Old beginnings

December 06,2017

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To the discerning eye, the most disturbing aspect of the agreement between the Tehreek-e-Labaik and the government of Pakistan is the very first point. The point, in addition to calling for the resignation of the now former law minister Zahid Hamid, also demands that the Tehreek-e-Labaik will not issue a fatwa against the deposed minister.
The frightening aspect of the clause is not what it states, but what it implies. Ostensibly, the government was able to gain amnesty for Zahid Hamid. However, in doing so, the government, wittingly or unwittingly, recognised the right of issuing fatwas of any private, almost sporadic, religious pressure group with the ability to muster enough support to cause nuisance. And the recent history of the country is clear proof that issuing fatwas or making public declarations to that effect against someone can potentially endanger not only personal insecurity for individuals like Zahid Hamid but cause large-scale civil unrest.
And if we needed further evidence of the state’s capitulation and the Tehreek-e-Labaik’s intention to use the authority, the leaders of the Tehreek demanded that the law minister of Punjab also “present himself before a board constituted by the religious party and explain his controversial statement [regarding Ahmadis]”. Unsurprisingly, the minister responded that he would make himself available for such a hearing whenever “ordered” by the leaders of the movement. Rana Sanaullah’s past credentials will, one hopes, ensure that he has a relatively easy passage through the inquisition. But rest assured, the provincial law minister is not going to be the last person having to defend his faith and his life against this and other increasingly emboldened groups.
Truth be told, the problematic relationship between the official Pakistani state and private religious groups is not a new phenomenon. The very foundation of the state of Pakistan, or as it is widely (almost universally) understood, makes it inclined to religion playing a role in the polity.
The fact that Pakistan has adopted Islam as a state religion is not unique either. It is not unusual for countries to have a state religion or to privilege religious institutions. However, in most states, the religious authority is sanctioned by the state and flows from the top. In Pakistan’s case, the state has a more hands-off relationship with directing religious discourse wherein religious groups make demands and advocate for them, often violently, and the state accommodates these demands into policies and legal frameworks.
Since the anti-Ahmadi riots of 1953, the state gradually allowed religious groups to occupy the space that the state has been too reluctant to venture into. Worried about personal safety, reputation and votes, or in their eagerness to bring down political opponents, the official state and its various forms – civilian and military – overestimated the effectiveness and underestimated the ambitions of these private religious groups.
Matters have been further complicated by the backing of militant movements with a religious bent in the 1980s and the 1990s. Over the last few decades, the ideas espoused by these groups became increasingly mainstream. Armed with modern weaponry and having established firm control over the discourse around the ideology deemed central to the state, these religious groups enjoy total licence. Appeasement has only served to strengthen and raise the ambitions of these groups.
It is well overdue that the Pakistani state realises that the only way forward is to wrestle back the control of religious discourse from these groups. That is not to say that the model where states shape and dominate the religious discourse provides a perfect example. State patronage of one religious doctrine has on occasion resulted in stifling of open debate and the persecution of religious minorities. However, countries with robust parliamentary systems have most often proven to be successful in maintaining a balance between the state deriving its morality from a religious doctrine and allowing for a polity that tolerates and encourages difference.
We do not elect our leaders merely for translating our wishes into laws and policies. Perhaps more importantly, we elect them recognising their wisdom and their ability to educate and enlighten. Understandably, the elected representatives feel like they are under immense duress due to the widespread sympathy for the purported cause of such groups. It is painful to see parliamentarians having to start the discussion on every public platform with the disclaimer that the matter is “too sensitive” for them to comment on it in a meaningful way, when they are the ones who have been vested by the people with the authority under the constitution to deliberate on issues such as this.

The writer is an assistant professor at the Department of Political Science,
University of Peshawar. He also co-hosts the podcast ‘Understanding Pakistan’ on patarimusic Twitter: aamer1raza

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