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Religion and Society

Blasphemy as a Weapon of Mass Destruction

In Pakistan minorities are targets of the bloody strategy of Sunni extremism. An unrestrained attack on all possible co-existence which in recent years has experienced a striking escalation and has affected every confession.

Pakistan is becoming less tolerant as a society and more susceptible to the goals of ¬Islamist extremists who seek to reverse economic and democratic progress and ¬destroy the country’s foundation as a multiethnic and multi-religious state.

 

 

Established in 1947 as a homeland for South Asia’s Muslims following the end of British colonial rule on the Indian subcontinent, Pakistan’s identity as an Islamic republic is deep-rooted. Pakistan’s founding father, Muhammad Ali Jinnah, ¬supported the idea of Islam serving as a unifying force but did not envision the country developing into a theocratic state. It is still uncertain what impact the death of Osama bin Laden might have on extremist trends inside Pakistan. The fact that bin Laden was found at a compound in a Pakistani military cantonment town swarming with security officials has fueled questions from the Pakistani public about the military’s relationship to terrorists operating in the country. Pakistanis are as troubled as the rest of the world that the most wanted terrorist could live for nearly six years under the nose of the Pakistan military. Bin Laden did not have popular appeal among most Pakistanis. His death may have little immediate impact on trends within Pakistani society, but could over time weaken Pakistani groups that push an extremist agenda if al-Qaeda itself splinters.

 

 

In any case the recent assassinations of two senior Pakistani officials who were seeking to protect religious minorities from the misuse of controversial blasphemy laws demonstrate Islamist extremists are making gains with their strategy of using ¬violence to push their destructive and obscurantist views. The Pakistani public ¬reaction to the January 4 murder of Pakistani Punjab Governor Salman Taseer ¬confirmed that support for extremist ideologies is on the rise in Pakistan and is ¬endangering the country’s fragile democratic institutions. Following Taseer’s ¬murder, several hundred Pakistani clerics signed a statement condoning the ¬slaying and warning Pakistanis against grieving the death of the Governor.

 

 

When Minority Affairs Minister Shahbaz Bhatti was gunned down by extremists two months later for the same reason (supporting reform of the blasphemy laws), most Pakistani officials stayed silent, fearing similar retribution. Succumbing to the violent intimidation, the Pakistan People’s Party government led by President Asif Ali Zardari asked Parliamentarian Sherry Rehman to withdraw a legislative amendment proposing changes to the blasphemy laws. The Pakistani Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani stated firmly there would be no change to the blasphemy laws. Bhatti had worked tirelessly to bring public attention to the concerns of religious minorities and to promote religious tolerance. The feeble government response and lack of public outrage over the assassinations of the Governor and Minister will likely only embolden Islamist extremists in their efforts to shut down free speech and political expression and edge out moderates in the battle for Pakistan’s soul.

 

 

While Taseer and Bhatti had simply -recommended amending the blasphemy laws to protect minority communities, hard line Islamists portrayed their effort as an insult to the Prophet Muhammad. Long-time human rights activist and current President of Pakistan’s Supreme Court Bar Association, Asma Jahangir, castigated Pakistan’s political leadership for failing to take a resolute stand against the extra-judicial killings of their own leaders in anop-ed that ran in the Pakistani press on March 3. Nothing that the murders carried a ‘sinister message for the democratic process,’ Jahangir also criticized Pakistani lawyers, ‘whose professional basis lies in respect for rule of law,’ for celebrating the cold-blooded murder of Taseer. Human rights activists have long called for reform of the blasphemy laws but the issue gained currency last November when a court in Pakistan sentenced a Christian mother of five children, Asia Bibi, to death after her Muslim neighbors accused her of committing blasphemy.

 

 

General Zia-ul-Haq, the former Pakistani dictator who sought to Islamicize the country’s institutions during the 1980s, tightened the blasphemy laws by making the death penalty mandatory for insulting the Prophet Muhammad. Many religious scholars, however, say that Pakistan’s blasphemy laws as currently crafted in calling for the death penalty have no basis either in the Qur’an or the Hadîth (the words and deeds of Muhammad). They argue that the Qur’an offers only restraint as a solution to the crime of blasphemy. High-Stake Policy The Pakistani security establishment also is partly to blame for the erosion in religious tolerance and the rising power of Islamist extremists. The military has long relied on violent Islamist groups to accomplish its strategic objectives in both Afghanistan and India. Pakistan’s military and intelligence services historically have had close ties with the Afghan Taliban.

 

 

Before the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, the Pakistani government openly supported and recognized Taliban rule in Afghanistan. Although Pakistani officials may have disagreed with the Taliban’s harsh interpretation of Islam, they viewed the Taliban as their best chance to achieve their own strategic objectives in the region. Despite pledging to break ties with the Taliban after the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan in 2001, Islamabad failed to crack down forcefully on Afghan Taliban leaders or to actively disrupt their activities in Pakistan. Indeed U.S. officials have acknowledged that Pakistani intelligence officials maintain relationships with Afghan Taliban leaders and see benefits in keeping good ties with the group in the expectation that it will again play a role in Afghan politics. Pakistan’s high-stakes policy vis-à-vis the Taliban derives from its aims of denying India, as well as Iran and the Central Asian countries, a strong foothold in Afghanistan and ensuring a friendly regime in Kabul that will refrain from making territorial claims on Pakistan’s Pashtun areas along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border. In addition to links with the Afghan Taliban, Pakistan has supported terrorist groups that focus primarily on India, like the Lashkar-e-Tayyiba (LeT), which carried out the attacks in Mumbai in 2008 that killed nearly 166 people. The Army’s support for militancy as an instrument of foreign policy has come at a steep cost to Pakistan’s own internal stability. The starkest example of backfire from the policy has been the rise of the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), an amalgamation of Pakistani militant groups loosely affiliated with al-Qaeda and the Afghan Taliban, which has conducted numerous suicide attacks against Pakistani security forces and civilians since its formation in 2007. In 2010 alone, nearly 3,000 Pakistanis lost their lives to terrorist attacks. Pakistan has stationed around 147,000 troops along its border with Afghanistan and has engaged in military operations to uproot insurgents. But Islamabad ¬refuses to crack down in a comprehensive way on militant groups it views as assets against India, even when it is clear these groups also contribute to attacks against the ¬Pakistani state. U.S. officials have sought to convince Pakistan that its dual policies of supporting some terrorists while fighting others are counterproductive in ensuring ¬Pakistan’s own security and stability. Still, it seems the Pakistan military’s fixation on India has interfered with its ability to make logical decisions in the interest of long-term stability in Pakistan. Culture of Intolerance The rise of extremism in Pakistan has also been facilitated by exclusionary laws and the proliferation of minority-hate material in public and private school curriculums. Several studies have documented a broad-based connection between madrasa ¬(Islamic religious school) education and the propensity toward gender, religious, and sectarian intolerance and militant violence in Pakistan. Madaris (plural of madrasa) are spread throughout Pakistan, but most analysts believe that only about 5 percent of Pakistani school children attend these Islamic seminaries. A number of these schools are financed and operated by Pakistani ¬Islamist parties, such as the Jamaat-e-Ulema Islam (JUI), and by Pakistani expatriates and other foreign entities, including many in Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. While mainstreaming and expanding the curriculums of madaris is part of reversing extremist trends, it is equally important for Pakistan to improve and modernize its public education sector and to revise textbooks that encourage an intolerant and militant culture. Discrimination against religious minorities – including Christians, Hindus, Sikhs, Ahmadis, and Shi’a – has led to an extraordinary increase in religious and sectarian violence in the country over the last 30 years. The rising violence against the Shi’ite community (which make up about 25 percent of Pakistan’s total population) has been particularly striking and a prime contributor to the growing sense of chaos in the country. Sunni-Shi’ite violence has been prevalent in Pakistan since the Iranian Revolution but in recent years most of the attacks against the Shi’a community have been carried out by the Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, a Sunni militant organization that receives inspiration and support from al-Qaeda. This could signal that the sectarian phenomenon is taking on an ideological virulence that will be increasingly difficult to manage. In January, at least ten were killed in attacks on Shi’a processions in Lahore and Karachi. Christians form a small community in Pakistan, making up less than two percent of the population.

 

 

The Christian community has suffered discrimination both legally and socially but feels even more isolated and fearful following the murder of Minister Bhatti, the only Christian Cabinet official. In August 2009 Muslim mobs rampaged against Christians in the Punjabi town of Gojra, destroying hundreds of homes and burning alive eight people, including women and children. The mobs were reacting to reports (later discredited) that a Qur’an had been desecrated in the town. More recently, there were three separate incidents of church burnings in Pakistan apparently in reaction to the burning of a Qur’an at a small church in Florida on March 20. The Pakistani Christian community had strongly condemned the Qur’an burning and its instigator, the Pastor Terry Jones, who the Bishop of Islamabad referred to as a ‘fanatic’ promoting a ‘sick ideology.’ Christians are often targets of the blasphemy law as a way for opponents to settle business or other local disputes. In 2006, for example, a Christian man, Qamar David, was sentenced to life imprisonment for blasphemy after having been accused by a rival business man of sending text messages insulting the Prophet Muhammad. David died in prison in late January under suspicious circumstances.

 

 

Another Pakistani Christian man accused of blasphemy, Robert Fanish, died in police custody in September 2009. The minority Ahmadi community also is suffering severely from the growing culture of religious intolerance in Pakistan. The Ahmadiyya Jamaat has approximately 10 million followers in the world, including approximately 3 to 4 million in Pakistan. Toward the end of the 19th century, Mirza Ghulam Ahmad (1835-1908), founder of the Ahmadiyya Jamaat, broke with centuries-old Islamic dogma by claiming to be an Islamic prophet. In late May 2010, militants armed with hand grenades, suicide vests, and assault rifles attacked two Ahmadi mosques, killing nearly 100 worshippers. Human rights groups in Pakistan criticized local authorities for their weak response to the attacks and for failure to condemn the growing number of -kidnappings and murders of members of the Ahmadi community. Even mainstream Muslim religious sites in Pakistan have fallen prey to the culture of intolerance and violence. In an effort likely aimed at both provoking sectarian conflict and showing the weakness of the government in providing security for ¬average citizens, militants have conducted suicide bombings at Sufi shrines throughout Pakistan.

 

 

On April 3, 2011, bombers attacked a shrine in a remote area of Punjab province, killing over 40. In July 2010, terrorists attacked Pakistan’s most revered Sufi shrine in Lahore. The shrine – a burial site of a respected Persian Sufi saint who lived in the 11th century – represented the heart of Muslim culture in the city. Youth Bulge It is unclear what impact the rising tide of religious divisiveness and violence will have on Islamist political parties. The religious parties performed poorly in the 2008 elections, garnering only 2 percent of the national vote, but they continue to influence the legal framework and political discourse in ways that restrict personal freedoms and subordinate women and minorities. Two recent assassination attempts against JUI leader Fazlur Rehman, a major supporter of the Afghan Taliban, show that even the country’s Muslim religious leaders are unsafe. In early March Rehman had expressed openness to discussing the ‘perceived misuse’ of the blasphemy laws, which may have put him in the militants’ cross-hairs. The escalating attacks against all sections of society are destabilizing the country, deterring foreign investment, causing increasing numbers of the upper-middle class to consider relocating outside of Pakistan, and even raising questions about the potential for Pakistan to turn into a failed state. To arrest the slide into extremism and stem the violence, Pakistani military and civilian leaders must first develop clarity on the threat the country faces and then communicate a unified message against extremist ideology and violence to the public. Too often Pakistani leaders find it convenient to blame U.S. policies in the region for Pakistan’s woes. While U.S. support for the Afghan mujahideen during the 1980s has contributed to some extent to the current problems in Pakistan, Islamabad can no longer ignore the role its own policies have played in favoring militants. It is increasingly clear that the military leadership’s coddling of militants and encouragement of violent jihad against its neighbors has led to deadly consequences at home.

 

 

The Pakistan government must prioritize the issue of educating its youth and reforming educational curricula so that it teaches values of religious tolerance and pluralism and civic education. Pakistan is facing what is referred to in demographic terms as a ‘youth bulge,’ which makes the need to focus on education even more urgent. The civilian and military establishment should place Pakistani internal security – not the Indian threat – at the center of Pakistan’s national security discourse.

 

 

Renowned Pakistani expert Hasan Askari Rizvi noted in a recent article, ‘an entire generation that went to schools, colleges, and universities in Pakistan between 1985 and 2005 has been lost to Islamic orthodoxy and militancy because of the policies of the Pakistani state, particularly the Army and the ISI establishment.’ It is time for the leadership of these institutions to acknowledge that the longer they resist reversing policies of encouraging Islamic militancy, the greater the chances they will no longer have a coherent country to defend.

 

 

What may be the most important ingredient to tamping down rising religious ¬intolerance is the pursuit of friendlier ties with India. The resumption of official bilateral dialogue with India offers Pakistan the opportunity to reframe its relationship with its historical rival in a way that fosters closer economic and -people-to-people ties. A willingness to rethink Pakistani-Indian relations and seek to break the cycle of suspicion and enmity would go a long way to restoring balance in Pakistani society and trimming the sails of Islamist extremists whose anti-state ¬agenda threatens Pakistan more than any other country in the region.

 

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