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The Roots Of Religious Fundamentalism In Pakistan

By Ali Mohsin

17 February, 2016

In an interview with Reuters last month, Maulana Muhammad Khan Sherani, head of the Council of Islamic Ideology (CII), offered to review Pakistan’s notorious “blasphemy” laws, saying that there are varying opinions on the issue within the clergy. Just days later, however, Sherani backtracked from his statement, declaring that the CII would not change or amend the laws in order to satisfy its many critics . Sherani’s about-face should have come as no surprise. After all, this is a man who supports child marriage, having vehemently opposed a recent bill that would have outlawed this retrograde social practice.

It is indeed shameful that, despite five years having passed since the assassinations of Punjab Governor Salman Taseer and Minorities Minister Shahbaz Bhatti, both of whom courageously spoke out in defense of Aasia Bibi, a Christian woman who was sentenced to death for blasphemy in 2010, little if any progress has been made towards repealing the draconian laws. Aasia Bibi still languishes in prison, anxiously awaiting her appeal hearing in the Supreme Court. Multiple death threats led to her being placed in isolation last October. Meanwhile, Taseer’s killer Mumtaz Qadri continues to enjoy his celebrity status among the more reactionary layers of the population.

The fact that not the slightest change has been made to the blasphemy laws serves as an indictment of the Pakistani ruling class and its political parties, none of which have taken a consistent, principled stand against the laws and religious discrimination.

The murder of Taseer in January of 2011 had led many to call for repealing or amending the blasphemy law. However, the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) leadership quickly bowed to pressure from the religious right, prevailing on Sherry Rehman to withdraw a bill that would have scrapped the death penalty for blasphemy, while essentially keeping the laws in place. “We are all unanimous that nobody wants to change the (blasphemy) law,” former Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani had said at the time.

Not surprisingly, the then PPP-led government’s capitulation emboldened the Islamists, resulting in Bhatti’s assassination two months after Taseer was killed. Years after this tragic episode, Pakistan’s mostly impoverished religious minorities continue to bear the brunt of the oppressive blasphemy laws.

Last August, Pastor Aftab Gill of the Biblical Church of God in Gujrat, Punjab, and three others were charged with blasphemy after they used the Urdu word "rasool", which means apostle, in advertisements for a Christian ceremony. According to Pastor Aftab’s younger brother Unitan Gill, the owner of a successful grocery store and one of those arrested, the advertisements were brought to the attention of the police by rival Muslim grocers for the purpose of eliminating him as a competitor.

In another incident that took place in the Kasur District of Punjab last September, Pervaiz Masih, a Christian youth, was accused of blasphemy by residents of his village. According to media reports at the time, Masih had been involved in a dispute with local Muslims over a contract for the provision of sand. Muhammad Khalid, an influential resident of the village, and several other Muslim villagers ended up hurling spurious accusations of blasphemy against Masih. When the police arrived at Masih’s house to arrest him, the latter was not at home. Spurred on by a mob of enraged fundamentalists, the police proceeded to harass and brutally assault Masih’s relatives, including the women. In typically cruel fashion, they seized members of his family and held them at a police station in Khadiyan, giving Masih no choice but to surrender himself into their custody.

The ongoing persecution of minorities is an issue that stirs up a lot of passion in the country’s urban milieu, particularly among the better educated and more affluent members of society. These often liberal, well-intentioned individuals dream of a secular Pakistan, or at the very least, a nation that upholds the basic human rights and fundamental freedoms of all its citizens, including the right to openly practice one’s religion without fear of persecution.

The good intentions and genuine concern of its adherents notwithstanding, Pakistani liberalism is, for all intents and purposes, politically bankrupt. Even the more thoughtful representatives of the liberal intelligentsia appear to be trapped in a state of paralysis and ideological confusion, with their pro-capitalist outlook making it practically impossible for them to lead the necessary and unavoidable struggle against militant Islamism, religious bigotry and every other form of backwardness. This apparent inability to grapple with complex political and social problems is the result of a failure to undertake a materialist analysis of objective reality. Such an analysis would take into account the class character of the Pakistani state, as well as the profoundly significant, and indeed for many, inconvenient, truths regarding the creation of Pakistan as a homeland for the Muslims of the Indian Subcontinent.

There is a tendency among historians and analysts to place most if not all of the blame for the current state of affairs on the shoulders of the US-sponsored dictator General Zia-ul-Haq. Zia, of course, promoted the clergy and Islamist political parties as a bulwark against the working class, having certainly feared the possibility that ordinary Pakistanis could grow tired of his rule and turn sharply to the left. Zia’s “Islamization” campaign also further communalized a country whose stability had been perpetually undermined by sectarian and ethnic conflict ever since its inception.

The devastating social impact of the Zia era is widely acknowledged. It is necessary to point out, however, that the masses had already been led down a dark path long before Zia arrived on the scene, in a process that began prior to the establishment of the Pakistani state.

In the late 1930s, elements within the Muslim elite, motivated by narrow and selfish interests, began to aggressively pursue an agenda involving the creation of a separate state for India’s Muslim population. The oft-repeated phrase “Jinnah’s Pakistan” should be familiar to even the most casual observers. Those who conjure up this tired slogan whenever minorities are targeted must come to terms with the fact that it was the “Quaid” himself who set the dangerous precedent of using communalist rhetoric for political ends. Jinnah, a westernized, non-practicing Muslim, cynically raised the cry of “Islam in Danger” as part of his campaign to drive a wedge between Muslims and Hindus and gain support for the partition of the Indian subcontinent among the sections of the Islamic clergy. Based on the bogus claim that Muslims and Hindus constituted two distinct nations, the partition that gave birth to the “Land of the Pure” was a tragedy of immense proportions, resulting in an orgy of violence and untold suffering for millions of people on both sides of the artificial border.

Studying the partition with an open mind is critical for anyone trying to make sense of the prevailing backwardness in the country. As one’s understanding of this issue deepens, it becomes more and more evident that the persecution of religious minorities is the inevitable result of an official policy, rooted in Pakistan’s creation through the partition, that encourages the identification of Islam with the state, consequently diminishing non-Muslims to second-class status while also fanning the flames of religious fundamentalism and strengthening the power of the clerics.

The blasphemy laws are just one example of how the Pakistani state discriminates against religious minorities and violates their democratic rights. Non-Muslims are officially barred from the highest offices in the government. Furthermore, minorities must vote separately from the general population in communal electorates, thus making clear that they are to be viewed as apart from and inferior to Muslims.

The vicious persecution of non-Muslims under the blasphemy laws, the numerous discriminatory practices of the state and the general climate of fear under which religious minorities go about their lives, all highlight the entrenched Muslim supremacism in Pakistan. This deeply ingrained social problem can neither be legislated away, nor can it be completely and permanently resolved through military or police crackdowns on extremists.

The Pakistani bourgeoisie, which in addition to its glaring failure over the decades to provide the working class with the most basic necessities of life, is entirely complicit in the oppression of minorities and the increased influence of religious extremists. The major political parties have all connived and colluded with Islamists at one point or another. To this day, Pakistan’s ethically challenged and morally repugnant politicians continue to exploit the sectarian and ethnic divisions within the country whenever it suits their interests. It is for this reason that not even the purportedly liberal section of the ruling elite can be pressured into acting on behalf of religious minorities.

The fate of the non-Muslim population is bound up with that of the entire working class, within which religious minorities constitute one of the most oppressed layers. Nearly 70 years since the establishment of Pakistan, ordinary workers, whatever their religion, must still contend with the unresolved issues of poverty, unemployment, economic inequality and the inaccessibility of quality healthcare and education. These shared conditions are the basis upon which workers and poor farmers can potentially unite against the bourgeoisie and the oppressive, capitalist state through which it rules over and exploits the working class. A revolutionary movement of the masses, consciously aimed at replacing the existing social order with a genuinely free and egalitarian society, would finally bring an end to religious discrimination and every other manifestation of oppression and exploitation.

The writer is a holds a Master's degree in Political Science from Long Island University. He is a freelance columnist and an activist based in New York. He can be reached at amohsin1917@gmail.com



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