Effort to Change Minds Faces Difficult Challenge

Page A3 of Daily Times of 21st February features the story, ‘NA committee for programmes on war on terror‘ about legislators calling for new initiatives “for changing the people’s mindset on war on terror”. The problem is larger than just creating new programmes to change people’s mindset, however.

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Adnan Masih and the sin of Iblis

Christians praying in Pakistan

Few blasphemy cases make headlines. For every Rimsha or Asia Bibi, there are countless accused whose stories are ignored by media. One recent case, however, should be front page headlines to serve as a warning about how out of control the blasphemy laws have become and how they are being abused not to defend any religion, but to promote certain political agendas.

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PPP’s Losing Strategy

PPP Supporters Protest Blasphemy

A famous quotation attributed to the British political philosopher Edmund Burke says that “All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing”. That may be the least that is necessary, but it’s not the only path. Evil can also triumph when good men undermine their own cause by taking a page out of evil’s playbook. Unfortunately, that seems to be happening among some in PPP, and it’s a losing strategy.

As elections draw near, politics naturally takes a turn for the worst. Disgust at the now well-known YouTube video was justified, but the hijacking of the people’s sentiments by religious parties and banned groups was not. By calling for a national holiday, PPP’s strategy to limit these group’s ability to exploit the situation was not only too clever by half, it actually played into the hands of extremist groups.

While most people have focused on the holiday’s giving legitimacy to the demonstrations, what has been largely overlooked is that the national holiday gave extremist groups cover to carry out violent attacks. By nightfall on Friday, groups like Jamaat-e-Islami and Jamaat-ud-Dawa took to the media to proclaim that any acts of violence were not carried out by their organisations who protested peacefully. As proof, they dared anyone to provide evidence of JI or JuD supporters doing such acts while they provided photos and videos of their supporters waving flags and chanting peacefully.

Of course this is a classic smoke and mirrors operation. All these groups had to do is make sure to document their supporters with flags acting peacefully, while their supporters without flags created mayhem. With the entire nation on holiday, it would be impossible to sort out who is who. Before you think this is going a step too far, keep in mind that we’re talking about groups that claim they don’t engage in violence and believe they’re telling the truth because they have redefined violence.

Unfortunately, some PPP leaders didn’t stop with the passive strategy of declaring the national holiday that gave cover to the extremists, they started parroting them themselves in order to appeal to the national mood.

Headlines reporting Rehman Malik’s telling the West to stop supporting Pakistan’s enemies sounded more like a speech at a DPC rally than the statements of a Federal Minister. Of course, this isn’t the first time that Rehman Malik has ventured off of his script in an attempt to appease the right wing – the worst episode being when he threatened to kill blasphemers with his own hands following the murder of one of his own party leaders by a crazed lunatic.

Then there’s Ghulam Ahmed Bilour who sounded more like Mullah Yousaf Qureshi than a Federal Minister when he announced a bounty of $100,000 for murder of the maker of the offensive video. Granted Bilour is ANP and not PPP, but as the leader of a coalition government, the PPP must take responsibility for his presence in the Cabinet.

That these statements and the national holiday are poorly thought out should be obvious. Not only do they undermine the PPP’s position as a modern, progressive political party, they also gain nothing. Let’s face reality – no matter how much support PPP leaders give for right-wing issues, they will never be enough to win the support of the right-wing.

Munawar Hasan and Hafiz Saeed attack the PPP as irreligious not because they want PPP to accept their positions. They do it because they have nothing to offer the people and therefore have to rely on attacks. Giving in to their demands will not neutralise their attacks, it will only make their demands more extreme. Today it is protests against an internet video clip, tomorrow its funding for jihad…then what? Continue down this path for very long and at a certain point, the PPP becomes completely irrelevant.

And this brings us to the point. If the PPP leadership does not have the courage of conviction to sack Federal Ministers who cross the line to openly advocate murder, on what moral authority are they asking for our support?

The PPP became the most popular political party across the nation not because it campaigned on religious symbols, but because it campaigned on the substance of our religion. What is ‘Roti, Kapra aur Makan’ if not the command of almighty Allah to care for the poor of society? Just as Islam was spread across the region not at the tip of a sword but by the demonstration of tolerance and love that was shown by earlier Muslims, the PPP’s popularity was gained not through threats and intimidation but by fighting for the rights of the country’s poorest and least powerful.

Bilawal’s passionate speech on the martyrdom of Salmaan Taseer Shaheed exemplified the type of courageous and inspirational leadership that the people are desperate for – one that stands up for justice without fear, not when it is toeing the popular line, but when it stands out. In this, he has reminded the people of his mother who never pretended to be an extremist to gain popular support, but rather watered the roots of tolerance and democracy with her own life’s blood.

We have seen this courage in other recent PPP leaders, also: Salmaan Taseer Shaheed, Shahbaz Bhatti Shaheed, Sherry Rehman, Farahnaz Ispahani. We have heard it in the statements of Ahmad Mukhtar and Nadeem Afzal Chan, both of them unwavering in speaking out against the sectarianism that is ripping our nation apart at the seams. This should be the public face of what is supposed to be the nation’s largest liberal party, not appeasement and parroting.

There is another, less popular quotation from Mr Edmund Burke that bears remembering as well: “I take toleration to be a part of religion. I do not know which I would sacrifice; I would keep them both: it is not necessary that I should sacrifice either.” The PPP does not need to sacrifice tolerance to align itself with the religion of the masses, it only needs to faithfully stick to its founding principles. Doing otherwise is a losing strategy.

Tahir Ashrafi’s Clever Defence of Blasphemy Law

Right-wing groups have taken a turn in defence of Rimsha in what appears to be little more than a desperate attempt to defend the blasphemy law in the face of public outcry. Realising that the Rimsha case has exposed the blasphemy law for what it is – a colonial-era law used as a weapon against personal or political enemies – these groups have crafted a careful response that calls for ‘fairness’ for Rimsha, but ultimately keeping the status quo.

PTI central spokesman issued a statement terming the man-made law as ‘necessary’, “adding that if someone indeed commits blasphemy he or she should be proceeded against under the law”. Naturally, Ansar Abbasi claims that the public outcry is part of a conspiracy, writing that the Rimsha case can help “pave the way to devise a foolproof procedure for registration of FIR under this law” and saying:

There is no reason to support the west-led campaign to quash the blasphemy law. Certain NGOs and some voices in the media, it is expected, would try to fuel the Rimsha case to target the blasphemy law as per the western agenda.

The heaviest defender of the blasphemy law, though, has been Maulana Tahir Ashrafi who has been making a weighty media push in defence of the law, telling reporters that “Strict action should be taken against all those accusing the girl if she is found innocent”. According to Ashrafi, “It is just like the law of jungle that 500 people approached a police station and got a report forcibly lodged with the police.” This has been widely reported in the foreign media.

Make no mistake, Tahir Ashrafi is no liberal preacher of peace and tolerance. He is not even a moderate like Javed Ghamidi. Tahir Ashrafi’s only purpose in the Rimsha case is to defend the blasphemy law. Remember the warning of Javed Ghamidi after Mumtaz Qadri murdered Salmaan Taseer:

“The blasphemy laws have no justification in Islam. These ulema [council of clerics] are just telling lies to the people,” said Javed Ahmad Ghamidi, a reformist scholar and popular television preacher.

“But they have become stronger, because they have street power behind them, and the liberal forces are weak and divided. If it continues like this it could result in the destruction of Pakistan.”

Compare this to the argument of Tahir Ashrafi:

Blasphemy laws are often used to settle personal vendettas. And so, we demand a thorough and fair probe into the case involving Rimsha.

Tahir Ashrafi is careful to repeat in his English columns and statements to the foreign media lines like, “Pakistan belongs as much to the non-Muslims as to the Muslims,” but let’s take his newfound tolerance with a pinch of reality. Here’s how Tahir Ashraf spends his time when he’s not playing the part of tolerant cleric for the foreigners.

Tahir Ashrafi with Malik Ishaq and Ahmed Ludhianvi

 

Tahir Ashrafi with DPC

This raises serious questions. Does Tahir Ashrafi agree with his good friend Malik Ishaq and Ahmed Ludhianvi that Shia are blasphemers and should be murdered in cold blood?

Does he agree with his good friend Hafiz Saeed that Sufism is conspiracy of Hindus and Christians against jihad?

Maybe we should just consider Tahir Ashrafi’s own words warning violence against minorities:

I have heard people calling Tahir Ashrafi’s piece in Express Tribune as bravery. I might be more willing to believe that if Ashrafi didn’t have such a long record of supporting hate and intolerance. Don’t be fooled by this campaign of deception. They are not defending Rimsha because of a sudden change of heart. They are scared that Rimsha’s case has exposed the truth.

Fazlur Rehman’s About Face on Blasphemy Law

Well, well, well…look who has turned an about face on the blasphemy law! It is none other than JUI chief Fazlur Rehman himself.

Fazl-ur-Rehman

This is the same man who termed requests to reconsider the blasphemy law “a favor to the US” last December and then after Salmaan Taseer Shaheed was murdered could not bring himself even to condemn such an act, but rather issued an equivocating response that partially blamed Governor Taseer himself.

Consider JUI-F chief Maulana Fazlur Rehman who said that the murder was the result of the failure of the country’s democratic institutions “by this he meant, he said, the failure to implement Islamic laws in the country. When pressed on the issue, he said that the country was experiencing “extremism on both sides”, religious and secular forces which were hell bent upon proving each other wrong.

When Minister Minority Affairs Shahbaz Bhatti Shaheed was also murdered for the same reason – speaking out against the misuse of blasphemy laws – Fazlur Rehman was so cowardly that he could not even stand to pay respect for the slain minister. Apparently, two short minutes time was too much to ask.

THREE REMAIN SEATED: But many in the house and the galleries were surprised to see three bearded members of the opposition Jamiat Ulema-i-Islam of Maulana Fazlur Rehman remaining seated in their chairs when the rest of lawmakers stood up to observe two minutes’ silence for Mr Bhatti.

There was no immediate explanation what motivated the JUI back-benchers, in the absence of their party leader, to violate a parliamentary etiquette, and a directive given by the chair, in agreement with some voices raised in the house, that members stand up to pay a silent tribute to their assassinated colleague.

The reaction in Dawn is 100% correct. Fazlur Rehman speaking out against such vigilante killings now is the height of hypocrisy.

While Maulana Fazlur Rehman can now say that “such acts [of violence] amount to taking the law and constitution into one’s own hands”, the fact remains that religious and hardline political parties, such as his own JUI-F, have played an incendiary role in bringing matters to this pass. And this is true not only in terms of the recent furore over the proposal to bring the blasphemy laws under parliamentary review but also in a larger sense — over the decades the mindset that produced extremist and dangerous groups has been steadily nurtured.

Still, as Dawn correctly observes it is essential that such religious leaders are finally coming to understand that the issue is NOT between secularism and religion NOR is it between liberals and extremists. Rather the only issue is one of law and order and of basic justice and human rights.

The question remains however whether Fazlur Rehman is merely willing to speak a few conciliatory words or if he will be willing to bring to bear the full strength of JUI-F to honour the sacrifice of Salmaan Taseer and Shahbaz Bhatti as well as everyone who has been a victim of misuse of the blasphemy  law for some personal or political ends.

The religious parties have been quick to carry out massive street protests when it suits their agenda. Will they now organize protests against misuse of blasphemy laws? Are they willing to walk? Or is this simply talk?