Pakistan’s Green Threat: Extremism and Political Islam

February, 2011
By Gitanjali Bakshi

On the 4th of January 2011, the Governor of Punjab-Pakistan, Salman Taseer, was assassinated by his own elite forces bodyguard, Malik Mumtaz Hussein Qadri. Taseer was shot 26 times with a sub-machine gun as he returned to his car after meeting a friend for lunch at Kohsar market in Islamabad.

It was revealed the next day - confirming the suspicions of most analysts - that Qadri had intended to shoot Taseer because of the governor’s views and stance on Pakistan’s Blasphemy Act. In fact a few weeks before Taseer’s death, several religious political parties and religious groups had come out in protest of a resolution that had been presented to amend the Blasphemy Act. Papers reported that Qadri had been previously removed from the elite forces for his extremist views but had later been re-instated for reasons unexplained.

The Blasphemy Act was instituted in Pakistan during the first half of the 1980s and since then over 150 cases have been lodged; however, none have resulted in the recommended death sentence. In a recent case, concerning a Pakistani Christian woman named Aasia Bibi, a handful of Pakistan’s political elite had openly expressed their wish to amend this act. This list included Former Federal Information and Broadcasting Minister Sherry Rehman, Minority Minister Shahbaz Bhatti, President of the Supreme Court Bar Association Asma Jehangir and, of course, former Punjab Governor Salman Taseer. Taseer had openly voiced his support of the blasphemy accused, Aasia Bibi, and had termed the Blasphemy Act a draconian act that should be amended; this ultimately became the reason why he was murdered.

The fact that Taseer was shot by an individual who held extremist views on the subject was not surprising to observers; what was surprising however, was the mass political support that this assassin has received since then and the fervour with which the Blasphemy Act has gripped Pakistan’s socio-political circles.

After Taseer’s assassination, religious political parties expressed their vigorous support for Taseer’s killer Qadri. Jamaat Islami (JI) chief Syed Munawar Hassan said that Taseer was responsible for his own death because of the statements that he had made, while Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam-Fazal (JUI-F) chief Maulana Fazlur Rehman said that he would not express his sympathies for an insulter of the Prophet Muhammad. Qadri is said to be a JI supporter and his actions were no doubt driven by a lethal mixture of political convictions and religious beliefs. In fact, his actions stand as a watershed for the evolution of political Islam in Pakistan. 

Islam has featured prominently in Pakistan’s political history and has taken on different forms - at first through M. A. Jinnah’s ideas of a separate state for Muslims, later through Gen. Zia Ul Haq’s Islamization of the Pakistani Constitution, and, now, as Pakistan ebbs through a period of civilian governance, we see the rising influence of religious political parties like the JI and the JUI-F. These religious political parties want to institutionalize Sharia law in Pakistan; whereby all institutions of state and civil society will be subordinate to divine law. 

In 2002 religious political parties banded together, under the umbrella of the Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal (MMA), and were the ruling party in the North West Frontier Province (NWFP), now known as Khyber Pakhtunkhwah (KP). They held a majority of the votes in this crucial region until the 2008 elections.  Since then religious political parties like the JUI-F have managed to secure only 6 to 7 seats in the National Assembly (NA), but, as Former US Assistant Secretary of State Robin Raphael rightly observed, they wield street power even if they aren’t able to secure ballot power. The religious political parties have enough street power to summon protest rallies numbering anywhere between 50,000-500,000 people. These people have all been protesting against amendments to the Blasphemy Act and their voice has only grown louder after Taseer’s death. 

The protests have been so vociferous in fact that the current civilian government has called an All Party Meeting to discuss the actions that should be taken in light of the situation. The PPP has even gone so far as to pronounce - even more vociferously than it did before the governor’s murder - that it has no intention of making any changes what so ever to Pakistan’s Blasphemy Act, although this has not been sufficient enough to stop the protests. 

Pakistan’s political Islamists are gaining ground. JUI-F’s Maulana Fazlur Rehman is an influential personality in Pakistan’s political scenario and his close links to the Taliban and the KP region are gradually making him an indispensable force in the eyes of the U.S. and NATO. In the future, these parties will use sentiments of growing resistance to American intervention in order to build their political support base, just as they had secured 11.3% of the national vote after the United State’s war with Afghanistan in 2001. 

In addition, by using religio-political laws like the Blasphemy Act as a platform, these parties intend to gain popular support, media attention and political muscle. The ire flamed by the Blasphemy Act can still continue for some more time in Pakistan – JI Chief Munawar Hassan has explicitly said that he intends to continue his protests until Aasia Bibi is sentenced to death and Taseer’s killer Qadri is pardoned – and this ire has the potential to spread to international quarters as well, evidenced by the remonstrations in Rome and the keen interest the case has received in the global media.

The speeches made at these protest rallies are extremely provocative and - as was the case with former Punjab Governor Salman Taseer - could pose a threat to the lives of certain Pakistani personalities that espouse more moderate views with regard to religion. They can cause sectarian rifts and threaten the safety of minorities in Pakistan. The rallies can also have repercussions for Indian security as they act as a perfect meeting point for extremist elements in Pakistan like Jamaat-u-Dawa’s Hafeez Saeed and Nawa-i-Waqt Editor-in-chief Majid Nizami.

If not kept in check religiously tinged political movements in Pakistan can create an explosive mix and exert a great deal of harm in the future. Pakistan will have to watch out for this ‘green threat’. As the country grapples with several other issues, including widespread inflation, an energy shortage and growing unrest in the border regions of Khyber Pakhtunkhwah, the proceedings over the Blasphemy Act could prove to be a catalyst for growing extremism, unrest and even terrorist activity in the months ahead.

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