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Pakistan battles to separate religious from secular

Important electoral changes have not pleased faith-based parties

A pro-Islamic political rally A pro-Islamic political rally
  • Silent Thinker, Lahore
  • Pakistan
  • April 18, 2013
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Pakistan is a country in transition and struggling to come to grips with its past while its future hangs quite questionably in the balance.

Religion is very much at the heart of so much of the conflict that has pitted tribe against tribe in this multi-ethnic, increasingly intolerant society.

The latest volley is a push to adopt a clear distinction between politics and faith in the country’s frequently violence-marred electoral process.

“Seeking votes in the name of religion or sect is a punishable crime,” proclaimed a headline in one of the major newspapers this week.

This new code of conduct was among several issued by the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) to ensure a fair vote in upcoming elections. The changes come as the interim government prepares for elections after the country's democratically elected civilian government completed its five-year term.

The new code of conduct is important because among the many registered political parties listed on the ECP website, at least 40 of them use Islamic connotations in their party names, 15 of them use the word Muslim and another seven integrate the word Islam.

Predictably, these parties have not taken well to the new code of conduct and have accused the commission of adopting a secular mindset.

“The policy is completely against the ideology of Pakistan and thus should be nullified. There is a direct clash between the secular and religious forces in the May 11 elections,” said Maulana Fazlur Rehman, head of the Makiat Ulema-i-Islam party.

As a part of his ongoing election campaign, Rehman organized an “Islam Zindabad (or “long live Islam”) conference earlier this month in which he blamed corrupt rulers for increasing terrorism in the country.

The right wing politician is among hundreds trying to enforce Sharia or Islamic law and which have waging war against “anti-Islamic forces” for years in Pakistan.

But alleged secularization is not the only problem the election commission faces.

The nomination papers of thousands of potential candidates were turned down by the strict scrutiny of the ECP. Fifty-four former members of parliament and provincial assemblies were found by the commission to have fraudulent academic degress, while 70 percent of parliamentarians were identified as tax evaders.

In weeding out such candidates, the commission has sought to address two of the most pressing problems in the country: corruption and fundamentalism.

While Islamist groups might rail against the commission’s efforts, religious minority groups have lauded its efforts.

Samson Salamat, a Christian and the director of the Center for Human Rights Education, has demanded an effective monitoring mechanism to ensure the commission’s code of conduct is properly implemented.

“Pakistan has suffered enormous bloodshed in the name of religion and sect. Therefore, the nation must hold all the elements accountable that are spreading hatred among the citizens on the basis of religion, sect, ethnicity, cast, gender or on any other grounds,” Salamat said in a recent press statement.

“The voters must reject these undemocratic forces through the power of their vote and should cast their vote on merit and according to their own will.”

Three of the biggest political parties in Pakistan, all of them secular, have already decided to minimize their public exposure in the run up to next month’s elections.

Campaigning across the board has slowed following the killings of two politicians last week in attacks that were claimed by the banned Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan organization.

On Tuesday this week, 16 people were killed and many more were injured in a suicide attack at a political rally in Peshawar in Northern Province.

The debate over the role of religion in governance has reverberated in the country since it became an Islamic republic in 1956.

Conferences about protecting Islam and the dignity of the Prophet Muhammad continue to be held despite the fact that an estimated hundreds of thousands of mosques currently exist in the country, most of them outside of any government control.

The country also has strict blasphemy laws, a dying film industry and deeply rooted patriarchal values pervading society.

By imposing a ban on politicians playing to religious sentiments to get elected, the ECP has sent a clear message to those who have used the same tired manifestos for decades, that the process for selecting eligible candidates has to be founded purely on the basis of merit.

Dialogue has to overcome monologue. Sermons have to be replaced with political debates.

Those who claim to represent 180 million Pakistanis need to come up with practical solutions to the problems of common citizens who are fed up with merciless power outages, falling currency values, targeted killings and suicide bombings.

Silent Thinker is a pseudonym used by a Catholic commentator in Lahore

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