The countrywide strike on December 31, called by religious parties, on the issue surrounding the controversial blasphemy law, offered a good reflection on the nature of Pakistani politics. It also gives us an opportunity to reflect on the way the selfish, civilian-military ruling elite continues to lead the country down a disastrous path of denial and hypocrisy. This path is indeed marked with acquiescence of time-serving religio-political parties which are, or have been, part of almost every government since 1985.
On December 30, 2010, Federal Minister for Religious Affairs Syed Khurshid Shah assured the National Assembly that no amendments or repeal of the blasphemy law were in the offing. “The government considers that its prime responsibility is to protect this law and it will never support any private members’ bill, even from the treasury benches, in this regard,” said the federal minister in a policy statement.
Before Shah, his colleagues Qamar Zaman Kaira and Babar Awan had separately clarified that the government could never think of changing the law. This they state in opposition to a bill that former PPP minister and sitting MNA Sherry Rehman had moved in the National Assembly. Kaira and Awan embarked on the appeasement mission that clearly ran contrary to what another colleague of theirs had said only days ago. The minister for minorities affairs, Shahbaz Bhatti, had vowed that, despite pressures, the government would review the laws which had been thrust upon Pakistan by General Ziaul Haq.
These statements certainly amount to a backdown in the face of the Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam and Jamaat-e-Islami, both marginally represented in parliament but widely networked through thousands of mosques and madrassas across the country. And they have used their latter capacity to blackmail and browbeat almost all major political parties.
Maulana Fazlur Rehman’s JUI-F, for instance, currently holds only eight seats in the National Assembly but is conducting itself as a mover-shaker. This party has been part of every government since 1988, when Benazir Bhutto, too, had to accommodate him for support in parliament. The JUI-F also served as the crutches for a beleaguered Pervez Musharraf and his cohorts (PML-Q) and helped in the unhindered passage of the Seventeenth Amendment as well.
And, to the surprise of an appalled majority of Pakistanis, President Zardari and his trusted aide Rehman Malik are bending forwards and backwards to woo Fazlur Rehman back into the coalition. For this, they appear to be willing to go to any extent and this became evident on the floor of the National Assembly on Thursday, with Khurshid Shah’s categoric assurance that the law would not be touched.
As if the blasphemy law were a divine revelation, even the two major factions of the centrist and opportunistic Pakistan Muslim Leagues have kept quiet. One wonders as to what holds educated leaders like Mushahid Hussain, Marvi Memon, Nisar Ali Khan, Ahsan Iqbal, Ishaq Dar, Khurram Dastgir and so many others to take a principled position on a law that was the product of a retrogressive mindset with the prime objective of subjugating the country in the name of religion. Unfortunately, the events so far suggest that leaders of both major political parties are guided and dictated more by self-interest and pursuit of power rather than concern for the present and future Pakistan.
The perilous socio-political conditions of the country demands that these leaders — if they are interested at all in preserving a liberal Pakistan — position themselves in a more forthright and bold way, to confront all those bigots who want to keep the country beholden to ignorance in the name of Islam. Nothing will please and convince Pakistanis more than the refusal of mainstream political parties to be blackmailed by those who have thrived and prospered manifold by employing religion as a tool for political ends. Unless we stand up to obscurantist forces, the country will keep sinking in religiously-wrapped ignorance.
Published in The Express Tribune, January 4th, 2011.
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