By Farahnaz Ispahani
The reaction by extremist Islamist groups to the Pakistan Supreme Court’s decision to acquit a poor Christian woman, eight years after she was charged with blasphemy, highlights the country’s deeper problem.
After years of religious rhetoric as an essential element of national politics and statecraft, Pakistan often finds itself at the mercy of hardline clerics and unscrupulous individuals seeking to exploit religion for political gain. The result is not only loss of individual liberty but also a state of permanent crisis.
The Asia Bibi case has all the elements of Pakistan’s inherent weaknesses. First, the law allowed neighbours with a grudge to persecute Asia Noreen, usually referred to as Asia Bibi, and now, even belated judicial recognition of her innocence seems unacceptable to those rioting in the streets. They want to kill someone against whom the Supreme Court found no credible evidence and are threatening apex court judges as well senior military commanders while trying to force Pakistan to a halt.
Ms. Bibi, an illiterate berry picker, was convicted of defiling the name of the Prophet Mohammed. She was accused by her Muslim neighbours who objected to her drinking water from the same glass as them because she was Christian. Under Pakistan’s blasphemy law, her alleged comment is punishable by death. In 2010, Ms. Bibi, at age 39, was sentenced to hang, but her final appeal remained pending until the Supreme Court decision on Wednesday.
In intervening years, Ms. Bibi’s case became an international cause célèbre. Earlier this year, Rome’s Colosseum was lit in red in support of persecuted Christians, including her, and Pope Francis described Ms. Bibi, alongside a Nigerian woman who was captured by Boko Haram, as “martyrs”.
The Pope’s attention to Ms. Bibi’s case paralleled efforts by the European Union’s Special Envoy for the promotion of the freedom of religion or belief to secure her release by making it a condition for continued European market access for Pakistani products. The Pakistani government was informed that the future of Generalised System/Scheme of Preferences (GSP) status to Pakistan, which allows Pakistan duty-free access to EU markets, would be directly linked to the peaceful resolution of the blasphemy case.
The reason the Supreme Court heard Ms. Bibi’s appeal and acknowledged in its judgment what had been widely known — that witnesses against her had either retracted their testimony or contradicted each other — can be found in Pakistan’s severe financial woes. Ms. Bibi got relief she should have been entitled to as a right just because the Chief Justice wanted to help a weak new government struggling to manage the country’s external finances.
Pakistan’s blasphemy laws date back to the military dictatorship of General Zia-ul-Haq. A series of changes were introduced in the 1980s, making derogatory remarks against any Islamic personage a crime under Section 295 of Pakistan’s Penal Code and punishable by three years in prison; prescribing life imprisonment for “wilful desecration of the Quran”; and punishing blasphemy against Prophet Mohammed with “death, or imprisonment for life”.
Ms. Bibi’s case illustrates how blasphemy laws are used to persecute the weakest of the weak among Pakistan’s religious minorities. As a poor Christian from a low caste, she was among the most vulnerable and susceptible to discrimination. And the legal system — which, in theory, should be designed to protect the innocent — failed her in every way until political expediency necessitated otherwise.
Laws prohibiting blasphemy or harming religious feelings exist in many countries, although in some places they are rarely used even if they still exist on the statute books. But in Pakistan, which has one of the highest numbers of blasphemy cases in the world, the charge is used widely to settle grudges or property disputes.
There is also political advantage to be gained by appealing to the religious sentiment of majority Muslims against Christians, Ahmadi Muslims, and members of other minority communities. The constant state of religious frenzy that Pakistan’s machinery of state maintains as a guarantee of Pakistani nationhood heightens vigilante violence against alleged blasphemers and their alleged protectors.
As with her previous trials and appeals, large crowds gathered outside the court in Islamabad on Wednesday demanding that Ms. Bibi’s conviction be upheld, and the execution carried out. In messages sent to the media, Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan asked soldiers to rebel against the Army Chief, saying that the acquittal presumably had the military’s backing.
As Pakistan gets increasingly isolated internationally, the military may have sought Ms. Bibi’s acquittal and reported departure to safety abroad to relieve some pressure on Pakistan’s image around the world. She is reported to have left Pakistan and to have been reunited with her husband, daughters and grandchild.
The Jamaat-e-Islami, which, like Tehreek-e-Labbaik, has a very strong street presence, has asked its members to come out in Islamabad to demand that the acquittal be reversed. Even the army’s overt protégé, Hafiz Saeed of the Lashkar-e-Taiba, has joined the call for protests over the Supreme Court judgment.
Amidst reports of violence, the national media, especially television channels, have gone totally silent about Mr. Bibi’s release. They, too, are under threat from the baying mobs.
To claim moral leadership, Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan attacked hardliners and appealed for calm in a televised address, taking a U-turn from his pre-election rhetoric that had projected him as a defender of the Prophet’s honour and a crusader against blasphemers.
According to Mr. Khan, the hardliners were “inciting [people] for their own political gain” and were “doing no service to Islam”. But Ministers have also started negotiating with the extremist clerics, and it is only a matter of time before another U-turn is taken to fashion some compromise with the hardliners.
The Supreme Court’s decision in the Asia Bibi case is a small step in the right direction but a long journey awaits Pakistan in reversing the cumulative injustice it has meted out to its religious minorities over the decades.
A theocracy or a secular State
View from Pakistan
By Tariq Malik
Another sit in by a religious group. Another state capitulation. Time has come to make a decisive choice. In order to ensure a viable future for itself, free from the kind of internal religio-political conflict just witnessed, the state of Pakistan should either become a theocracy such as Iran or Saudi Arabia; or, alternatively, adopt a modern secular state structure that is prevalent in much of the rest of the world.
For 70 years, the westernized liberal politico-military-bureaucratic elite ruling this country has tried to have it both ways – feeding people a heavy dose of religion while carrying on state business along largely modern western lines. In our Establishment’s view, while one part of the duality – state focus on and deference to Islam – provides the disparate masses of the country with a unifying religio-national identity and ensures a limitless supply of recruits ready to fight, the other half of this oxymoronic arrangement – western institutions of governance such as parliamentary democracy and quasi-modern judicial and administrative bureaucracies – makes possible at least a modicum of western-style individual freedoms and a relatively permissive cultural space for the upper classes.
The mayhem unleashed following the Supreme Court decision to free the blasphemy-accused Aasia Bibi has brought once again into sharp relief this self-contradictory duality that has marred the idea and existence of Pakistan from its earliest days. The lockdown of the country by stick-wielding hordes of a relatively new one-issue religious pressure group, and their open ridiculing of the three most powerful men in Pakistan – the Chief of the Army Staff, the Prime Minister, and the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court – is evidence enough that the 70-year old strategy of riding the two boats simultaneously is finally dead.
I personally would not want to live in such a society, given my own life experiences and attendant biases, yet, considering the extreme levels of religiosity now on display in the land of the pure, the option of turning Pakistan into a formal theocracy such as Iran or Saudi Arabia must be given serious consideration.
In a theocratic Pakistan, women and men would be active and equal citizens while occupying separate spheres. The new judicial system need not be “blind” like the heavily procedures-driven and unsatisfactory current British-style legal system. Islamising the economy could be tricky but if Saudi Arabia and Iran can work within the global capitalist system, so can a theocratic Pakistan. Similarly, a nuclear-armed state run by Mullahs would be a hard sell but given that both our military and our religious leadership have had collusive and symbiotic relationships with the West in the past, an arrangement acceptable to all can certainly be found.
Long ago, Islamic civilization spawned great research and scholarship. Perhaps in a truly theocratic Pakistan great learning, especially of science, would go hand in hand with religious instruction and strict observance of religion.
Such a theocracy might not be to the liking of our tiny English-speaking chattering classes who spend much time worrying about the future of this country every evening while drawing inspiration from their tumblers one sip at a time. But for the masses, who have been fed a steady diet of religion for 70 years and told ad nauseam how enforcement of Islam is the panacea to all their existential ills, such a theocratic state is the only option left.
If, on the other hand, for whatever reasons, a theocratic state is not palatable for our de jure or de facto rulers, then the only other sane choice would be to have a completely secular state – the most common form of government and state in the world today. Due to our establishment’s cynical manipulation of the masses through the use of religion, secularism has been deliberately misrepresented in Pakistan. In this country, being secular is wrongly interpreted as being against Islam specifically and against religion generally.
Contrary to this widely-held perception in Pakistan, secularism, unlike, Marxism, communism, or atheism, is not against belief in or practice of religion in any way. Many highly religious people practice and advocate secularism in the public domain and believe that in this modern era of multi-cultural, religiously-diverse societies, government should be organized and run along secular lines.
That secularism is not in conflict with Islam is evident from the “pro-secularism” positions of Islamic parties of India. Maulana Arshad Madani, one of the leaders of the Jamiat-e-Ulama-e-Hind, has pleaded repeatedly for strengthening of secularism in the face of rising religious bigotry of right wing Hindu parties. Similarly, the Supreme Court of India has declared Jamat-e-Islami “an All India organisation professing political, secular and spiritual credentials with belief in the oneness of God and universal brotherhood”. In fact, secularism strengthens religion by protecting religion and the religious from governmental interference.
A secular Pakistan would, at long last, be the realization of Jinnah’s promise – “You may belong to any religion or caste or creed – that has nothing to do with the business of the State” – that he made in his August 11, 1947 speech before the Constituent Assembly of Pakistan. A secular Pakistan would, in the long run, lead to a harmonious society, as explained by Jinnah in the same speech when he said: “As you know, history shows that in England conditions, some time ago, were much worse than those prevailing in India today. The Roman Catholics and the Protestants persecuted each other….. Today, you might say with justice that Roman Catholics and Protestants do not exist; what exists now is that every man is a citizen, an equal citizen of Great Britain, and they are all members of the Nation.”
That something as toxic to Jinnah’s secular vision as the Objectives Resolution was carried in the same Assembly within a year of his death shows how quickly and meekly the nascent State of Pakistan surrendered to the very Islamic constituency which opposed its creation in the run up to the Partition. The capitulation has continued over the course of the State’s lifespan following the 1949 Objectives Resolution, the present surrender to the Rizvi Brigade being only the latest in a long litany of cynical and regrettable climb downs. If this trajectory continues in the country – a nation raised on the extolled virtues of shedding blood and sacrificing one’s life for the religious cause – a bloodbath that tears up our social and national fabric is inevitable.
It’d be easy for our guardian establishment to dismiss each of these two options presented above as “impractical”. However, what is really impractical and dishonest is this dual policy of continuously stoking religious nationalism amongst the masses while expecting at the same time that our British-style semi-dysfunctional institutions will somehow deliver us a modern, tolerant, prosperous society modelled on the present-day west. It is time to make a decision. Choose wisely, but do choose and then stay the course.
Why nations fall
By Ahmad Raza
The moral corruption of a nation causes its downfall. This is the simple historical observation that is derived from religious texts. The Quran testifies that no amount of material wealth, economic power and military might can save a morally corrupt nation from self-destruction.
In this context, there are examples from the past of mighty nations and communities that have collapsed. The story of Aad, Samud and Sodom is in the Quran as is the story of the Tribe of Israel and their killing by the pharaoh.
The Aad were a very strong nation. The Quran describes them as physically strong and tall. They developed methods of building carved houses in the mountains.
Technology and physical control made them arrogant and disobedient to Divine laws. Their cities were obliterated by a sandstorm which lasted for seven days and eight consecutive nights.
In Surah Yunus, 10:49, Allah says, “For every nation is a [specified] term. When their time has come, then they will not remain behind an hour, nor will they precede [it].” When ajal (death) of a nation is pronounced, then there is no refuge.
The downfall of unjust nations is inevitable.
The forces of ajal begin to operate when a nation exhibits three attributes: zalim, (tyrant, unjust), mujrim (criminal or prone to commit crimes) and fasiq (disobedient sinners). When a nation and its ruling elite become zalim, the countdown begins. The Arabic root of the word ‘zalim’ is ‘zulm’ which means darkness. A kind of social darkness is perpetuated through injustice and coercion. Tyranny as a norm in the social system means that a nation is a ‘dark nation’. Injustice and oppression cause the decline of unjust nations. The downfall becomes inevitable.
Resistance to tyranny can be internal or external. The Quran offers the example of ancient Egypt under the Pharoah. Powerful Egyptians enslaved the tribe of Israel. They plundered their wealth and resources and resorted to all sorts of injustice. The one notable tyranny unleashed by the Egyptians on the Tribe of Israel was massacre. They exterminated their males and kept their females to serve them as slaves. God inspired Hazrat Musa to challenge the mighty Pharaoh and his tyrant nation. According to the Quran, Musa was afraid but acted upon the Divine command. He was triumphant in liberating his nation from the unjust and tyrannical rule of the corrupt Egyptian elite.
The second attribute of the decadent nation is that they become mujrim. In the Quran (10:13), Allah says, “And We had already destroyed generations before you when they wronged, and their messengers had come to them with clear proofs, but they were not to believe. Thus do We recompense the criminal people”.
Criminal nations refuse to accept the Divine invitation to believe and uphold the truth. By rejecting Divine knowledge, these nations establish a false worldview. The Quran mentions the people of Aad, Samud, Sodom and Canaan, and several other powerful and wealthy nations who became extinct due to their falsehoods. These nations suffered from different moral and social evils.
Allah invites us to ponder over the fact that these nations cannot be traced today and one cannot sense that prosperous and powerful cities existed where ruin and wretchedness now prevail. Pomp, prosperity, technology and power cannot ensure the continued survival of nations and empires. Rather, obedience to moral law and the truth delivers a people from suffering.
The third attribute of a decadent nation is that they become fasiq. That means simply that they disobey and ridicule the boundaries of Divine laws. This disobedience is most pronounced in the affluent and wealthy class of a nation. This class indulges in all sorts of social, moral and psychological sins. They indulge in all sorts of social, moral and economic crimes with fellow members of their societies. They indulge in moral and sexual perversion. They plunder the resources of the poor. They flout the law and justice. They ‘buy’ judges and get judgements of their own choice written.
In Surah Isra, 17:16, Allah describes the state of affairs of such corrupt classes. Allah says, “And when We intend to destroy a city, We command its affluent but they defiantly disobey therein; so the word comes into effect upon it, and We destroy it with [complete] destruction.”
According to the Quran, cities and nations run by a corrupt and sinful affluent class are destined to perish. No force of skill can prevent their eventual doom. The wealthy and affluent class ridicule and disobey Divine boundaries and the legal limits prescribed by Allah’s prophets, hence inviting both natural and historical disaster. History bears testimony to the moral, economic and social corruption of the affluent classes. It is recorded by historians that empire after empire and nation after nation has fallen because of their sexual perversion, ethical decay, social and political injustices.
Fashioning potent weapons of mass distraction
By Bharat Bhushan
Unable to construct the Ram Mandir at the disputed site in Ayodhya, the ruling BJP finds itself in a quandary. Earlier, when it came to power, its excuse for not the Ram temple was that it had to follow the compulsions of “coalition dharma”, but when it gets a majority of its own it would bring in a law to facilitate the construction of the temple.
It has run a government under Prime Minister Narendra Modi at the Centre for four and a half years now. What is more, it also has a majority government in Uttar Pradesh, where Ayodhya is located. Yet it has not been able to build the Ram temple it had promised to the faithful. The reasons for its inability are many. The primary reason being that the land where the temple is to be located is disputed. The adjoining area, which is not disputed, has been acquired by the government on the orders of the Supreme Court, which has also banned any construction there.
So what does the BJP do? It shows the faithful that it is still devoted to Lord Ram and that if it cannot construct a temple at Ayodhya, it can do other things to promote his glory — by renaming Faizabad district as Ayodhya, setting a Guinness World Record by lighting over 300,000 oil lamps in Ayodhya for Diwali and building the tallest statue ever of Lord Ram in Ayodhya on the Sarayu river. This, Uttar Pradesh chief minister Yogi Adityanath has pointed out, will help people in the “darshan” (viewing) and “smaran” (remembering) of Lord Ram.
The strategy seems to be that if the party in power cannot construct the temple at the disputed site, then it can at least convert the entire district of Faizabad, now Ayodhya, into a memorial for Lord Ram.
The party is also happy that some people have objected to the renaming of Faizabad, claiming that it was the first capital of Awadh under Nawab Sadat Ali Khan-I. This allows them to please their followers by asking the rhetorical communal question: “Is their Nawab more important and bigger than our Lord Ram?” This displacement strategy, conscious and well thought out, unlike the Freudian concept, serves several political purposes. It tries to convey the commitment of the BJP to those members of its core constituency who might be getting disillusioned with it because of its inability to build the Ram temple. The renaming of the district and the promise of a Lord Ram statue is a defensive strategy to keep the flock together.
The large-scale renaming of place names in Uttar Pradesh (so far that is the only state on a renaming spree) also suggests that the party, unable to showcase its governance, is keen on proving its Hindutva credentials and to show Yogi Adityanath as a proactive chief minister.
UP is where the main battle of the 2019 general election will be fought, and the BJP must prevent the alliance of Other Backward Classes (OBCs) and dalits, represented by the Samajwadi Party and the Bahujan Samaj Party, if it wants to win. The Hindutva-laced campaign is for them too. The renaming and the Ram temple issue appeals to the common religious identity of the OBCs and dalits.
Simultaneously the BJP also addresses the stratification within caste groups by appealing to those who feel that the dominant castes (Yadavs amongst OBCs and Jatavs amongs dalits) have cornered the benefits of reservations. The BJP has tried to attract these smaller castes by its alliance with these groups such as the Kurmis (Apna Dal — Sonelal), the Rajbhars (Suheldev Bharatiya Samaj Party) or the Nishads (Rashtriya Mahan Gantantra Party). Those sub-castes which do not have a formal political party are given representation by the BJP by fielding them as candidates in various elections. It is important for the BJP to retain the loyalty of these non-Yadav OBCs and non-Jatav dalits through its renaming and Ram temple moves. Whether this strategy will trump the erosion of their social and economic position by government policies is an entirely different issue. The renaming strategy, however, is also an offensive strategy against the cultural power of the liberal intelligentsia. The more loudly they oppose the BJP’s renaming and statue-building plans in the name of cultural diversity and secularism, the more the BJP stands to benefit.
From the BJP’s point of view, their railing against its renaming spree helps the party project them as pro-minorities. By reducing the secularism of the liberal intelligentsia to nothing more than a pro-minority stand, its members can be projected as biased adjudicators of Indian public life. Indian liberal public intellectuals, therefore, need to think deeply about how to respond to this offensive strategy of the BJP before coming up with knee-jerk reactions.
If the renaming and Ram statue strategy is seen to be paying off even marginally in UP, there is every possibility of it being used to prepare the public mind for nasty communal developments as the general election nears. The large-scale gathering of the Hindu faithful for the Kumbh at Prayagraj, earlier Allahabad, in January may provide just the context for fanning the communal flames. It could provide the perfect context for the assertion of Hindu identity over their caste identity among both the OBCs and the dalits.
This will suit the BJP electorally. If there is one lesson the BJP would have learnt from the recent Karnataka byelections, it is that when the Opposition unites it will be pushed on the defensive. In those states where the BJP vote has been concentrated and where it has done exceptionally well in 2014, such as in UP, the party’s first attempt, therefore, will be to prevent the formation of an Opposition alliance. But failing that, it will attempt to divide the social base and the caste-equations of the Opposition parties. Hindutva and communal polarisation through changing place names, Ram statue politics and a Ram temple agitation are being tested as potential instruments to break the Opposition’s caste and community equations.
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