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Pakistan: The murky middle ground

by Afiya S. Zia, 28 April 2016

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The News - April 15, 2016

by Afiya Shehrbano

The Islamists in Pakistan are not impressed by sympathetic scholars’ defence of their politics over the last decade. These religious groups refuse to comply with the scholarly renditions of them as moderate, reformist and rational.

In an admirable gesture of setting aside their sectarian hate for each other, Islamist groups have regrouped out of mutual love for the anti-state murderer, Mumtaz Qadri, and their communal hate for any democratically legislated initiative for the protection of women’s or minorities’ rights.

The grand aim of these forces is to blackmail the government into preventing any reform of a blasphemy law that everyone recognises is disposed towards a travesty of justice against the poor and vulnerable. The Islamists know it too.

Apologists offer their hand-wringing explanations of blasphemous speech as moral injury that Muslims are always prone to. But the Islamists are unapologetic in their plan to exploit the fear instilled by their criminal proxies who murder in the name of religion. They reward murderers with grandiose titles such as, ‘ghazi’. They refuse to condemn the murders of those who have been accused. They threaten lawyers who defend or judges who do not convict the accused and even those who propose repeal or reform of the law.

These Islamists are also aware that domestic violence is rampant in the country. Yet, they intend to pressurise the Punjab government to retract the law on domestic violence against women and amend it according to their non-representative, ‘Shariah’ alternative.

These are unambiguous efforts to resist any legal and social improvement in the protection of minorities and women. This will likely appeal to the instinctive conservatism of the PML-N. The ruling party is all too ready to appease Islamists or at the very least, they fear their power to disrupt. Unlike parliamentary parties, unelected Islamic parties have no democratic ground to lose.

Meanwhile, some claiming to be neutral observers review the old debate about the place of religion in Pakistan and refill it in new academic bottles. For example, in a recent debate on the role of the Federal Shariat Court on these pages, one proposal advocated ‘hybridity’ between divine and secular legal regimes. This is no original thought, given that this has always been the case in Pakistan.

However, rather than seeing the contradictions and points of conflict between parallel systems, such bids contend that Islamists and their institutions represent the majoritarian Muslim sentiment. Opposed to challenging the Islamists’ coercive hegemony, it is advised that state and society must surrender the Islamic discourse to them. The proposal to graft a new genetic coding of socio-legal regimes into happy compatibility in contemporary Pakistan is flawed on some very basic levels.

The proposal of a ‘Middle Path’ (Dawn, April 6) offers to arbitrate between Pakistani liberals – who apparently all celebrated Qadri’s hanging as a ‘triumph of reason’ – and the Islamists who (unreasonably?) declared him a martyr. Interestingly, the advice offered here is not to seek democratic consensus to resolve this impasse. Instead, the solution to consult and include the “madrassah-educated Ulema” attributes legitimacy to Islamists as righteous populist representatives or, authorities of religious reasoning.

The first contradiction in the argument for accommodating religious political agendas on the issue of the blasphemy laws has to do with the interpretation of the crime itself. Just because the ‘madrassah-educated ulema’ consider blasphemy to be a crime punishable by death does not mean that the state has to accept their non-democratic legal view on this (although, it has legislated just so). It is only through another round of democratic consensus that this can be amended and not through blackmail negotiations on the streets.

Secondly, the idea that if one supports murdered governor Taseer’s right to life then the same should be true of his murderer presumes innocence of both. Such equations make criminals like Qadri the victim even before he was executed, while they make victims like Taseer and hundreds who have been accused for hearsay, to be the culprits who inflict ‘moral injury’ (even if they didn’t).

One is quite happy to support the end to the death penalty and the (liberal) principle that the state should not have the right to kill. But to propose that the illegal act of murder by an individual citizen based on a divine motivation is equal to the legal execution of the criminal by the state is an absurd starting point.

The third contradiction is equally deceptive. On the one hand, the brokers of Islamist rationality argue that the blasphemy law is misused for material greed. They argue that blasphemy accusations have nothing to do with faith-inspired love for religions and their prophets.

On the other hand, they justify the importance of this law. They do not support its repeal because people are easily morally injured by perceived or alleged blasphemy. How can one define blasphemy as a “moral controversy” (Dawn, April 6) and at the same time argue that it is a rational tool of oppression and extortion?

Further, the class-bias behind all laws is historical. But the unregulated nature of religion in the public realm makes faith-based, divine or the fluid category of ‘Shariah’ laws open to far more manipulation and interpretation. How can one be equal in the bid for hybridity or seek the middle ground when one flank has divinity on their side and the other doesn’t?

Blasphemy cases are not neutral. While it is accurate to say that there are as many if not more intra-Muslim cases than against minorities, the vulnerability of the accused depends on their affiliation with any organised religious outfit.

The Dawn article (April 6) defended the Islamists’ objection to Taseer asking for presidential pardon in the Aasia Bibi case, since they don’t believe individuals can exonerate such crimes. However, if the author had studied enough cases, she would have discovered that in many cases, mullahs arbitrate and settle ‘forgiveness’ amongst themselves (other mullahs) before and even after the registration of a case. But, they make it their mission to accuse and offer false evidence against those they don’t consider Muslim enough.

Finally, the faith invested in encouraging the role of the FSC and the CII on such issues must be based on some kind of institutional memory. Specific cases, deliberations and pronouncements of these defunct bodies should be cited to support the case that they will steer us to some balanced, representative and responsible outcome of justice.

So far, they have simply been reflective of stripping women and minorities of their precarious rights. So, the question is: why should we rely on either the blackmailing Islamists or the regressive religious bodies as beacons of hope, equality and justice in Pakistan just because they deploy intimidation and promote archaic views?

The writer is a sociologist based in Karachi.


The above article from The News is reproduced here for educational and non commercial use