The first months of 2011 have been quite disheartening for secular liberals and moderate Muslims in Pakistan. On January 4, Salman Taseer, the governor of Punjab, was killed by one of his own security guards.
He was campaigning to reform the country’s blasphemy law and defending an illiterate Christian woman accused by some Muslim neighbors of sacrilegious irreverence toward the Prophet. Two months later, another critic of the blasphemy laws, the Federal Minister of Minorities Shahbaz Bhatti, himself a Christian, was assassinated in Islamabad by four gunmen. A third proponent of reform, Parliamentarian Sherry Rehman, has been declared “fit to be killed” by some clerics and lives as a prisoner in her own house.
Though saluting the courage of the reformers, Feisal Naqvi, a Lahore-based lawyer, thinks their tactics are wrong. The rising tide of religious intolerance dooms any direct attempt to decriminalize blasphemy in Pakistan. “The government has no rational incentive to amend the blasphemy laws. The minorities who tend to be the main victims of the law are both politically and socially powerless. The outraged liberals are so few in number as to be politically irrelevant,” he argues.
Given the intensity with which most Pakistanis believe in the necessity of punishing blasphemy, there is little point in attacking the law openly, Naqvi believes, but it can be challenged indirectly: “The average Pakistani certainly believes that blasphemers should be hanged, but he also believes that people are entitled to the due process of law. The same average Pakistani will also concede that vigilante justice is not normally a good idea.” The debate should be reframed around the need to protect innocents; those who give fatwas against their fellow citizens should immediately be challenged and charged with incitement to murder.
Naqvi might be accused by some of capitulating to evil, but one can’t deny he has a fairly accurate understanding of an average Pakistani opinion. An August 2010 poll by the Pew Research Center shows that while they do not like the Taliban (65 percent reject it, only 15 percent favor it) and strongly reject suicide bombings and other forms of violence against civilians in the name of Islam (80 percent), most Pakistanis endorse extreme views about law, religion and society. More than eight in ten support segregating men and women in the workplace, stoning adulterers, and whipping and cutting off the hands of thieves. Roughly three in four endorse the death penalty for those who convert from Islam.
Thus, even though they are largely hostile to the jihadists and consistently reject religious parties at the polls (the alliance of Islamist parties, the MMA, won only 2.2 percent of the vote in 2008, down from 11.3 percent in 2002), many Pakistanis embrace some of the cruel policies advocated by such groups. Their reluctance to question whatever is perpetrated in the name of Islam empowers the radical mullahs who blur the line between what God says and their own unwarranted views. What’s more, corrupt secular politicians have no desire and no rational interest to openly challenge those fanatical clerics, while whisky-sipping generals still think they can be very useful to discipline the populace and act as convenient bogeymen. As Naqvi observes, that’s the way Pakistan negotiates with its American protector: “Give us money, or else the mullahs will take over.”
Mohsin Hamid is the praised author of an unsettling novel, “The Reluctant Fundamentalist,” a portrayal of a worldly Pakistani Muslim relating his bitter experiences in post-September 11 New York and his growing disenchantment with America and the West. Hamid believes that the whole Pakistani society is suffering a case of what Geroge Orwell called “doublethink.” Writing in Karachi’s Express Tribune, he describes three main forms of local political schizophrenia: “There is the national security position: ‘America is our enemy; America should give us more aid.’ The privileged liberal position: ‘There should be equal rights for all; I should not have to share my riches with the poor.’ And the ambitious cleric position: ‘Religion makes us all equal; only I decide what religion says.’”
In key countries of the Middle-East and North Africa, as well as in Indonesia, political Islam increasingly tends to merge with the general democratic demands of society, slowly morphing into a rough equivalent of what Western Christian Democracy – which often started from rather fundamentalist and anti-modernist roots – eventually evolved into in mid-20th century Europe. Is Pakistan the sad exception to that rule?
Some members of the elite don’t really want to wait for the answer. Second homes in Dubai and alternative nests in Canada, England or Malaysia look very attractive these days. Pakistani students at Ivy League Universities are entrusted with pressing real estate enquiries by their parents.
Doctor Pervez Hoodhboy, a respected Pakistani scientist and advocate of progressive causes, lists three conditions to stem the rise of intolerance and avoid a catastrophe: the army should stop being obsessed only with India and start seeing local extremism as a mortal threat, Zardari’s government should be replaced by one that is less corrupt and more capable, and some kind of peace should come to Afghanistan. Three miracles Allah doesn’t seem too eager to concede.
Globalization might already sound like a stale catchword, but the new interconnected reality it describes still has surprising tricks up its sleeves. So what do you do when you’re a leftish French writer born in Africa and living in South America, with a background in Slavic Studies, a worried fascination for emerging Asian powers, and interests ranging from classical political philosophy to Bollywood film music? Read, travel, wonder. And send scattered dispatches from modernity’s frontlines.
Marc Saint-Upéry is a French journalist and political analyst living in Ecuador since 1998. He writes about political philosophy, international relations and development issues for various French and Latin American publications and in the international magazines Le Monde Diplomatique and Nueva Sociedad. He is the author of El Sueño de Bolívar: El Desafío de las izquierdas Sudamericanas (Bolivar’s Dream: the Left’s challenge in South America).