To Use or Not to Use Religion

By: Agha Haider Raza

With the first ever democratically elected Parliament nearly passing the baton to another parliament via general elections in the midst of our reach, we may just be witnessing history.  History is in the making because over the 66-year roller coaster ride, Pakistan has never observed such a transition.  Numerous military interventions, lack of assertive civilian leadership along with the involvement of non-state and foreign actors has made Pakistan suffer deeply.

While our democratic institutions have taken a beating, our weak and feeble state has given room for militants and terrorists to not only take root but also exploit our country’s weaknesses.  Such exploitation has allowed for terrorists groups such as the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) and Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LeJ) to invoke and spread terror while creating a safe haven for sectarian activities to take place.  These heinous acts have seen the eradication and isolation of minority groups including Christians, Hindus, Shiites and Ahmaddi’s.

The nurturing of militancy and terrorism in Pakistan has been a shortsighted, well thought out plan courtesy of the Pakistan military.  The military establishments’ obsession with religion and terrorism has been an open secret within Pakistan and abroad.  Such an involvement was seen with their ‘strategic depth’ policy in Afghanistan during the 1980s and due to the military’s fixation with India and Kashmir, the rise of the mujahedeen in the 1990s.

The common denominator in sectarian and religious militancy and terrorism in Pakistan is religion, or rather Islam.  Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto fired the first bullet back in 1974 with the acceptance of the Second Amendment to the constitution.

Such soiling of the constitution back in 1974 was only the beginning.  More amendments and clauses were brought into law while Zia had a whale of a time further sullying the constitution of Pakistan.  The most harrowing laws Zia put in place were; The Offence of Zina (Enforcement Of Hudood) Ordinance, 1979, Pakistan Penal Code Ordinance, XLIV of 1980, the Anti-lslamic Activities of Quadiani Group, Lahori Group and Ahmadis (Prohibition and Punishment) Ordinance, XX of 1984 and Criminal Law (Amendment) Act, III of 1986.  These laws planted the seeds for violent extremism, militancy and terrorism across Pakistan, soon enough spreading its tentacles into our neighboring countries and across the globe.

The promulgation of such laws has inadvertently allowed citizens to take the role of the state into their own hands.  Alleged blasphemers are killed without due process, Ahmaddi’s are isolated to a point where they are unable to profess or state their faith while Shiites are targeted and killed mainly because of their surname.  It is with this perpetual fear of death and isolation with which millions of Pakistani’s have lost their lives, lived their lives, or like the Hazara community, have escaped from this life.

The utilization of religion in our political discourse has been present since Pakistan’s independence in 1947.  It is unfortunate where 66 years down the road, our politicians have not understood the toxic environment such a discourse creates.  Many people have lost their lives or have lived in complete isolation and fear due to the lethal mixture of the state and mosque, but yet our political leaders are keen to invoke religion primarily to shore up electoral ballots.  Ironically,  religious parties such as the Jamaat and its various factions have been contesting elections since 1947, but have yet to create even the slightest of dent in the national political arena in terms of forming their own majority  government.

Every day we hear statements made by politicians in various surroundings.  The PTI (running their first major political campaign) chief, Imran Khan, has deduced that his electoral campaign will be restricted to Punjab by making a piñata out of his arch-nemesis, PML-N leader Nawaz Sharif.  Ironically the two parties have a similar vote bank (+/- the youth vote).  Both are center-right leaning, have a knack for invoking religious ideology and sentiment with a pro-business approach towards guiding Pakistan out of the deep trench we find ourselves in.

It is an open secret that the PML-N leader enjoys cuddling up to the Saudi royals.  During his stint as prime minister, Sharif allowed the Arab royals to promote Wahhabism across Pakistan, fund madrassah’s alongside providing safe havens for mujahedeen’s in the southern part of Punjab.  It thus comes as no surprise that Sharif chose Saudi Arabia as his new home when being expelled from Pakistan in 1999.

But that was 1999.  Today, Nawaz Sharif has shown that he is a hardened and seasoned politician than he was when ousted.  Religious rhetoric is not as prevalent in his current electoral campaign.  Sharif is now focusing on a progressive Pakistan, emphasizing economic growth and infrastructure development.  It is with this hope that the Karachi Stock Exchanged recently crossed the 19,000 mark in anticipation of a PML-N government. 

Being a novice at Pakistani politics, Imran Khan has resorted to fanning public sentiment.  Khan has been labeled as ‘Taliban Khan’ by his foes due to his alleged soft and naïve approach towards tackling terrorism and militancy.  But giving credit where it is due, Khan has been vocal in condemning sectarian and terrorist activities.  Understanding that a majority of Pakistani’s do not view the United States as an ally, Khan has consistently lambasted the US for their foreign policy and persistence use of Predator drones in the west side of Pakistan.  The problem however lies in Khan’s determination to invoke religious sentiment and ideology in his campaign narrative.  He frequently uses divine verses in speeches highlighting his Muslim background, is known to stop speaking during his rallies to publicly pray on stage and refuses to answer whether he will rescind the lethal blasphemy law or other Islamic related provisions in the constitution.

In the latest video posted to his Facebook page, Khan states that he is a Muslim who is an ardent follower of the Sunnah. Further in the short clip, Khan explicitly articulates that he will not purge the constitution of the Islamic clauses initiated by Bhutto in 1974 or those by Zia in the 1980s and unequivocally argues that Ahmaddi’s are non-Muslims.  Khan’s vision for the country is to make Pakistan an Islamic welfare state  and as one op-ed recently stated “Khan [wants] to make Pakistan a state like Khilafat-e-Rashda.”

For a man who states he does not represent the status-quo and is looking to create a nationalistic movement, Khan needs to understand that continuing to drive the wedge between the minorities of Pakistan and the majority based on religion will only hasten the speed with which our society is disintegrating.  There is a difference between being right and self-righteous, and as a potential national leader, he needs to represent the unity and the people of Pakistan.

The fanning of religious sentiment has grown into the Frankenstein monster Benazir Bhutto warned us of decades ago.  Now that Pakistan and the world have felt the pain and sorrow stemming from religious terrorism, it is time our politicians took the onus on their own shoulders and refrain from exploiting religion in the political arena for the sake of parliamentary seats.  Human lives and a life of peace and dignity is far more valuable than any seat parliament may provide.

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