Death of Pakistani Secularism Much Exaggerated

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).

Posted in Pakistan | 40 Responses | Print |

40 Responses

  1. The traditionalists you speak of, brelvis or sufis, also lauded the killing of Salman Taseer so I’m not sure the distinction between them and the fundamentalists you cite is particularly useful. They’ve also been part of the MMA alliance with Jamaat Islami and others.

  2. Very informative, as usual.

    I agree that secularism isn’t dead, despite the “sky is falling” rhetoric from pundits and career islamophobes. I mean, is secularism/peace in Israel dead after Rabin was assassinated?

  3. Thanks for the excellent perspective.

    While all five points of yours are very true (and important to keep in mind), I think that Salmaan Taseer’s assassination represents more than just a momentary success for the religious RIGHT. Not only have they condoned the use of violence against their enemies, the act has own widespread support from the Pakistani publics. Many Pakistani moderates/secularists/liberals are now afraid to speak out for fear they might be targeted next.

    Zeeshan Hyder
    Karachi, Pakistan

  4. Could you clarify the second to last sentence in the second paragraph. I reject the idea of saints (other than the 10 who were promised jennah), the erection of shrines to dead people, and most forms of “spiritual music”. Does that make me a “fundamentalist”?
    I also reject the term “fundamentalist” to describe people who do not adhere to the fundamentals, and contradictory
    terms like “islamofascist” or” Islamic terrorist”

    • It only makes you a fundamentalist if you believe that violence ought to be employed to oppress those that do not reject saints and shrines. Islam is a tolerant, peaceful and flexible religion. There is no one “right” way to practice it…

  5. Poll results from the Pew Foundation show the majority of Pakistanis to be hardcore extremists.
    82% of Pakistanis believe that adulterers should be stoned.
    76% of Pakistanis believe that apostates from Islam should be killed.
    link to

    • Very unlikely. Most rural peasants don’t believe either thing according to anthropologists like Richard Kurin. And Mansour Moaddel did not get similar results even in Saudia. People sometimes tell pollsters what they think they should say.

      Pakistan is not as easy to demonize if you look at how people actually vote, and at what they like to watch on t.v., etc., etc. 8% of Americans want Leviticus to be the law of the land and half say that the Bible should be highly influential on American law. I seem to remember something about stoning in there, too. (Unlike with the Qur’an, which never mentions the practice.)

      • You are absolutely correct Professor Juan.

        I wonder from where Pew Foundation pulled those figures. Is Mama Grizzly Bear Palin a member of Pew Foundation?

      • Thanks but I’ll trust a mainstream scientific polling organization over anecdote and unsupported opinion from a blogger.
        There’s nothing unlikely about Muslims wanting to kill apostates. Even in a first world country like the UK, 31% of Muslims believe that muslims who reject Islam or convert to another religion should be killed. The figure is 36% for young muslims (16-24).
        link to

        Pakistan is easy to demonize because the very law of the country demands the death penalty for blasphemy. That law itself is a form of hardcore extremism. Secular, moderate countries don’t sentence people to death for bogus “crimes” like blasphemy.

        • Yeah, and the blasphemy law was legislated by Ronald Reagan’s right hand man, who was supported by the American Right Wing as a way of destroying the secular Left in Pakistan and Afghanistan. Note that secular leftists often had the upper hand in Muslim societies before the American Right helped polish them off.

        • Secular, moderate countries don’t sentence people to death for bogus “crimes” like blasphemy.

          Many secular, moderate countries punish people for criticizing the state, or other things like denying the Holocaust or Armenian Genocide, for example. In Turkey it’s illegal to insult “Turkishness”, and in the USA, people like Tariq Ramadan have been banned from entering the country for being critical of Bush.

        • These laws were enacted by a militant dictator (Zia ul Haq). He is arguably the worst thing that ever happened to Pakistan.

      • //People sometimes tell pollsters what they think they should say.// That’s not reason for pollsters to ignore it.

        The fact is Pakistan and secular don’t go well in the same sentence. Pakistan is a country founded on religious excluvism and over the decades it has become more intolerant, hardline, militaristic and paranoid with a manufactured national narrative accepted by a majority of the population who are ‘moderate’ in public utterance but fundamentalist in private belief (if it otherwise, it would have been possible for governments to rollback some of the medieval hudood and blasphemy laws). The Pakistan secular space (mostly leftists) was always small and has shrunk even further. We can all be optimistic but the truth is secularism, always contradictory to the principles of which this sad country was founded (no matter how much you spin Jinnah’s speeches and ‘vision’), is having its last gasp. Verily, this is the Islamic Republic of Pakistan. Secularism does not fit in that description. Let’s deal with it.

        • Jim, this is what Pakistan has unfortunately evolved into… but that is hardly inline with the vision of the founders. Muhammad Ali Jinnah wanted a country that was religiously tolerant, and not exclusivist. He was Muslim and his wife was not. The hardliners have turned Pakistan into this monstrosity. As a Pakistani-American and a staunch Muslim (of the Sufi variety), I hold out hope that the people, most of whom really are tolerant when “religious leaders” aren’t stoking the flames of intolerance, will revolt against the current political parties (religious and secular…they’re all corrupt), and put a real representative gov’t in place.

  6. But these are all things of politics. If Pakistan is truly a country with an Islamic ethos then what is lacking in Pakistan is spirituality. There can never be true belief where there is coercion and laws against free speech and without true belief there can never be spirituality. Certainly there can be obedience and conformity but this is the philosophy of the Daleks-“You will obey” and contains nothing to advance the progress of the nation towards a higher level of harmony with the divine. Perhaps it was always the intention that Pakistan should be a haven for the oppressive and materialistic politics of power and if that is true they have succeeded wonderfully but if Pakistan was meant to be a beacon for enlightened Islam then they have failed miserably. In my view not only have they failed the people of Pakistan, they have also failed Muslims across the world.

    • Well said. Pakistan was intended to be the latter, and yes… “they” have failed miserably.

  7. On Point 2. First and foremost, there is nothing ‘moderate’ about killing someone in the name of religion. In this act he proves that he believes his religion is one that incites and condones murder.

    Second, there is nothing spectacular about his allegedly ‘liberal’ lifestyle which simply proves his religious hypocrisy – rife in the region. As would be demonstrated if any journalist actually dared to expose the real lives as lived by these relgious zealots and Mullahs.

    Third, in accordance with all media that reported a police report generated some 18 months ago perceiving his views as extremist and forbidding him to be appointed security detail to any VIP.

    Last, he ‘says’ he acted alone. Why has his word got any credibility whatsoever? He acted alone, but managed to reload a second round of ammunition without the highly trained officers around him so much as flinching. That’s 27 bullets and the man has lived to tell the tale and take rose petal showers.

    On point 3. Numbers shouldn’t be reduced to statistics and percentages. I wouldn’t find it any more alarming if 40,000 people took to the streets of America in support of Charles Manson or Ted Bundy.

    The country is in deep trouble. Period.

  8. The argument that religious parties dont have popular support is a ridiculous one – but it repeated ad nauseum. Let us get this clear – neither of the two largest mainstream parties in Pakistan can be called moderate. It was Bhutto’s “leftist” PPP which legally outcasted the Ahmadiyyas. Or take another example – neither PML nor PPP have shown any inclination to scrap the dastardly and barabaric hudood laws. Even in recent case of Taseer’s tragic assassination, the PPP has not an unequivocal position – a senior minister commented that he himself would not hesitate to murder a blashphemer! Bottomline; both PPP and PML are themselves essentially religious-minded parties. The only saving grace is that they are not as bad as the Jamaat or the Taliban.

    By the way, what is this hair-splitting about Qadri not being a fundamentalist? This ogre kills someone for such flimsy reasons in the name of Islam and you come up with strange arguments about him not being a fundamentalist?

    • The religious parties don’t have support in the sense that anyone much votes for them. Since they are parties, that is a valid criterion of support.

      We don’t know why Qadri killed Taseer, or much about Qadri. For all we know he is unstable too. What is clear is that you can’t read of major trends in Pakistani politics from this one guy, especially since he wasn’t even a representative of the trend that is being announced to be taking over!

      • My point is that both PPP and PML – the two most popular parties – are themselves quasi-religious parties. They either openly espouse Islamic causes or are completely silent about regressive practices done in the name of Islam. That being the case, to talk of religious parties not having a base is meaningless.

        • Asaf Ali Zardari is the head of the PPP. Does that look religious to you? What has been the party’s legislative agenda? There is a difference between Jama’at-i Islami and PPP! Trying to deny that just makes you look silly.

        • You’re totally spot on… but put it in context. These parties have to cow tow to the religious parties to some extent to stay in power. It’s no different than Republicans and Democrats espousing their religiosity or competing to be the staunchest of the pro-Israel cabal.

  9. 1. You’re right, it was promulgated by a military dictator. However successive amendments in the laws in the Nawaz Sharif tenure following a judgment of the Federal Shariat Court and a procedural change in the Musharraf tenures were passed by the National Assembly of the time.

    2. Baitullah Mehsud was married and was reportedly getting a leg massage when he died. Do fundamentalists not marry, have sex, procreate?

    Suicide bombings in Pakistan have been carried out by clean shaven men. Does that mean they’re not fundamentalists?

    Your use of the word fundamentalists here is rather hilarious. The Barelvi clergy that denounces attacks on shrines and organizes protests against the government to ensure the state provides shrines with security are the ones who urged people not to attend Salmaan Taseer’s funeral.

    You’ve used one press report to make your point, and yet you ignore the fact that Qadri was influenced by speeches he’d heard denouncing any move to repeal the blasphemy law. Care to see this? link to

    Qadri represents a lot about Pakistan, if you really thought about it.

    3. There were 60 people at a protest held to condemn Salmaan Taseer’s assassination. There were 40,000 people in favour of the blasphemy law. Both were held in Karachi.

    4. The militantly secular party, as you put it, has yet to make a statement on the move to amend the blasphemy laws, nor have they offered to lend their support to Aasia Noreen, the Christian woman sentenced to death for allegedly committing blasphemy.

    Also, fundamentalists are important in Karachi politics. Ever heard of the Jamaat-e-Islami/MQM standoff? Jamaat-e-Islami’s previous gains in the city’s elections?

    5. As I said above, the “unabashedly secular party” has yet to condemn fatwas issued against Salmaan Taseer and Sherry Rehman, the MNA who moved the bill for amendments in the blasphemy laws, nor have they stated if they would support the bill if it was presented in the bill.

    You do make one valid point: “outsiders do not actually understand the country very well and have no sense of scale.” You proved that with this blog.

    • It wasn’t alleged that Qadri was married, it was alleged that he had a long term dalliance. And Baitullah Mahsud was not known for shrine going.

      Again, a demonstration of 40,000 on this issue in Karachi is small. In 2001 the Jamaat got 70,000 to come out against the US invasion of Afghanistan, and that was considered a poor showing.

      Your tendentious amalgamation of the PPP to the Jamaat is ridiculous to anyone who has ever actually lived in Lahore.

      And the article was mainly about the MQM and the way in which Karachi secularists just proved pivotal to keeping the government from falling.

  10. Professor Cole,
    Could comment on the potential validity of the conclusion that the murderer of Taseer, while not himself a card-carrying fundamentalist (so to speak), might well have been swayed psychologically by the rhetoric of and zeitgeist(sp?) established by Islamic fundamentalists — in a parallel, perhaps, to the individual who gunned down Rep. Giffords and 19 others and the intemperate rhetoric of elements of American neoconservatives? Would appreciate your insights. Thank you.

  11. Very well said. To me the blasphemy law itself is blasphemy. According to my belief, no one can increase or decrease the status of God (as pointed out in Koran) or the Prophet(s). One can only express his or her view, which does not count. The prophet never avenged on anyone who was blasphemous in his time. And of course this murderer himself is blasphemous. He clearly disobeyed the command of God not to kill.
    Murder of any kind is WRONG. This is the view of majority in Pakistan who are hostage to a handful of extremists.

    • Well.. tell that to my friend in Karachi who received numerous death threats and had his radio show suspended by the regulatory body PEMRA, only because he condemned the assassination and criticized Qadri and his supporters on his show. It doesn’t hurt to accept reality; a vast majority of Pakistan is not just fundamentalist, but rapidly transforming into a mob of extremists.

    • Precisely my belief as well. As a Muslim, my belief and faith is solid. It makes no difference that anyone “insult” my God or Prophet through their own ignorance of true Islam. Frankly, I can’t blame many of the talking heads for their views about Islam… the blame falls on the sad excuses for Muslims who are committing unIslamic acts daily and employing violence and extremism to advance their agendas.

  12. “Fundamentalists are not important in Karachi politics, except insofar as they are violent infiltrators.”

    I wonder if Naimatullah Khan, Karachi’s Nazim (mayor) from 2001-2005 and belonging to the *Jamaat-e-Islami* got the memo! Or following the stellar logic in this piece, is the Jamaat not a fundamentalist party because its politicians drive cars and have cell phones?

    • Well said Rabia. The MQM is not a party based on secularism, but primarily represents the Urdu-speaking race, which comprises of a majority population of Karachi. That being said, it does not mean that MQM supporters may not be fundamentalists – they are but Muslims under the influence of an increasing number of fundamentalist mosques, clerics and their weekly Friday sermons (read hate-speech). Apart from that, the popularity of MQM in the city is facing competition. Take my area as an example. I live in the center of the city, and 10 years back what used to be a completely MQM-dominated locality is now approx. 20% underr the hold of ANP (the fundamentalist Pashtoon party) with a greater influence of local mosques.

  13. Finally, a fresh breeze of sanity from overseas. I had thought that the western mainstream media and bloggers will just stop at printing and reposting Aatish Taseer’s hate-spewing obituary.

    I do, however, think you are lumping together just too many people under the banner of fundamentalism. Western academics have suddenly realized that this strategy in Egypt has had repercussions.

    Secularism is dying in Pakistan, it dies four times a day with the death and misery of the poor and disenfranchised.

  14. 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 appropriate comparison is the number of people who came out to rally against the blasphemy law or to mourn Salman Taseer.

  15. 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.

    –True, but Karachi is population-wise, about 10% of Pakistan. What really matters is the situation in Punjab, which comprises 56% of the population and is the heart of army recruitment.

    Further, the MQM has not stinted at using the blasphemy law against its opponents.

    e.g., 2006:
    HYDERABAD, Aug 22: The Muttahida Qaumi Movement on Tuesday called upon President Gen Pervez Musharraf to order registration of a blasphemy case against Maulana Fazlur Rehman, Qazi Hussain Ahmed and other MMA legislators for their alleged involvement in tearing up of copies of Hudood Ordinance (amendment) bill containing sacred names of Allah and Holy Prophet (pbuh) and Quranic verses.

  16. 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.

    — Since when is a swing party “a pillar of the political establishment”? MQM has 25 members in the 342 seat national assembly. That is 7.3%. Equivalently about 9 members in the 120 member Israeli Knesset. The Shas party in Israel has 11 seats. I believe Netanyahu has 66 members backing him, so Shas is a “swing party”. Is Shas “a pillar of the political establishment”?

  17. So many see what is happening as intolerance and extremism. As someone who embraced Islam 27 years ago, and sometimes have to deal with this shameful behaviour, I see it as something worse.
    They are utterly addicted to showing off how what tough Muslims they are.
    In my experience all of the problem characters have this issue. A must-be-seen-to-go-further-than-the-next-guy atmosphere creates insecure individuals who can be very easily manipulated. Those who cultivate this atmosphere, and who cultivate doubts about someone’s faith in order to get them to switch allegiances, have a great deal to answer for.The Prophet Muhammad said he feared one thing for his community of followers more than anything else – the lesser form of idolatry – show. He described it as a black ant on a black rock on a black night. Well it seems to have crept up on quite a few, and frankly, seems like they have man issues.

    Seeing the issue as just as extremism is a mistake. Extremism is often over very silly, obsessive, petty things.
    Franz Fanon might have said something interesting.

  18. Pls make an important correction: Sherry Rehman has NOT called for a repeal of the blasphemy law, but rather an amendment to it. No one in Pakistan has publicly called for repeal. Leaving aside that this is a problematic position (since it leaves intact the premise that blasphemy is a crime), it is important not to accept the rhetoric of the conservatives who have been repeatedly stating that the blasphemy law is to be repealed. Indeed, that is what Qadri said he assassinated Taseer for.

  19. Sir,
    your article does deal with the pertinent issues being misinterpreted by the Western world at large. However, despite the bridge between our fundamentalists and liberals, this event in particular has widened the chiasm between our ‘liberals’ and ‘conservatives’. Many liberals who previously neither endorsed nor criticized the Western impact have come out for the first time in support of Qadri. N these are not your typical bearded, five-time-praying hardc ore muslims, bt English speaking, westen attired liberals.

  20. The link provided relating to MQM denouncing Taseer’s murder is wrong. It clearly shows MQM denouncing the murder of its own activists and not the murder of the slain Punjab governor.

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