under British India way back in 1860. That was of general nature and prescribed punishments for intentionally destroying or defiling a place or an object of worship or disturbing a religious assembly. However, in 1980, the then military dictator, who systematically “Islamised” the Pakistani polity and the armed forces, added amendments to the law, making derogatory remarks against Islamic personages an offence and carrying a maximum punishment of three years in jail. In 1982, another clause was added and prescribed life imprisonment for “willful” desecration of the Koran, the Muslim holy book. In 1986, a separate clause was inserted to punish blasphemy against the Prophet Muhammad and the penalty recommended was “death, or imprisonment for life”, in that order.
Asia Bibi’s controversial conviction has evoked international outcries. Even within Pakistan, progressive voices wanted the laws to be amended. But unfortunately, these voices are being silenced by the fundamentalist forces. On March 2, Pakistani Minorities Minister Shahbaz Bhatti was shot dead by gunmen, allegedly by the so-called Pakistani Taliban. Bhatti, a Christian, is the second senior Pakistani official this year to be assassinated for opposing the blasphemy law. Two months ago, Governor of Punjab province Salman Taseer was assassinated by his own body guard for his criticism of the blasphemy law. This assassin body guard is now a national hero in Pakistan, with no lawyer daring to fight against him in the court. In fact, senior political leaders and intellectuals were afraid to join even the funeral prayers of Tasser, who, otherwise, described himself as “a proud Muslim”.
Last year, a woman member of the ruling Pakistan People’s Party (PPP), Sherry Rehman, introduced a private bill to amend the blasphemy law. The bill sought to change procedures of religious offences in such a way that these offences would be reported to a higher police official than the usual police station chief. In addition the cases would be heard directly by the higher courts instead of going through the local courts first. The bill was passed on to a parliamentary committee for vetting. It has now been withdrawn under pressure from religious forces as well as some political groups. Given the growing religious conservatism of the people, the government fears that if it approaches the issue pragmatically, it may lose public support.
It is obvious that a large majority of Pakistani people support the idea that blasphemers should be punished. The fundamentalists seem to have brainwashed and mobilised the masses to believe that the law, as codified by the military regime of General Zia-ul Haq, is in fact straight out of the Koran and therefore is not man-made. This explains why the assassin of Governor Salman Taseer was hailed as a hero by a large section of people across the country. And the same status will be accorded by the people to the murderers of Bhatti when identified.
I distinctly remember that when I visited most parts of Pakistan in 2001, I was told by the ordinary people and ruling elites that Pakistan’s fundamentalists were a miniscule community and that there was nothing to fear. To buttress the point, they explained how the religious parties were performing miserably in Pakistani elections. In fact, a Pakistani businessman said: “These mullahs and their supporters, coming from mainly the lower castes deserve only contempt; you must not make them equals. Once you treat them as equals, there will be chaos and disaster in Pakistan.” Castes? I asked. “Yes. Those have converted to Islam from very lower castes, whereas my great grandfather was a Rajput”, he explained. However, I am sure that if I meet the same gentleman today, he will talk of how everybody is equal under great Islam and why sympathisers and supporters of Asia Bibi must be sternly dealt with.
Pakistan is changing fast and unfortunately becoming increasingly insane and intolerant. Some political scientists say that it is because the ruling elites of Pakistan have misgovernment the country so much that it was inevitable that the power would shift in the Pakistani society. Most of the jihadi or fundamentalist elements are the children of the peasants all over the country. The feudal denied education in normal schools to these peasants, their children thus being forced to go to madrassas and emerge as semi-literates. In fact, these experts do not agree that jihadi culture is accepted by the poor and deprived people. They stress that it is those semi-literates emerging from the lower middle classes and peasants who join the ranks of the jihadis as they are otherwise incapable and ill-trained to find jobs or do business.
And over a period of time, these jihadis and their leaders have emerged powerful, helped considerably by the Al Qaida and the Taliban in the neighbouring Afghanistan. So much so that they have almost driven away the feudal lords, their previous exploiters, from the areas of their strength. This phenomenon is nearly complete in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), Frontier Province and has well begun in southern parts of Punjab, Pakistan’s largest province. Unless adequate remedial measures are undertaken and good governance is delivered, it is a matter of time before rest of the country falls under the complete control of the jihadis, who are increasingly seen as instruments against exploitation.
Unfortunately, however, the ruling establishment seems to be under the belief that instead of ending the exploitation, thereby cutting the roots of jihadists, it is better to co-opt their leaders in the system. And the way to do that is to take recourse to Islam. But what is worse, this course is not being adopted by politicians alone, cutting across all the parties, depending on vote banks as they are. The judiciary and the armed forces are also in the race. In one of his judgments recently, Pakistan’s Chief Justice reportedly asked: “Should we accept if tomorrow Parliament declares secularism, and not Islam, as the state policy?” Another judge joined him in asking, “Will it be called a rightful exercise of authority if tomorrow parliament amends Article 2 of the constitution which states that Islam will be the state religion?”
Similarly, the Army Chief General Parvez Kayani said recently: “Pakistan was founded by our forefathers in the name of Islam and we should work to strengthen the country and make committed efforts to achieve the goal of turning it into a true Islamic state… . our faith, resolve and pride in our religion and in our country is an asset, which is further reinforced after each terrorist incident.” If this is not open support to Islamic terrorism and the consequent fundamentalism, what else is?
In the ultimate analysis, thus, Pakistan in 2011 is not the Pakistan of 1947. It was created as “a state for Muslims”. Now it has virtually become an “Islamic state”. This is a dangerous development for South Asia, which since time immemorial has been a land of pluralism, giving rise to many faiths and religions, including Sufism that guided the Muslims of the subcontinent.
By Prakash Nanda