Aditi Bhaduri, Managing Editor of International Affairs Review
On September 15th, the tiny Hindu community in Ghotki in Pakistan’s Sindh province was terrorized. It began with the arrest of a Hindu school principal, Notan Mal, on charges of blasphemy. The principal was first attacked by a mob and a temple was vandalized. Soon riots broke out in Sindh. The charges against Mal were based on the complaints of Abdul Aziz Rajput, a student’s father, who claimed that the teacher had committed blasphemy by uttering derogatory remarks against the Prophet of Islam. Ghotki was shut down.
The blasphemy law in Pakistan is at the heart of the religious radicalism and oppression of minorities in the country. The blasphemy law was adopted in Pakistan during the rule of then-President, former General, Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq, as part of his decision to accelerate the Islamization of the country. In 1982, life imprisonment was prescribed for “willful” desecration of the Qur’an, and in 1986, penalty for blasphemy against the Prophet Muhammad was recommended to be “death, or imprisonment for life”. The law has since been used with impunity against minorities like the Ahmadiyya and Christians.
While religious radicalism in Pakistan is strongly associated with General Zia, and is often believed to be a remnant of the Cold War decision to support the Afghan Mujahideen resisting the Soviet Union’s conquest and occupation of their country, its origins date back further.
Pakistan is a unique country. It was carved out of independent India as a homeland for India’s Muslims. Thus, it became the first modern Islamic republic in the world, a country whose very nature was religious and whose raison d’etre was Islam. Pakistan was driven to do this partly by default, as a way to define itself as against India, a project always made more difficult by the fact since more Muslims have always lived in the secular Indian Union than in Pakistan. As some scholars have pointed out, one reason why Pakistan as a state has always been so troubled is that it was the backup option; the concept was not initially imagined as a literal partition and Islamic state.
By 1949, Pakistan had adopted legislation that began the path to discriminating against minority religious communities. The ‘Objective Resolution’, passed by the Pakistan Constituent Assembly that year, declared that Pakistan would be a state where “Muslims shall be enabled to order their lives in the individual and collective spheres in accord with the teachings and requirements of Islam.” An important role in the framing of the Objective Resolution was played by the Jamaat-e-Islami Pakistan, a political Islamist group with close connections to Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood. The state, thereby, was defined in Islamic terms.
A major factor for Pakistan’s definition of itself as an Islamic state was described by its first Prime Minister Liaqat Ali Khan, who acknowledged that “the land upon which the new Pakistani state stood was inextricably linked to earlier Muslim invasions of South Asia”. The Pakistani writer and political activist Farahnaz Ispahani in an interview interpreted this as “the country was described as the successor to the Muslim conquerors and invaders, who had ruled India for almost eight centuries before the arrival of the Britis”. The 1962 constitution established the Advisory Council of Islamic Ideology and the Islamic Research Institute was established to “assist the government in reconciling all legislation with the tenets of the Qur’an and the sunnah [Islamic tradition]”.
As Pakistan began nation-building, it was wracked by multiple challenges: economic, unemployment, feudalism, inter-ethnic strife, and strife with its neighbours. All too often politicians, together with the powerful clergy, who had been among the strongest proponents for the creation of Pakistan, found it convenient to use religion for political and public mobilisation. In 1953, for instance, anti-Ahmadi riots erupted across Pakistan. This led to the imposition of martial law for the first time. The riots were spearheaded by the Jamaat-e-Islami (JeM), which was able to use socialist-derived class grievance narratives, as well as religious sectarianism, to mobilise the crowds since the Ahmadi community, though small, was rich and influential. The army encouraged the religious dimension, while keeping its institution modern, and the mullah-military nexus was established. This automatically increased the feeling of vulnerability of non-Muslim minorities in Pakistan which formed just over a fifth of the state’s population.
In 1956, the Pakistani constitution established Pakistan as an Islamic, yet democratic, state. The practical effect was to bar non-Muslims from holding the office of head of state, a development that might have caused complications for the founder of Pakistan, Muhammad Ali Jinnah. When the constitution was amended in 1962, it retained this clause. The Islamist project was supported by revivalist organizations like the powerful JeM, as it advocated for an “Islamistan” that united all Muslims and the countries between Pakistan and Turkey into a single, united polity.
By the 1960s, Islam was already being used by the Pakistani political elite as a unifying force. As Pakistan came to be under the increasing domination of the Punjabi community, the country’s largest ethnic group, Islam came to be used as buffer to deflect anger from the other communities. This use of Islam to bind Pakistan was intensified after 1971, when the eastern half of Pakistan, what is now Bangladesh, seceded from the country after a bloody war that ended with India intervening to save the Bengali Muslims from a quasi-genocidal rampage by the Punjabi Muslim caste that ruled then-West Pakistan and their Islamist proxies.
It was under Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s socialist Pakistan People’s Party that the laws were instituted disenfranchising Pakistan’s non-Muslims, specifically ruling that Ahmadis were not Muslim. This was in spite of the fact Bhutto himself was a member of the Shia community, which formed 18-20% of Pakistan’s Muslims. Bhutto found it convenient to keep the Sunni Islamist groups in good humour, not least because he was using them for a war against irredentist government of Afghanistan.
This use of Islam in both domestic and foreign policy became an increasing feature of Pakistan under Bhutto, as the state tried to garner support from Arab states like Saudi Arabia and other Muslim-majority countries like Turkey. This created an environment ripe for Islamist exploitation and in 1979 the Islamists’ moment arrived with two momentous events, the one linked to the other: the Islamic Revolution in Iran that replaced the pro-Western Shah with an expansionist theocracy, and the most significant ripple effect from this: the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan that was designed to forestall the imposition of a sister republic to the one in Tehran that could threaten internal Soviet security. With this, yet another phase in Pakistan’s religious radicalism began.
The Iranian Revolution gave a fillip to political Islam everywhere and Pakistan was no exception. By the time of the Soviet’s had occupied Afghanistan, Bhutto had not only been deposed but executed, and the military once again held the reins of power. It was at this point the government promulgated the Hudood Ordinances that gave the fixed penalties of Islamic law legal force in Pakistan. The Shariat Bill, to make Pakistan governed by the shari’a rather than civil laws, was introduced into the Pakistani Senate in 1986, and activated in 1991 under Nawaz Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League government. A working group was set up to monitor and make recommendations for enforcing Islamic laws in the country.
The mechanisms used to fight the Soviets in Afghanistan meant the Pakistan army became flush with cash and arms in the 1980s. Over a period of six years from 1981, the US provided $3.2 billion to Pakistan, and a second economic and military assistance programme was announced for $4 billion in 1986.
With this new wealth, one of General Zia’s first acts was to establish the Army of the Companions (Sipah-e-Sahiba), which specifically targeted Shi’is. Thus began a new phase of the Islamization of Pakistan, what can be called the “Sunni-ization”, bringing a sectarian edge to the rising religious radicalism. The Sunni militants raised in this new milieu were sent to wage war in Afghanistan and in Indian Kashmir. Much of the aid received was siphoned off by the Pakistani security elite, which diverted it into proxy groups like Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) and Jaish-e-Mohammed, outfits mostly for use against India, and later Lashkar-e-Jhangvi and the Taliban, which Pakistan used to colonise post-Soviet Afghanistan. Al-Qaeda also found havens in Pakistan.
Zia assigned mullahs as chaplains to the army. Mosques were built in military training area. Islamic texts were introduced into military training courses. Mid-grade officers had to take courses on Islam. And a major attempt was undertaken to define an Islamic military doctrine. Offices had to have prayer areas. Textbooks underwent change to stress the Islamic character of the state and almost all of Pakistan’s pre-Islamic history was reinterpreted through this religious lens. Separate elections for Hindus and Christians—Pakistan’s two largest religious minorities—were introduced, as well as the above-mentioned blasphemy law that applied to these groups most.
Another aspect of the fallout from the Iranian Revolution was the Saudi government’s escalation of its missionary activity to counter this revolutionary Shi’ism. The spread of the narrow Wahhabi-Salafi brand of Sunni Islam, demanding citizens adhere to the “correct” Islam and agitating against non-Islamic populations, correlated with a spike in sectarian violence. The number of radical and militant groups proliferated. Attacks on members of the Shi’a sect increased. The Subcontinent had known sectarian violence, but in the post-independence era it had generally been suppressed. Pakistan’s first major Shia–Sunni riots erupted in 1983 in Karachi during Ashura and left at least sixty people dead. According to a United States Commission on International Religious Freedom report, around 600 Shi’is were killed between 1999 and 2003 as a result of extremist violence.
These radical groups were encouraged and sometimes even armed by the Pakistani army and its intelligence agency, the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI). The use of militant proxies in places like Afghanistan and Kashmir had become standard. When discontent rose against Islamabad’s rule in 1988 in the Gilgit Baltistan region of Kashmir, a majority-Shi’a population was put down by thousands of armed Sunni tribesman directed by the ISI. Attacks on Shias in this region have continued. Data collected by the South Asian Terrorism Portal reveal that between 2001 and 2018, there were 471 attacks against Shi’is mounted in Pakistan that left 2,693 people dead and 4,947 people injured.
The ISI’s handiwork abroad continues to this day and is not contained to Pakistan. The horrific Mumbai attacks of 2008 were carried out by LeT, an organisation that is now (though it did not start out as) simply an extension of ISI. The Taliban, a direct creation of ISI incubated in the Deobandi madrassas in Pakistan, was designed to be a puppet government for Pakistan in Kabul, providing two advantages: strategic depth against India and, by stressing Afghans’ Islamic identity, the Taliban blunted the (for Pakistan) dangerous Pashtun nationalism that makes claims on Pakistani territory. Once the Taliban were in power, there were a series of increasingly large massacres of Shi’a Hazaras in Afghanistan.
The metastasis of the problems around the militants has spilled over to the blasphemy law. According to the data of Pakistan’s National Commission for Justice and Peace, a total of 776 Muslims, 505 Ahmadis, 229 Christians, and 30 Hindus have been accused under various clauses of the blasphemy law between 1987 and 2018. The change in its practical application can be seen in two examples.
Bad enough was the case of Asia Bibi, a Christian woman, accused of blasphemy in 2010 for allegedly insulting Prophet Mohammad. When the Supreme Court acquitted the woman, the country was brought to a halt by widespread street protests, spearheaded by the hard-line Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan. Imran Khan’s government had to strike a “deal” with the protestors, making concessions that said the government would not oppose a review of the Supreme Court’s judgment and that Asia Bibi would not be allowed to leave the country (though she finally did).
Worse what happened with Shahbaz Bhatti, Pakistan’s first Christian minister, and Salman Taseer, the governor of Punjab, in 2011. Both were killed after speaking in favour of amending the blasphemy law. They were not at any point accused of breaking that law. Yet Taseer’s murderer, Mumtaz Qadri, his personal security guard, was given massive public support at his trial, with lawyers volunteering to take on his case for free. Qadri argued that it was his religious duty to kill Taseer. The Pakistani state rejected this argument, but faced another outpouring of public rage when Qadri was hanged in 2016.
There are other measures of Pakistan’s slide into religious intolerance. Forced conversions and abductions of Hindu women have become widespread. According to the 2017 Human Rights Commission of Pakistan report, over 1,000 non-Muslim girls are forcibly converted to Islam every year. This is having the predictable effect of driving Hindus out of Pakistan: an average of 5,000 Hindus migrate from Pakistan to India each year. Minorities, which represented around a fifth of Pakistan’s population at its founding, have shrunk to just four percent.
Whatever his intentions, it is doubtful that the current government of Imran Khan can do much to alter this trend, not least because he came into office by coming to terms with the military-ISI establishment and one of his campaign promises had been to shield the blasphemy laws.
European Eye on Radicalization aims to publish a diversity of perspectives and as such does not endorse the opinions expressed by contributors. The views expressed in this article represent the author alone.