A new boldness in challenging religious extremism
PEOPLE from many walks of life poured onto the streets of Rawalpindi near Islambad, Pakistan’s capital, on March 1st to honour a convicted murderer. Among the 100,000 or so mourners who crammed into Liaquat Park and surrounding streets were lawyers wearing the black suits of their profession, labourers bused in from around the country and even the odd expatriate businessman who had flown in for the occasion. The crowd was full of fury, directed at the government of Nawaz Sharif, the prime minister, for the hanging the day before of Mumtaz Qadri. A former police bodyguard, he had assassinated his boss, Salman Taseer, the governor of Punjab province, in 2011.
Taseer was a liberal-minded businessman turned politician who had earned the hatred of religious hardliners by lobbying for a presidential pardon for a poor Christian woman. She had been sentenced to death under Pakistan’s infamous blasphemy law that bans disrespect towards the Prophet and other “holy personages”. It was, Taseer said, a “black law”. It is often invoked against religious minorities on the flimsiest of grounds; evidence can rarely be challenged in court for fear of repeating the alleged blasphemy.
For killing Taseer, clerics declared Mr Qadri a ghazi or warrior. A mosque in Islamabad was named after him. Support for him among the 500,000-strong armed forces was so strong that the army chief at the time told foreign ambassadors that he was unable to issue a condemnation.
This week the government was careful to manage the backlash. It ordered broadcasters to downplay news of Mr Qadri’s execution and imposed a news blackout on his funeral. No leading politician dared comment.
Given the strength of support for Mr Qadri, it was not obvious that the government would dare to execute him. His legal team had exhausted all options. In a bold ruling in October the Supreme Court not only roundly rejected the team’s arguments; it also asserted that the blasphemy law was not beyond criticism since it was man-made. Even so, Mr Sharif’s party, the Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz), or PML (N), could have sat indefinitely on Mr Qadri’s request for a presidential pardon, so ducking the risk of enraging its religiously conservative base.
That it did not do so is evidence of a growing readiness to stand up to intolerance and extremism. It follows a firestorm of terror attacks from the late-2000s onwards, culminating in the Pakistani Taliban’s assault on a school in Peshawar in December 2014 that killed more than 130 children. That event galvanised public opinion like nothing before. Since then the army, which in the past has used rabble-rousing Islamists to bash domestic and foreign opponents, has also turned its efforts to curbing extremism.
Politics no longer favours the hardliners, who tend to flourish during periods of military rule. Religious parties win few seats in a parliament dominated by the PML (N), while hardliners are divided over ideology. Mr Qadri’s sympathisers come from the usually non-violent Barelvi movement, Sunnis heavily influenced by Sufism. Barelvis are locked in competition for adherents with the Deobandi movement, to which the Taliban and most other militant groups belong. With their puritanical outlook and belief in going back to the basics of early Islam, Deobandis are deeply critical of Barelvi enthusiasm for such traditions as worshipping at the shrines of local Sufi saints. Barelvis have largely cheered the crackdown on militant groups, which has targeted Deobandi mullahs and seminaries. A leading Deobandi cleric, Mohammad Khan Sherani, backed the execution of Mr Qadri.
Mr Sharif cuts a strikingly more liberal figure than during his last stint in power, in the 1990s. Then he attempted to introduce sharia (Islamic law) and have himself declared “commander of the faithful”. Recently his government has pushed for Hindus, who make up 2% of the country’s population of 182m, to be allowed legally to register their marriages for the first time. On February 24th Punjab, which is controlled by PML (N), passed a law to protect women from violence (a move which a constitutionally empowered body of mullahs quickly declared to be un-Islamic). Mr Sharif has also thrown his support behind an Oscar-winning documentary critical of the widespread sanctioning of “honour killings” of women. He has vowed to change the law.
Much more remains to be done, including reining in a notorious mullah, Abdul Aziz, who has praised the Pakistani Taliban and promotes sectarian hatred from right under the government’s nose in Islamabad’s Red Mosque. And there are still no signs of a crackdown on army-backed jihadists who restrict their activities to Afghanistan and India.
The blasphemy law also needs to be reformed or, even better, scrapped. But that is unlikely, given how many men may be ready to emulate Mr Qadri. Those who got close enough to Mr Qadri’s garlanded corpse this week reported a face with the beatific glow of a martyr.