As Pakistan reels from last week’s murder of another political opponent of its blasphemy law, the divide between the country’s liberals and hardliners has become even deeper.
While showing unwavering support for blasphemy law – which punishes inflammatory comments about the Prophet Mohammed – religious political parties have managed to bring out tens of thousands of their followers onto the streets, ensured countrywide strikes and have pushed the ruling Pakistan Peoples Party government into retreat.
Shahbaz Bhatti, 42, the minority affairs minister and a Christian, and the Punjab provincial governor Salman Taseer – both outspoken campaigners against the blasphemy laws, were both murdered for their stance on the laws. The Taliban claimed responsibility for Bhatti’s murder while Taseer’s killer has since been hailed by legions of fans – their loud defence of the blasphemy law underscoring rising religious feeling across the country. The zealousness of the religious right to push forward its agenda has raised questions about the ability of those on the left to fight back.
One reason the right is able to exert its influence is that extremist forces are well armed and have managed to cow citizens into a perpetual state of fear and insecurity.
Protests by civil and human rights activists have been ineffective, their numbers almost insignificant. In recent months, they have organised small protests and vigils but they are eclipsed by the mass rallies held by hardliners.
“I was heading to the Karachi airport last month at the same time when a religious demonstration was on its way. There were thousands of angry young men, from the age of 17 to 30,” said a government official, who requested to remain anonymous, in fear of retribution. “It was a frightening sight.”
The religious right has held high standing in Pakistan for decades. Hardliners have benefited from state patronage since 1980s when the Afghan war started. Pakistani military and intelligence organisations began supporting Afghan resistance groups, as well as local religious groups that resisted the Soviet invasion. The funding continued even after the Russians were forced out of neighbouring Afghanistan.
“The seminaries received money both from state but also from citizens through zakat [obligatory alms]. This financing source became bigger and bigger as support from countries like Saudi Arabia gained ground. Over 30 years now, they have assumed a very well organised status, in terms of financing, organisational skills and propaganda,” said Raza Rumi, a human and civil rights activist based in Lahore.
Meanwhile, more moderate political parties and organisations suffered under military or quasi-military rule in the past two decades when their top political leadership was forced into exile.
“Civil society flourishes in a democratic culture,” Mr Rumi said. “They are organically interlinked.” Public commentators have said the difference also lies in the way each side delivers its message. Religious groups “unpack complex socio-political issues, like the blasphemy laws, and equate them with simplistic interpretations of religion and ideology, which are fairly well directed but always just a bit vague so as to reach out to a wider audience”, said Umair Javed, a social issues blogger based in Islamabad. “It’s a pretty convenient way of touching the moral nerve of people.”
While hardliners present a unified stance on issues, liberals can often be divided. Some “think they should oppose mullahs, some think they should oppose military but there is no common programme for civic action”, Mr Rumi said.
In addition, civil rights groups generally lack support from political parties.
“Religious forces are ably supported by that portion of civil society which we don’t like to label as civil society,” said Mr Javed. Trader groups and transport associations, known to be more conservative and religious, “provide financial backing to these right-wing political groups and when push comes to shove, they actively come out on the streets with them,” he said.
.”The biggest protests in Lahore, where I’m from, are held right after Friday prayers on the Mall Road.
“Having attended the prayer congregation, I know that the head cleric shapes his Friday sermon to suit whatever issue is at hand.
“Then right after prayers end, the Jamaat cadres start organising and leading people out. Even apolitical people then become part and parcel of this larger gathering.”
However, liberals have refused to back down. They are trying to develop a more unified approach, forming the umbrella group, Citizens for Democracy, in December. After Bhatti’s murder, the group started the letter campaign “Silence Means More Blood” against violence and vigilante justice.
More than 300 prominent individuals, including academics, doctors, lawyers, businessmen and women, endorsed an open letter to the president, Asif Ali Zardari, and the prime minister, Yousuf Raza Gilani, and other high-ranking politicians to protest Bhatti’s murder, said Mohsin Sayeed, a journalist in Karachi.
He said a “Day of Resistance” is to be held in Karachi on April 3 at the massive AMC Sports Complex.
“We are targeting at least 50,000 citizens. There will be dance and stage performances. There will be a Hyde Park corner of free speech. There will be seminars. Everything will be resistance-related. We are encouraging people to come out and say whatever they want to,” Mr Sayeed said, adding that information is being distributed through texting and social media.
“I feel we have to reclaim our space. We have to break the silence and for that we have to create awareness and engage people. We cannot pick up guns and start shooting, like our opponents.”