Irfan Yusuf: Pakistan's fractured groups use sharia law for own ends

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Oppressive sanctions are being abused to harass minorities, writes Irfan Yusuf, lawyer and author of Once Were Radicals: My Years as a Teenage Islamo-Fascist.

Swiss Islamic scholar Dr Tariq Ramadan isn't a popular man in more extreme circles.

The Bush Administration cancelled his visa, citing evidence of dubious quality.

European monoculturalists said he had close links to the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood. Indeed, he does. His grandfather founded the organisation.

I guess you can't choose your ancestry or your relatives.

Tariq Ramadan has, however, chosen his ideas. A large number of his ideas on Islamic law are such that he wouldn't be welcome in Pakistan.

Among them is his 2005 call for a moratorium on corporal punishment, stoning and the death penalty (collectively known as hudud) in those few Muslim-majority states where these form part of the criminal law.

His comments were condemned by Muslim writers and scholars, including those claiming to follow the legacy of Dr Ramadan's grandfather.

No doubt his critics would have included religious leaders associated with the many allegedly Islamic political parties in Pakistan who believe the death sentence should be mandatory for anyone found guilty of blasphemy.

Since the late 1980s, after the death of the pro-American Islamist dictator General Zia ul Haq, both mainstream conservative political parties and the feudal landlords who run the champagne socialist Pakistan People's Party (PPP) have been prepared to do deals with the small minority of religious parties which, in a free and fair election, would collectively be lucky to get more than 12 per cent of the vote.

Religion in Pakistan is a terribly fractured affair.

The Sunnis are divided into at least three groups (deobandi, barelwi and ahl-i-hadith), with each further subdivided.

Shia Muslims make up about 20 per cent of Pakistan's population and they are divided into different denominations.

Each group sees itself as the exemplar of true Islam, often openly condemning its competitors as misguided or even non-believers. The divisions are further harnessed by competing governments of countries such as Iran and Saudi Arabia.

Sects that engage in party politics share certain features. They engage in anti-American rhetoric, despite all meeting secretly with officials at the US Embassy in Islamabad and sending their own children to study in the United States.

They are all prepared to do deals with whichever mainstream party. And they all support the implementation of certain limited aspects of Islamic sacred law, especially ones which, in isolation, would cause maximum damage to women and minorities.

They are the Pharisees of Pakistan, selectively following the letter of the law but ignoring its spirit and intent.

So when Aasia Bibi, a poor Christian woman from a village in Punjab, is accused by other women of engaging in gustakh-i-rasul (insulting the prophet), she is prosecuted under Pakistan's blasphemy laws. She finds no protector among her neighbours and the village imam makes threatening pronouncements against her.

The fact the original dispute between the women wasn't about prophethood but rather about water is not considered.

Hundreds of Pakistani Christians have been prosecuted under blasphemy laws, under which the mandatory punishment is death. To their credit, sharia court judges throw out virtually all of these cases, knowing that at the heart is some unrelated commercial or other dispute.

The prophet Muhammad's honour is used by his alleged followers to avoid paying debts or to flex their collective muscle against their Christian fellow citizens. It is an area in which there is rare consensus among Pakistan's fractured Religious Right.

But even if the sharia courts make the right decision, it usually takes years to get there. In the meantime, the poor defendant languishes in prison, a fate often preferable to facing death threats from fellow villagers.

Aasia Bibi's case gained international prominence when her powerful backer, Punjab Governor Salman Taseer, was shot dead by his own bodyguard. Before his death, Taseer held a press conference with Aasia Bibi and had this to say: "Pakistan founded by Qaid-i-Azam [The Great Leader] Mohammad Ali Jinnah never had such a law. Our religion also protects people's consciences. The founder of Pakistan had a white ribbon placed on the Pakistani flag so that people's differences of beliefs could be recognised and protected."

Most of Pakistan's flag is green, that being the traditional colour of Islam. It also has the crescent and star, a symbol borrowed from orthodox Christians by the Ottomans and adopted by many Muslim countries. But Pakistan is also a nation of Christians, Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists and other faith communities. They are represented by a white banner.

Taseer went on to speak of his Christian constituent: "She is a poverty-stricken woman who had no legal assistance or representation or the means to afford such representation.

"By placing such poor minorities through such legal proceedings, we are making a mockery of the foundational ideas of Pakistan and its founder."

For standing up for justice, Taseer was shot. His killer, now in custody, has become a rallying point for Pakistan's religious parties.

If Muslim minorities in New Zealand were treated like this - harassed by the majority and subject to oppressive legal sanctions - there would be a chorus of good Kiwi non-Muslim citizens coming to their aid.

- NZ Herald

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