Hopes for blasphemy reforms fade as radicals gain ground in Pakistan

Newly launched politico-religious group bagged more than 10 percent of votes in a recent by-election
Hopes for blasphemy reforms fade as radicals gain ground in Pakistan

This photograph taken on July 7 shows Pakistani Muslims offering Friday prayers at the Red Mosque in Islamabad during commemorations for the 10th anniversary of a military operation and the siege of the Red Mosque by Islamic extremists. (Photo by AFP) 

Islamic extremists in Pakistan are exploiting a minor constitutional amendment that could have allowed members of a moderate sect to vote without declaring themselves to be non-Muslims.

The Ahmadiyya Muslim sect believes Jesus sought to end religious conflict and are accused of not accepting that Mohammad was God’s final prophet.

The ruling party in Parliament immediately withdrew the minor change, which it described as a clerical error.

But that did not stop baton-wielding activists of a newly launched  the politico-religious group, Tehreek-e-Labaik Pakistan (TLP), from marching on the capital, Islamabad.

TLP, known for its hardline stance in support of anti-blasphemy laws impacting on Christian and other religious minorities, bagged more than 10 percent of votes in a recent by-election.

This was more than that of established political parties such as the Pakistan Peoples Party of slain former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto.

The TLP gained strength after the execution of Mumtaz Qadri, the elite force guard who murdered liberal governor Salmaan Taseer for speaking out against a death sentence for blasphemy on Catholic woman Asia Bibi.

The groups’ religious wing staged a week long agitation in Islamabad and forced the government to negotiate a six-point agreement on Nov 3.

Provisions of the agreement included a national consultation council to counter any deviant teaching that Mohammad was not the final prophet.

There is to be an investigation into whether there was a ‘conspiracy’ to amend the Constitution affecting voting rights of Ahmadiyya sect members. And Sunni Muslim scholars are to be given an opportunity to refute the contents of some video clips showing support for Ahmadis. 

Another element of the agreement centered on assurances that Asia Bibi, a Catholic mother of five, not be sent abroad despite her blasphemy conviction.

Further, the government will continue to provide political, diplomatic and moral support for Muslims being persecuted in Myanmar, including through collaborative efforts with Turkey.

The federal government also gave the gave Islamic TLP representatives assurances that it would play a role in seeking to end a restriction on the number of loudspeakers in mosques in Punjab.

The abject surrender of the government to TLP demands only provides legitimacy and impunity for this radical group.

If a few thousand religious zealots are allowed to force a state to accept their illegitimate demands, the future looks rather bleak for a country already struggling to combat rising religious intolerance and violence.

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As feared by some, the concessions the government granted still failed to satisfy the fundamentalists. 

Only six days later, TLP brought thousands of supporters from Lahore to Islamabad and blocked a crucial interchange that connects the federal capital to other cities.

Presenting a new list of demands, they refused to hold talks with authorities unless Federal Law Minister Zahid Hamid resigns over his alleged role in the election law constitutional amendment.

"My family and I are ready to lay our lives for the honor of Prophet Mohammad," the law minister said.

He added that a separate voters’ list would be created for Ahmadis as they would not be included in a list reserved for mainstream Muslims.

Despite this, TLP did not agreed to end its road blockage in Islamabad.

In the light of gains by radical groups, it is not difficult to conclude that any reform of blasphemy laws in near future will be virtually impossible to achieve.

Christians and other minority groups, who are often at the receiving-end of blasphemy accusations, will have to live with the new reality.

But the most heartbreaking aspect is that a national action plan against terrorism and extremism chalked out by the government and security agencies is all but forgotten.

The plan was formed in the wake of the killing by Pakistani Islamic militants of more than 130 school children in eastern Peshawar, near the historic Khyber Pass.

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