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Analysing Pakistan’s DNA

December 31, 2010

AS Pakistan lurches into yet another political crisis, we risk overlooking two important recent developments in the feverish speculation about in-house change now dominating a section of the media.

The first is the decision by the Federal Shariat Court to strike down some provisions of the Women’s Protection Act of 2006. The second is the Lahore High Court’s decision to admit a petition against Sherry Rehman in which she has been accused of the un-Islamic act of seeking an amendment in the blasphemy law through a private member’s bill in Parliament.

Let’s take the second event first. Here is a respected member of the National Assembly acting according to her conscience, and seeking to right a grave wrong inflicted on Pakistan’s minorities in the shape of the blasphemy law. This piece of legislation has taken and blighted hundreds of lives ever since it was inflicted on us by the dictator Ziaul Haq.

The law has been misused mostly against Christians and Hindus, the most vulnerable sections of our society. The latest victim is Aasia Bibi, a Christian mother, who was condemned to death recently because a spat led to an accusation of blasphemy. A local cleric then entered the fray and pressured the local administration to arrest and then try her.

The point here is that a prominent MNA can be dragged by orthodox elements, seeking her disqualification, before a court because she wants to protect the rights of Pakistan’s minorities.

Ironically, many of Ms Rehman’s supporters are the very people who so bravely and volubly fought for the restoration of Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry, and the independence of the judiciary.

In the FSC’s decision to strike down important provisions of the Women’s Protection Act enacted under Musharraf in 2006, we have a parallel judicial system encroaching on parliament’s sovereign right to pass laws. This august body was set up to ensure that Pakistan is governed under Islamic laws. The problem has always been that there is no single definition of Islamic jurisprudence, with several schools advocating their respective versions.

A further point is that out of the vast body of laws in Pakistan — some would say there are far too many — did the FSC have to pick on the one relating to women? The most damaging part of the FSC’s ruling is that appeals against decisions announced by lower courts based on the amended provisions of the Women’s Protection Act will no longer lie with the provincial high courts. Instead, the FSC has arrogated the position of appellate authority to itself.

I have little doubt that this government will meet the FSC deadline of June 2011. I suspect there are very few in the ruling party who see the irony of a relatively liberal law enacted under a military dictator being gutted under an elected government headed by the PPP. Benazir Bhutto will be turning in her grave.

Both pieces of legislation under discussion here target the weakest sections of Pakistani society: the minorities and women. In truth, over the years, they have been the punching bags for an increasingly fundamentalist, patriarchal ruling class. When Zia unleashed his so-called Islamisation laws on us, he was not acting alone. He had the support of many well-placed journalists, generals and judges. And while he might have acted in his political self-interest, his policies resonated deeply with a small but influential section of the population.

One central truth most of us are unwilling to face is that much of the increasing extremism we see around us is deeply embedded in Pakistan’s DNA. When a country is created in the name of a faith, then inevitably, that faith will come to dominate modes of thought and behaviour.

Many of us who represent a dwindling liberal, secular strand in the media are fond of quoting Jinnah’s Aug 11, 1947 speech which remains as eloquent a declaration of secularism as I have read anywhere. But talk to clerics or students today, and they will look at you in disbelief and even anger if you impute secularism to the founder of Pakistan. In their view, he created Pakistan in the name of Islam, and not for the Muslims of the subcontinent. This is too nuanced an argument for most people who prefer to see things only in black and white.

Even though Maulana Maudoodi and his Jamaat-i-Islami opposed the creation of Pakistan tooth and nail before 1947, once it came into being, they began pushing their rigid religious agenda. They still haven’t stopped. This unrelenting campaign created an environment where secularism became a pejorative term. It hasn’t helped that it has been mistranslated into Urdu as ladinyat or irreligiosity. This inaccurate label is enough to send politicians scurrying for cover.

Over time, it has become the safer political option to pay lip service to extremism. So while religious parties might not get many votes or parliamentary seats, their agenda still dominates the political landscape as well as a large section of the media. The result is a noxious atmosphere where there is little space for a meaningful debate on the direction we would like Pakistan to take. Is it to become a modern, vibrant nation where all citizens have equal rights, or a theocracy where women and the minorities are oppressed?

Among the WikiLeaks to have emerged so far was a cable from the previous American ambassador to Islamabad in which she wrote that she expected it would take 10 to 15 years for Pakistan to defeat the Taliban. I fear she was being too optimistic. Until we have achieved a national consensus rejecting extremism, the jihadis will continue to receive moral and material support.

But as the two cases we have studied here indicate, the tide is running in favour of religious extremism. Important sections of the media, the military and the judiciary — to name only three institutions — have no issue with the path the country is on. They might deplore the mayhem the jihadis are causing, but they certainly do not object to the anti-women and anti-minorities policies and rulings that are poisoning the atmosphere. Until they recognise the linkage between the two, extremist violence is here to stay.