Photo: Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP) leader Khadim Hussain Rizvi. Photo: AFP / Arif Ali

The religiously frenzied features of Pakistani culture, politics and society are remnants of the long and dark shadow of General Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq’s 11 years of Islamist martial law that structured the entire state as a theater of religion. Pakistani society was turned into a bastion of jihadist terror leading to Islamist bigotry that undermined the peace and stability of the state.

General Zia’s promulgation of the Hudood Ordinances on Islamic law encouraged religious fundamentalists to interfere in state affairs. As a result, the religious lobby succeeded in extending legislation against the Ahmadiyya community and other minorities.

The publication of Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses in 1988 and Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini’s fatwa to kill Rushdie further encouraged bigots to extend their influence over religious affairs in Pakistan. The amendments in blasphemy laws resulted in the Ahmadiyya and Christian communities suffering harsh violence at the hands of mobilized religious bigots.

The repressive actions of Islamists against the Ahmadiyya community and the liberal intelligentsia led to killings based merely on personal grievances and allegations. Since that time, dozens of people, including notables such as the governor of Punjab Salmaan Taseer, Christian cabinet minister Shahbaz Bhatti, Muslim student Mashal Khan, and officials and businessmen have been killed in result of blasphemy allegations.

The growing influence and importance of Islamists helped ambitious and bigoted politicians to benefit from the powerful card of religion. The result is a state divided on ethnic, cultural, linguistic, sectarian and provincial lines. The civil-military leadership has always exploited Islamic beliefs and principles for hegemonic interests, state policy and rendering authority to religious bigots in national politics.

On November 5, 2017, the Tehreek-e-Labaik Pakistan (TLP) group led by the Islamist Khadim Hussain Rizvi started a protest against a change of wording in the declaration of Prophet-hood in election laws. The siege of the twin cities of Islamabad and Rawalpindi by mobilized religious bigots continued for more than two weeks, which also challenged state writ. A complete security failure and silence of the military establishment put the responsibility of paramilitary forces in question. Imran Khan publicly conveyed his best wishes to the protesters and advised his supporters to join the sit-in against the government, then led by the Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz).

The opportunism that Khan displayed on the issue of blasphemy was highly hypocritical. He used the religious card during the general election campaign this year to exploit the sentiments of Bralevi Sunnis against PML-N in Punjab.

Strengthening blasphemy laws, establishing Pakistan as an Islamic welfare state and supporting seminaries were the subjects of Imran Khan’s election manifesto. He mainstreamed fundamentalism, supported religious extremists, encouraged the militant narrative in Khyber Pashtunkhwa, funded the “Oxford of Jihad,” Haqqania Madrassa, offered to establish offices for the Taliban in Peshawar, and kept on visiting shrines to secure the fundamentalist vote bank across the country.

The recent violent protest by the TLP led by Rizvi against Asia Bibi’s acquittal is the result of Imran Khan’s tolerance of bigots. The entire state seems powerless against extremist mobs who have openly challenged the state’s writ. This is because Khan himself violated the state writ during the sit-ins and his election campaign.

Afzal Qadri, leader of the TLP, declared a fatwa to kill three Supreme Court judges, the chief justice of Pakistan among them, who issued the decision to release Asia Bibi. This manifestly represents the strength and influence of religious fundamentalists in Pakistan. Undoubtedly, the state institutions also avoid going against the bigots who are able to sabotage the peace and stability of the state. This is shameful and a total failure of the state.

The military complex, political leaderships and bureaucracy are the responsible factors in promoting and strengthening the hegemony and influence of religious extremists and bigots.

The military supports mullahs for a jihadist cause, strengthening the military’s narrative at the national level and to counter political and nationalist narratives in the state.

Political leaderships have always exploited the religious card to legitimize authority, secure vote banks and counter opposition, as Imran Khan did against PML-N by supporting Rizvi’s sit-in.

The top bureaucrats support religious parties and their bigoted leaderships to enhance institutional hegemony at the national level.

The current religious insecurity, ascendancy of bigots and apologetic behavior of the government toward extremist clerics are the consequences of the state’s mullah-centric policies. The state has never been seen as strict in dealing with extremists and bigots who are persistent threats to political stability and democratic success in the state of Pakistan.

Pakistan has to redesign its narrative and soft policies toward religious bigots and extremists in order to stabilize the religious, political and security spheres of the country.

First, political parties, the military and bureaucrats in national institutions must avoid exploiting religious bigotry for political and institutional interests. Their ability to extract fatwas from religious scholars in support of their interests is the root cause of the influence and strength of clerics in the state. As a result, they challenge the state’s writ and violate the rule of law and order. This sort of relationship must come to an end if Pakistan wants a stable state writ in the country.

Second, the supremacy of the constitution of Pakistan is the most effective way to hold state writ. Challenging Supreme Court decisions on religious matters is a threat to the state’s stability. There must be no comfortable corner for those who challenge the courts by blocking roads, holding sit-ins and issuing fatwas to kill the authorities they oppose.

Third, strengthening democracy and stabilizing the political hemisphere of the country is the most effective policy option to contain religious bigots. Democracy has enough potential to liberalize any country that faces harsh and vibrant dogmatism. In this regard, political parties and the three pillars of the state of Pakistan must support steps that could help to strengthen democracy and political stability if they want a liberal and tolerant Pakistan.

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Rahim Nasar

Rahim Nasar writes on regional security, political and strategic affairs with special focus on South Asia, Central Asia and Indian Ocean regions. He tweets on @RahimNasari.

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