There has been a lot of hand-wringing about religious extremism in Pakistan in the wake of the assassination of Punjab governor Salman Taseer. On Sunday the fundamentalist religious parties held a rally some 40,000 strong in the southern port city of Karachi against repealing Pakistan’s blasphemy law, as the Pakistan People’s Party MP Sherry Rahman proposes.
It would be foolish to deny that Pakistan has a problem with religious extremism. But outsiders do not actually understand the country very well and have no sense of scale, so it is hard for them to judge the significance of these events. Here I want to offer five ironies of religious extremism in that country, in an attempt to signal that the story is more complicated and requires more nuance than you find at typical American anti-Muslim hate blogs. Let me just signal the important difference between religious traditionalism and religious fundamentalism. Many Pakistanis are traditionalists– they attend at saints’ shrines, pray, sing religious songs (qawali), etc. Fundamentalists reject the idea of saints, of shrines, and of spiritual music. So on to the ironies:
1. The Pakistani parliament never passed a blasphemy law. It was promulgated in the 1980s by fiat by military dictator Gen. Zia ul-Haq. Gen. Zia made a coup in 1977 against the populist and left-leaning Pakistan People’s Party, and received the warm support of the United States, especially after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. Gen. Zia was a fundamentalist who sought support in civil society for his illegitimate regime among small fundamentalist parties such as the Jama’at al-Islami. The US raised no objections.
2. The murderer of Taseer, Mumtaz Qadri, is not a fundamentalist. He had a long affair with a lover in Karachi before marrying about a year ago. He is no puritan. He sometimes trimmed back his beard, something Pakistani religious conservatives usually avoid. He sometimes went to saints’ shrines, which fundamentalists would denounce. He has no connection to any known terrorist group, and says he acted alone. He belongs to a moderate school of Islam. Many press reports have said that Taseer’s murder points to the rise of Pakistani fundamentalism, but you could not prove it by Qadri’s profile. He seems to represent no one but himself.
3. The rally of 40,000 in favor of the blasphemy law just isn’t that big in Karachi, a city of over 15 million people. The 9/11 Commission estimated that there are some 200,000 students in the religious academies or madrasahs in Karachi, so the rally did not even attract very many of them, much less a significant number of the religiously committed persons in the megalopolis.
4. The people of Karachi vote for the militantly secular if rather thuggish MQM (Muttahidah Qaumi Movement) party, which runs their municipal government and represents them in the national parliament. The MQM vehemently denounced the killing of Taseer. Fundamentalists are not important in Karachi politics, except insofar as they are violent infiltrators.
5. The MQM not only controls Karachi, it has become a swing party in parliament, the ruling Pakistan People’s Party needs the MQM secularists to stay in power. That is, the story-line of the Western press about Pakistan’s descent into fundamentalist barbarism has to be tempered with a narrative of how an unabashedly secular party is the pillar of the political establishment.
Pakistani fundamentalist parties do not typically do well in elections, and don’t appear to have that much support in a country of 170 million. The issue of the blasphemy law is a godsend to them because even Pakistani traditionalists have strong feelings about public insult to the Prophet Muhammad. It isn’t that fundamentalists are necessarily about to take over anything, but rather that the Pakistani religious Right found a momentary wedge issue. It remains to be seen whether they can parlay that issue into any significant increase of popularity at the polls when there are next parliamentary elections (now scheduled for 2013).