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In Pakistan, torn by internal conflicts, radical Islamic groups are growing in strength. They often use the so called “blasphemy laws” as the justification for brutal attacks on their victims. With an increasing frequency, the laws are called upon by extremists to conduct personal vendettas and to persecute ethnic and religious minorities. However, many people in Pakistan oppose radical Islamic groups. Associate Professor, Agneszka Kruszewska, expert on India and Pakistan at the Center for Polish-Asia Studies outlines the current situation in Pakistan.

Radical Islam is Gaining Ground in Pakistan

Every so often, the proponents of radical Islam, who vehemently defend the blasphemy laws, show their strength in numbers. They had an opportunity to do so during the funeral of Mumtaz Qadri, who was sentenced to death for the assassination of Salmaan Taseer, the Governor of Punjab, or during the March 2016 riots in Rawalpindi and Islamabad, where thousands of people have clashed with the riot police. The former Governor’s body guard fired several shots and killed Mr. Taseer in cold blood. Soon he was called “a martyr” (shahid), who gave his life for Islam.

The number of Qadri supporters surprised some of the observers, belonging to the educated elite, despite the fact that the increasing radicalization, which had begun in the 1970s, is not a new or unusual phenomenon in Pakistan. “It’s shocking that there are so many of them. You realize with horror what kind of country you live in”, I have heard this type of comments, coming from young people, several times during my April stay in Pakistan. One can feel despondency growing with every new terrorist attack. Very few people believe that the situation can change for the better.

Violence Against Minorities

In Pakistan, the problem of violence against religious minorities is intensifying. For a long time, the victims of persecution included Ahmadis (deemed as non-Muslim by the Pakistani Constitution), Christians, Hindu, and recently, more and more often Shiite Muslims.

In Pakistan, predominantly Sunni Muslims, who constitute 80 per cent of the 200 million population, fall victim to terrorist attacks. It was also true in the March 2016 attack in Lahore. The Western media highlighted that the attack had been aimed at Christians, who at the time celebrated Easter. Because in Pakistan, one of the most popular pastimes is spending time with family and friends outdoors, the majority of people present at the park during the attack were Muslims. Terrorists killed 72 people, including only 14 Pakistani Christians. The rest of the victims were Muslim1.

Associate Professor Agnieszka Kuszewska

The Taliban took advantage of the circumstances for their propaganda purposes and announced that the attack had been aimed at Christians. They knew perfectly well that they would get more media coverage with this message than in the case of an “ordinary” attack.

They realized that an attack directed at Christians would meet with much stronger condemnation and would receive more coverage in the Western media, which is known to pay much less attention to terrorist attacks, if the victims are Muslim (an exception, with respect to Pakistan, was the horrific Peshawar school massacre). Unfortunately, the terrorists were right.

The media quickly accepted the narration that “Pakistan kills Christians” and some commentators received another argument that the Western media regards some victims of terrorism more worthy of global mourning than others.

In Opposition to Radical Islam

Radical Islam meets with a strong opposition in Pakistan. Some people courageously speak up about the issue, risking their own lives. Now and again, media report another murder of a human rights activist, who has been killed in a targeted execution.

In the past 14 months, even Karachi, which was included in the Zarb-e-Azb Operation (a joint military offensive conducted by Pakistan Armed Forces against various militant groups, launched in June 2014), has become a scene of targeted murders of people, who in their work take up “inconvenient issues” (inconvenient for the military-intelligence sector) or who, in the opinion of extremists, commit “blasphemy”.

In April 2015, Sabeen Mahmud, a human rights activist, who frequently spoke up against the establishment, was murdered. Apparently, she crossed the line, when in her cultural café, she dared to organize a debate, which was critical of the authorities and the situation in Balochistan.

On May 8, 2016, another activist, Khurram Zaki, who openly spoke up against radical Islamic groups and their impunity, was killed. Zaki organized numerous protests, including demonstrations in front of the Red Mosque (Lal Masjid), regarded as the bastion of radical Islam. After his death, multiple comments condemning the crime and naming the guilty forces behind the killing, appeared on blogs and social media. This in itself was an act of great courage2.

The Crime that Shook Pakistan

On June 22, 2016, another crime shook Pakistan and the world. This time, the victim was Amjad Farid Sabri, a well known and beloved master of qawwali music, member of the musical group Sabri Brothers (which also performed in Poland). The legendary group specializes in Sufi music, which is inspired by the poetry of great Sufi poets and stems from Sufism, the Islamic mysticism, a tradition well established in South-Asia.

Suicide bombers regularly carry out attacks on Sufi temples, which are usually full of worshipers. Sufi temples, an inherent element of Pakistani culture in the Muslim dominated Pakistan, have become a sad reflection of the increasing radicalization and the fear of terrorist attacks - fortresses, surrounded by barbed wire, where you can enter only after a thorough security check. Many temples look like this, including Data Darbar in Lahore, one of the oldest Sufi temples on the Indian subcontinent, which was the scene of a suicide terrorist attack in 2010.

Currently, after similar attacks on schools and universities, university campuses also look like fortresses. Only the holders of special passes can enter the premises. Everyone, no exceptions, must go through a detailed security check. I also had to undergo a security examination, before I could deliver my lecture at the Christian university in Lahore, two weeks after the Easter attack in the city.

Attacks on Media Opposing Radical Islam

For Pakistani, who love qawwali music, the murder of Sabri is a terrible tragedy. The musician, who promoted respect and tolerance for all religions, had been earlier accused of blasphemy by proponents of radical Islam, on popular television station Geo TV, which itself is also the aim of extremist attacks. Often enough, Geo TV has met with disapproval of the establishment, including the powerful Inter-Service Intelligence (ISI). GEO TV journalists are being threatened and physically attacked. One of the popular presenters, Hamid Mir, openly accused ISI of the attempt on his life in 2014.

In April 2016, an investigation showed no links between the attack and ISI3, however this was to be expected in the country, where the power of the military-intelligence establishment is unquestionable. Hamid Mir was threatened. He was “advised” to leave the country. GEO TV had its licence suspended for a while and it was fined 10 million rupees for criticising ISI, after the attack on the journalist. Some people interpreted the killing of Amjad Sabri as a part of a wider political campaign targeted at Geo TV.

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Blasphemy Law as Intimidation Tool

The blasphemy laws, amended by General Zia-ul Haq between 1980 and 1986, in the hands of radical mullahs have become a useful tool for intimidation and escalation of social ostracism directed against “enemies” - both Muslims and religious minorities. There is no indication that the situation will change, although within the framework of the National Action Plan (NAP), which was introduced to crack down on terrorism, some mullahs were prosecuted for hate speech disseminated from the mosques. The words of Mullahs are very powerful, especially in small communities, and often times they have incited lynching of people accused of various “transgressions”, such as burning of the Quran4.

It must be said that radical Islamic groups are not the only forces expressing their demands. The proponents of a democratic and secular state, are becoming more active and begin to openly criticise conservative mullahs and even the army and the intelligence service. However currently, this type of reform seems utopian and Pakistan is not an exception in this matter. To express opinions and exchange ideas people often use social media, such as Facebook.

258 agnieszka kuszewska

About the Author

Associate Professor Agnieszka Kuszewska, Ph.D., holds a post-doctoral degree (habilitacja) in Social Sciences, in the discipline of Political Science. She works at the Department of International Relations of SWPS University of Social Sciences and Humanities.

She teaches about security in the contemporary world and international conflicts. She is also an expert on India and Pakistan at the Center for Polish-Asia Studies. Her research centers around political, social and economic issues of South-Asia, the position of India and Pakistan in the area of international relations, international hostilities in the region, security, terrorism and human rights issues, especially in the context of the Kashmir conflict. She regularly conducts research in Pakistan. She lectured at universities in Islamabad, Lahore and Fajsalabad. She has written numerous publications on the socio-political relations in South-Asia, including three monographs: Indyjsko-pakistański konflikt o Kaszmir [The Kashmir Conflict] (PWN, 2010), Indie i Pakistan w stosunkach międzynarodowych. Konflikty, strategie, bezpieczeństwo [The Position of India and Pakistan in International Relations. Conflicts, Strategies and Security.](Difin S.A., 2013) and Zrozumieć PakistanRadykalizacja, terroryzm i inne wyzwania [Towards Understanding Pakistan. Radicalization, Terrorism, and Other Challenges] (PWN, 2015). Agnieszka Kruszewska is a member of the Warsaw Chapter of the Polish Society of International Studies and the European Association for South Asian Studies.

logo CSPA   Source: www.polska-azja.pl


[1] See http://tribune.com.pk/story/1074654/lahore-attack-anguished-families-bury-their-dead/

[2] See http://tribune.com.pk/story/1100021/the-killing-of-khurram-zaki/

[3] See http://tribune.com.pk/story/1081983/attack-on-hamid-mir-charges-against-isi-were-based-on-assumptions-says-inquiry/

[4]  For example lynching of a young Christian Pakistani couple from Kasur in Punjab: https://citizensfordemocracy.wordpress.com/2014/11/27/facts-behind-the-brutal-killing-of-couple-on-false-allegation-of-blasphemy-at-kot-radha-kishan-kasur/

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