In Pakistan, religion is supreme. Which is why one would be forgiven for taking the mistaken impression that the Ulema, or religious clerics, would have great influence on society. Actually, they are almost completely irrelevant, and their irrelevance is a result of their own words.
Last month, an elderly mentally ill man languishing in a jail in Rawalpindi was shot by a guard. The guard, Mohammad Yousaf, was acting on religious instruction he had received. Not from a cleric, but from another prisoner: The confessed murderer of Governor Salmaan Taseer. Investigators found that in addition to Yousaf, Taseer’s killer had turned two other guards into religious assassins.
In another instance, Taliban released a video calling on Army officers to turn on their own country and fellow soldiers. This exhortation was not made by any religious scholar, however, but a renegade Army doctor.
Pakistan’s Ulema have been highlighted in the media for their statements against misuse of blasphemy laws and militancy, but of what use? In each instance, spokesman Tahir Ashrafi has spoken out of both sides of his mouth, issuing carefully worded statements designed to appease liberals while avoiding sending any strong message against violence and extremism.
People are looking for clear answers, not meaningless, mealy-mouthed statements that are designed to avoid controversy. The Ulema have a responsibility to guide the people based on religious teachings. If the Ulema refuse to do this, or do it in a way that is confused and incomprehensible, someone else will step in. Actually, it appears that someone else is already stepping in.
Chairman Pakistan Ulema Council Tahir Ashrafi and his fellow scholars need to do their jobs and give firm instruction based in Islamic scripture, not bland press statements and English op-eds meant to reassure the international community. We are already suffering from a generation raised on the religious instruction of jihadis and generals. Our clerics needs to decide if they are on the side of saving Pakistan, or destroying it.