MANY Pakistanis take pride in the fact that the religious right wing has never really gained much traction in any general election. This sense of jubilation is heightened by the events taking place in India, where a conservative government is seen to be steering the country away from its secular credentials and towards a more theocratic model of governance.
But do we actually have much to be jubilant about? Even if it is accepted that Pakistanis have never elected any religious party at the centre, this cannot insulate us from the reality of the right-wing creep. In fact, it may just be a matter of time.
The religious right has always been aware of its street power which was put to use as early as during the Ahrar movement of the 1950s and still manifests itself in various forms today. The religious right wing had cultivated such influence in part through its educational/madressah network, which was more affordable and accessible to the local population than the traditional schooling system. In addition, it also did charitable work across the country. This earned it much respect and greater grass-root contact.
The influence of the right wing, ironically, was magnified also by the political expedience exercised by the rulers of the time. In other words, the influence of the religious right did not simply materialise because of its propensity to resort to violence. The state, having a monopoly over the use of force, is specifically mandated to ensure public order. However, what happens when the state and its constituents start viewing the right wing as a means to an end?
The religious right has been propped up for short-term gains.
At every crucial period of our history, our rulers have done just that. The religious right has been used by various democratic and autocratic rulers to shore up its own credentials and legitimacy. Zulfikar Ali Bhutto declared Ahmadis non-Muslims to please the religious right wing to retain and augment his power. Gen Ziaul Haq used it to lend legitimacy to his unconstitutional and illegal rule, whereas Gen Musharraf used a syndicate of religious parties to retain political power. At each stage, the political or military leadership was willing to prop up the right wing for short-term gains, without realising that such support would simply make it more aggressive in the long term.
In light of this, in today’s Pakistan, despite having minimal numbers in the Sindh Assembly, the right can essentially veto a bill to protect minority rights and eliminate forced conversions merely on the basis of its nuisance value.
Interestingly, the Sindh Criminal Law (Protection of Minorities) Bill was unanimously passed by the Sindh Assembly in 2016. However, on the pressure of the right wing, the bill was returned by the governor and never saw the light of day. In fact, it is purported that various ulema, including members of the Council of Islamic Ideology, approached the chief minister’s assistant to categorically tell him that they would oppose such legislation, and a possible siege of the Sindh Assembly would be undertaken if it was not withdrawn by the government.
The nuisance value of the religious right, however, is not limited to governments. In the year 2018, when the Supreme Court was set to announce its verdict on Aasia Bibi’s appeal, the Tehreek-i-Labbaik Pakistan announced protests throughout the country in the event that a verdict was given in her favour. When the verdict was pronounced, TLP supporters were instigated against the judges, who were threatened with violence, whilst an acquitted Aasia Bibi was effectively besieged in Pakistan on account of death threats.
The extent of the creep is not restricted to state institutions. It seems that an emboldened religious right also feels it is entitled to decide which movies we may watch, and whether we are entitled to watch them at all. Sarmad Khoosat’s Zindagi Tamasha is a case in point. Whether or not it has a problematic storyline is not the point. The point is that legitimate government authorities had already cleared it. Hence, for it to be banned or suspended thereafter merely on fears of unrest created by the religious right speaks of the extent to which society and state have ceded their legitimacy to those who see themselves as the saviours of faith.
All in all, the slow yet steady permeation and acceptance of right-wing moral policing in varying aspects of life is a worrying sign. The manner in which the state repeatedly capitulates before such elements reinforces the perception that might is certainly right. In a society which continues to succumb to the demands of those who threaten street agitation in the face of opposition, the path of least resistance has proved to be a path to abject surrender.
The writer is a lawyer based in Karachi.
Published in Dawn, January 31st, 2020