By Dr. Nasir Khan
06 December 2017
Islam, in Pakistan, has transformed from a multidimensional universal religion into an ossified and stilted cult of Islamism. How this happened has a historical context, beginning in 1947 when Pakistan emerged as a new state. The division of India at the end of the British Raj was only possible when the British decided to give their blessings to the so-called Two-Nation theory; this theory recognized demands for a separate homeland for the Indian Muslims.
The question of creating Pakistan as a nation-state was only possible when a shrewd and articulate politician like Mr. Jinnah, leader of the All India Muslim League, applied his considerable political faculties to use Islam as the major building material for creating Pakistan’s national identity; apart from religion, the nation consisted of divergent ethnic, provincial, cultural and linguistic identities. Jinnah’s death in 1948 left a vast chasm in the life of the new country. Since then, the civilian and military leaders have routinely used Islam for their political ends and to justify state policies.
By 1950, the state and religion had merged into one odd entity. But thereafter the official political slogan that the State of Pakistan served Islam in the two wings of the country, East and West Pakistan, self-destructed when the people of East Pakistan fought and broke away from the domination of West Pakistan, to create Bangladesh. Many West Pakistanis were surprised to find out that a common religion, Islam, was not capable of stemming popular demands for a separate homeland.
Despite the breakup of Pakistan in 1971, religious parties in Pakistan continued to impact both the state policies and the people at large. Islam had become a major power factor in the country for the mainstream bourgeois politicians and the leaders of the religious parties. Now, Islam was called upon by the fundamentalist parties to promote belief in the supremacy of divine laws over man-made laws. Whatever the Pakistani parliamentary system was to undertake had to be in conformity with the laws of God as enshrined in the Holy Quran and the Sunnah of the Prophet. Pakistani democracy was theocracy in disguise, where the ultimate sovereignty belonged to God, not to the elected representatives of the people.
Thus, a crude form of religiosity in the guise of Islamism had entered the political arena; people accepted this political Islam as their true Islam. This false consciousness, wherein the political ideology of Islamism was embraced as true Islam, has poisoned the body politic of the country.
The introduction of the blasphemy laws in the Pakistan Penal Code in the 1970s and 1980s gave a big boost to the sectarian religious parties, most of which adhered to the Sunni branch of Islam, and to the militant extremists who have been hell-bent on imposing political Islam as a way of life over the country. As a result of the blasphemy laws, they were free to assert their power and influence over the state and the civil society in a way and to a degree that had not been seen before in the shaky history of this country.
Thus, a coercive brand of Islamism replaced an old, tolerant, and all-inclusive brand of Sufi Islam that was the traditional faith of the people of this vast region of the Indian Subcontinent before 1947. This traditional faith gradually came under increased pressure from the politicizing activities of an anti-egalitarian, anti-socialist and anti-democratic Islam led by the Jamaat-e-Islami and its founder, Maulana Maududi, who was a renowned and influential ideologue of a totalitarian 'Islamic ideology', or Islamism.
In Maududi's hidebound, conservative version of political Islam, there was no room for any western democratic and humanist traditions that are basic to a modern democratic state. There were to be no basic democratic freedoms of civil society (read all Muslim sects, and all religious minorities), and no space for an open and free educational system; such freedoms were subordinated to the Maududi’s Islamic indoctrination.
It is also important to keep in mind that the role of Maududi was not confined to Pakistan; his influence had reached many parts of the conservative Muslim countries of the Middle East and South Asia. The seeds Maududi sowed became the plants that sapped this noble religion of all progressive ideas and pushed people into a rigid conformity with his brand of 'Islamic ideology'. The introduction of the blasphemy laws in Pakistan was a natural result of the process of Islamisation that Maududi and other right-wing religious parties had set in motion. They had found fertile ground for their agenda in the social conditions of Pakistan.
There had also been many other puritan and revivalist groups within Islamic movements, some having very large followers. However, what Maududi introduced was something qualitatively distinct; he brought the whole spectrum of political Islam under his Islamic ideological programme and laid down the foundations of Islamism in the form of strict party discipline and indoctrination, where the aim was to gain power to establish a theocratic system that no-one could challenge.
While the state became more and more associated with the Sunni versions of Islam as propounded by sectarian and intolerant clerics and preachers, violence and recriminations against other groups and religious minorities increased. A person’s religion was no longer a personal matter, but a matter of concern for the state authorities, legislature, and the judiciary to determine whether or not a person was a Muslim. In this way, people’s right and liberty to choose their belief on the basis of conscience no longer existed. An arbitrary and coercive religious policy became the norm.
One main group targeted by sectarian violence and victimization was the Ahmadi population, whose views as to whether or not Prophet Muhammad was the last prophet of Allah have been profoundly opposed by orthodox Muslims. Following a sustained anti-American movement by Islamic religious parties that started in the early 1950s, the Ahmadis were finally declared non-Muslims by a constitutional amendment in 1974.
If any unfortunate Pakistani, whether an official or a layman, is accused by any Pakistani ‘Muslim’ of having transgressed the limits of the hegemonic Sunni beliefs, he or she is in big trouble. Any such allegation, even without any substantive proof before the judicial bodies, is used as suspicion of a breach of the blasphemy laws of Pakistan, which both the hard-line Islamist parties and also the major liberal and populist parties support for their own political motives.
How can a falsely accused person show that he has not committed any offence when, from the outset, the allegations by a ‘Muslim’ accuser are accepted as ipso facto true by the police and the courts of law?
This is the state of affairs in Pakistan, a country being traumatized under the burden of religious fanaticism, obscurantism and infantile world-views. People living in democratic countries, where the rule of law and basic human freedoms are taken for granted, cannot understand that such violations of basic rights are taking place in Pakistan at the present moment.
Anyone charged with violating the blasphemy laws is considered sufficiently guilty as to set in motion the prosecution process. Many people have fallen victim to this vicious trap, which even the tormentors in the medieval ages would not have believed possible.
What is even more mind-boggling is the fact that any alleged offenders of blasphemy laws should show that they did not do what they are charged with! In fact, this happens in cases where such allegations, in themselves, are seen as substantial proof of guilt. Here the accused is not regarded innocent until proven guilty beyond reasonable doubt. In the eyes of the law, in the Islamic Republic of Pakistan, anyone accused of, or charged with blasphemy is guilty of the offence until proven otherwise.
Contrary to the universal conventions and legal norms pertaining to the presumption of innocence according to the rules of criminal justice in civilized countries, a Pakistani citizen accused of blasphemy has to prove his or her innocence, or remain guilty. Such victims are doomed; either they will be sentenced to life in prison, or the hangman’s noose. But that is not all. Then, there is also the danger of mob violence and retributions. At the instigation of their Mullahs and preachers, ordinary Muslims, mostly Sunnis, take the law in their hands and target anyone suspected of blasphemy.
In 2011, the Governor of Punjab, Sal man Taseer, a Sunni Muslim, and Pakistan’s Minorities Minister, Shahbaz Bhatti, a Christian, were brutally murdered because they wanted an end to the grave injustices inflicted upon innocent people under the blasphemy laws. The murderer of Taseer was hailed as the defender of the honour of the Prophet by huge sections of the population throughout Pakistan. Strangely enough, many university teachers, preachers, lawyers and columnists zealously defend these pathetic laws in the belief that they are defending God, the Prophet and Islam! In fact, these laws are a true representation of the uncivilised activity, social and spiritual ignorance and false indoctrination that prevail in that country, even today in the twenty-first century.
Those who are accused of blasphemy are subject to harassment, threats and physical molestation. Any police officials, judges or lawyers who dare show concern for innocent victims are also subject to threats and intimidation. In this way, the public authorities and judges are constrained; in effect they are not allowed to function freely, independent of the pressures which extremists exert over them.
The major disruptions of civic and public life which started a few weeks ago brought Islamabad, the metropolis of the Islamic Republic of Pakistan, to its knees—a situation showing a new low ebb in the affairs of the state and society. The Law Minster of Pakistan, Mr. Zahid Hamid, became the latest target of the religious militant parties, which have gained enormous political leverage within the country. They demanded the resignation of Mr. Hamid. Faced with such a massive physical confrontation in the form of a huge show of force by the fundamentalists, the government gave in to the unreasonable demands on 27 November 2017, and thereafter the siege of the city also came to an end.
However, this backing down by the government is also seen by the extremists as their major victory. Thus, the road to Islamisation continues to broaden its parameters while the mandate of the government and public authorities shrinks.
It is obvious that religious extremist parties and groups have become emboldened enough to defy the law and order authorities with impunity. They have gained enormous street power; they can always appeal to ordinary citizens. They can attract huge crowds to disrupt the civic life of this hapless country and its people. All this is carried out in the name of defending the honour and the final status of the Prophet; embracing their actions as honouring Allah and the dignity of Islam!
Moreover, a series of weak Pakistani governments remain for the most part deeply mired in their shabby deals and economic exploitation of the people. They also play the Islam card whenever they want to prolong their survival by making new compromises with the Islamist extremist parties and groups. The Pakistani ruling elite know how the Panama investment schemes function, how Swiss banks can hide their ill-gotten millions of dollars and pounds, how European countries can provide them safety and thus save them from any real and rigorous investigations into their economic or political affairs.
Now, turning back to the question of the blasphemy law, we may ask: Has the honour or the name of the Prophet ever been under any real threat or abuse at the hands of any people in Pakistan? Pakistan is a traditional, conservative Islamic country, where around 97% people are Muslims. Why would anyone use vulgar abuse against the Prophet, who is so profoundly venerated, both here and in other Islamic countries? In my view, there is no rationale for doing any such thing.
The main aim of the religious parties and the religious lobby was and still is to fight against the world’s democratic system and neutralize any educational process that opens up the avenues for rational thinking and openness, as we witness in democratic societies in the world. In Pakistan, theocratic rule and Sharia laws have become the most beloved notions around which hopes and expectations are woven, for the birth of a new world. The Islamists also believe their services to protect the Prophet are bringing the new world closer to the doors of Pakistanis. This is not only misleading but also a grand deception practised on ordinary Muslim believers.
To any reasonable person in Pakistan, it is no secret to that the favourite political tools in the hands of Pakistani politicians and leaders are to play the Islam card. A conservative and indoctrinated population was an easy target, and the elite took full advantage of such a 'concrete' state of the affairs for their selfish ends, as did the religious parties, according to their own agendas. The results are before our eyes. In this way, a monster has been created by the opportunistic rulers, political leaders, political and Islamist parties; in the end it has become a fully grown Hydra with nine-heads as in Greek mythology. It was said about this serpent-like monster that if you cut off one hydra head, two more grow back! Now, Pakistan and its people have the Hydra hovering over their heads. But due to the prevalence of religious fanaticism, they have not been able to see it or fear it.
In fact, the whole scenario of religious fanaticism is deeply preposterous and primitive; it is an expression of total mental and spiritual paralysis—a state of mayhem that has gripped the people for the last seven decades. In the beginning, to play the Islamic card, such as ‘Islam in danger,’ was used to strengthen the hands of the anti-democratic and religious reactionary forces. The opportunistic and manipulating political leaders and political elites had discovered early on that the Islamic card worked like magic on the people, whose belief includes being enthralled by the rich rewards of Paradise and its abundant delights, rewards reserved only for male Muslim 'believers'. The clerics have embedded such images in the minds of vast congregations.
To sum up, what the ruling elite and exploiters of Pakistanis did not realise or understand they were creating a big monster, a social and religious force that none would be able to control. That is exactly what happened. The recent shows of force in Islamabad by disruptive and rowdy fanatics is not incidental, but are part of political agenda which have strong backing by the power centres in the country. Perhaps, such a situation may also scare those who patronised and unleashed fanatic fundamentalists for their short-term objectives. That was not a prudent course to follow. In any case, one thing is certain: The monster is not going to disappear. It is there, and it will continue to play havoc with the helpless, ordinary people of this country. They have no escape route, nowhere to turn to seek help.
Dr. Nasir Khan is a historian of ideas and a political analyst. He is the author of Development of the Concept and Theory of Alienation in Marx’s Writings (Oslo, 1995) and Perceptions of Islam in the Christendoms. A Historical Survey (Oslo, 2006). He has written numerous articles on international politics, socialism, religion and human rights.