Toxic blasphemy politics threatens Pakistan

The immediate spark for the protests came from far-right Islamist politicians whipping up populist intolerance against the Ahmadi Muslim minority.

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November 26, 2017 23:50
3 minute read.
Toxic blasphemy politics threatens Pakistan

A POLICE officer stands guard outside the Batul Noor mosque of the Ahmadi community in Lahore in 2013.. (photo credit: REUTERS)

 
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Pakistan’s Prime Minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi has sent in the army to clear anti-blasphemy protesters from an interchange in the capital of Islamabad, where hundreds were wounded in clashes over the weekend.

The crisis in Pakistan has been largely ignored by international media until the army was called in on Saturday. Since November 8, protesters have been demanding the resignation of Law Minister Zahid Hamid, blocking roads in the capital, particularly at the Faizabad interchange, according to various reports.

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The immediate spark for the protests came from far-right Islamist politicians whipping up populist intolerance against the Ahmadi Muslim minority. A proposed change to the country’s electoral law would have allowed Ahmadi Muslims to participate in elections next year. According to Reuters, the government has sought to appease the protesters by reaffirming that elected officials would have to swear that they do not “belong to the Qadiani group,” a derogatory term for Ahmadis.

The Ahmadi Islamic movement was founded in the 19th century in India under British rule and has millions of adherents worldwide. Its members face discrimination in many countries, including Indonesia, Afghanistan, Algeria, Egypt and India, among others.

Pakistan has persecuted Ahmadis, forbidding them from calling themselves “Muslims” and enacting laws that forbid them calling their houses of worship “mosques,” reciting the Koran or using “traditional Islamic greetings,” according to Reuters. These discriminatory laws have been in place since the 1970s, as Pakistan’s political leadership became increasingly far-right and conservative under the influence of Islamists.

Now the crackdown has resulted in the protests spreading to other cities, including Lahore and Karachi. The clashes have the making of a serious political crisis. Over the weekend, television channels were taken off the air and Pakistanis reported that social media and websites had been blocked.

Pakistan has long tolerated numerous extremist groups, under the logic that accepting their incitement and intolerance is better than confrontation that might lead to civil conflict, as it has in neighboring Afghanistan. On Friday, Pakistan freed Hafiz Saeed, whom the US has designated a terrorist. The US condemned his release from house arrest, accusing him and Lashkar- e-Taibe of involvement in the 2008 Mumbai terrorist attacks that killed hundreds.



Anti-Ahmadi incitement has become an increasing problem in Pakistan. In October, the Dawn newspaper in Pakistan reported that PML-N leader Captain Muhammad Safdar attacked Ahmadis in a speech at the National Assembly. “These people are a threat to the country, its constitution and ideology.” He also critiqued the renaming of Quaid-i-Azam University after Pakistani Nobel Laureate Dr. Abdus Salam.

Why? Because Dr. Salam was an Ahmadi. Pakistan-based groups have often targeted minorities in the country, including Shi’ites and Christians, in terrorist campaigns that have been increasingly fueled by the anti-Ahmadi and anti-blasphemy populism over the last decades.

The protests against “blasphemy” in Pakistan are part of a pattern of prosecutions and mob attacks on people accused of sacrilege. In September, a man was sentenced to death for supposedly “ridiculing the Prophet” on WhatsApp. In April, a man named Mashal Khan was stripped and beaten to death at Abdul Wali Khan University in Pakistan after he was accused of blasphemy. The police felt it important to clarify later that he did not actually commit any blasphemous acts.

Blasphemy laws in Pakistan often target minorities – as do angry mobs. In 2010, a mother from Punjab with five children was convicted of “defaming the Prophet” and sentenced to death. The Governor of Punjab Salmaan Taseer was assassinated in 2011, after he spoke out against such laws and sought to have them repealed.

The politics of blasphemy in Pakistan and the quiet support for extremism and intolerance that the government gives to groups – by keeping the blasphemy laws on the books and tolerating hate speech against Ahmadis and others – has led to a toxic situation in the country that seems destined to lead to more violence.

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