The South Asia Channel

The Pakistani Taliban’s “preposterous” ask

The Pakistani Taliban’s “preposterous” ask

Just after Christmas, the Pakistani Taliban (Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan or TTP) offered a peace deal of sorts to the Pakistani government.  In exchange for a cessation of TTP violence, they demanded Pakistan’s constitution be brought into conformity with their version of Islamic law and the government break ties with the United States.  In response, a senior Pakistani government official reportedly called the offer "preposterous." 

Yet it may not be, especially regarding the implementation of religious law.  Similar demands were met in 2009 after the TTP took the Swat valley, with the Pakistani government giving away these very rights.  The local government led by the Awami National party agreed to establish sharia law in Swat and the broader Malakand Division, which was approved by the national parliament and signed by President Zardari.  It was only when the Pakistani Taliban pushed for more territorial gains that the government responded with force of arms.  If past is prologue, the government may bend to get a deal now. 

However, the status quo arguably meets TTP demands regarding religious law, as much of what they seek already exists –  Islamic law plays a major role in governance, and militants are free to violently force their religious interpretations on the population. 

This slide towards religious governance goes back to the country’s founding.  From the outset, the Objectives Resolution of 1949, which preceded the first of several constitutions, tilted Pakistan towards an Islamic state where citizens and their rights were defined by religion.  This occurred despite Jinnah’s famous speech two years earlier to the Constituent Assembly, in which he said, "You are free to go to your temples, you are free to go to your mosques or to any other place or worship in this State of Pakistan. You may belong to any religion or caste or creed — that has nothing to do with the business of the State."  The Objectives Resolution went in a different direction, and while it recognized the presence of religious minorities, it only promised "adequate provision" of basic rights, while defining the entire state in Islamic terms. Constitutions that followed built off and expanded this foundation.

The biggest leaps came from Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, Pakistan’s secular Prime Minister from 1973-1977, and General Zia ul Haq’s reign from 1978-1988.  Under Bhutto, the Ahmadis were effectively outlawed through constitutional changes that created a definition of a Muslim that excluded Ahmadis.  The constitution was also amended to establish the Council of Islamic Ideology to advise on whether proposed laws are compatible with Islam.  Not considered particularly devout, he took these and other steps to shore-up his flagging political fortunes, currying the support of religious leaders. 

Zia went even further, setting into place much of what the TTP wants today, changing both statutory law and constitutional provisions.  He amended the blasphemy law, a colonial era holdover, and increased the penalty to include death, but without requiring the provision of evidence.  This alone has had far-reaching effects.  The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) where I work knows of at least 17 people on death row in Pakistan for blasphemy and 20 others serving life sentences. Many more are in jail awaiting trial or appeal.  The surprising outcome of the Rimsha Masih case is an exception to the sad norm.

In addition, Zia altered the penal code to criminalize the basic acts of the Ahmadi faith. He amended the constitution to create the Federal Shariat Court to review legislation that may conflict with sharia law, creating an unclear legal structure that appears to run parallel to or oversee the secular system. In addition, Zia Islamicized the education system, the banking system, and the penal system through the Hudood ordinances. 

And today, for what the law does not forbid (which is much), militants have free reign to impose their religious views at the point of a gun. 

This was shockingly evident last week, with the January 10 attack that killed 81 Shi’a Muslims in twin bombings in a Shiite area of Quetta.   The attack was tragically predictable, as the targeting of Shia Muslims steadily increased throughout 2012, with rights groups estimating (before this attack) more than 400 murdered.  The TTP, and fellow travelers like Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, regularly claim responsibility.  Human rights organizations continue to criticize government inaction, but the body count keeps rising. 

Another case in point is the TTP murder of Shahbaz Bhatti, the Federal Minister of Minority Affairs and the only Christian in Zardari’s cabinet.  Working bravely against the blasphemy law, the TTP answered Shahbaz’s efforts in 2010 by assassinating him steps from his mother’s Islamabad home in broad daylight.  The TTP were so brazen as to leave fliers at the scene claiming responsibility, but no one has been held accountable and the investigation fizzled. 

Ahmadis continue to suffer discrimination, abuse, and violence.  80 Ahmadis were killed in May 2010 when two of their mosques were attacked by the TTP.  Violence continues today throughout the country – in July of this year the president of a local Ahmadi community outside Karachi was murdered and in December over 100 Ahmadi graves desecrated in Lahore. Hindus too are among the victims of Pakistan’s climate of intolerance. The forced conversion and marriage of Hindu girls has increased in Sindh Province, and in 2012 upwards of 250 Pakistani Hindus from Sindh and Baluchistan Provinces have migrated to India to avoid increasing violence.  Christians remember the violence of Gojra in 2009, where an entire village was burned to the ground and no one held to account, and last year the National Commission for Justice and Peace found nine places of worship were damaged, destroyed or vandalized, including 5 churches and 3 Hindu temples. 

Clearly, the Pakistani Taliban’s demand for enforcement of their version of Islamic law is not far from reality.  In the current environment, Pakistani law is used to enforce religious views, and militants act with impunity against those they consider un-Islamic.  Both the majority Muslim population and minority religious communities are at risk.  Pakistan’s active civil society must continually retreat and retrench to protect the small openings for peaceful debate and human rights work.  Consequently, the very fabric of Pakistan is being torn, and if this "preposterous" ask is implemented, it could unravel more.

Knox Thames is the Director of Policy and Research at the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom. The views expressed here are his own and may or may not reflect the views of the Commission. He can be followed on Twitter @thames22.