One week before the U.S. celebrated the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, a citizens’ demonstration was held in Karachi, not unlike the March on Washington led by Dr. King in 1963 where he declared “I have a dream.” However, the message of Karachi’s protestors was more of a nightmare, as they were assembled in support of the nation’s blasphemy law that has been used to persecute Pakistan’s religious minorities and indict innocent Muslims. This protest has been organized to show the strength of the nation’s ultra-conservative right wing in the wake of the assassination of Governor Salman Taseer. The deafening silence from the liberal elements of Pakistan has exposed the dominance over the national discourse by ultra-conservative lawyers and religious figures. The U.S. entered a new era of democratic rule when the confluence of religious men like Dr King and lawyers like Thurgood Marshall were able to take hold of the nation’s hearts and minds. Oppositely, Pakistan could be entering a dangerous era with the dominance of militant Islamic rhetoric supported by religious figures and lawyers.
The issue of the blasphemy law has come to the forefront of Pakistani political discourse since the assassination of Salman Taseer, governor of Pakistan’s largest province. Governor Taseer was killed by his security guard because he believed the law should be revised to prevent its misuse. In the aftermath, one could expect the most extreme elements of Pakistan’s society to have supported the cold-blooded murder. What was alarming was the degree to which the general public supported Mumtaz Qadri, the assassin. Some individuals in the media have even given him the title of “ghazi” or religious warrior.
However, the most frightening support for the assassin came from Pakistan’s lawyers’ community, who showered Qadri with rose petals as he exited the court house for his first appearance last week. Over 500 lawyers have volunteered to defend Qadri and public statements have been given by lawyers in support of the blasphemy law and the murder of Taseer. It seems quite ironic that lawyers would support the actions of an individual who took the law into his own hands. Indeed, there wouldn’t be much need for courts or lawyers if the citizens could operate like the assassin Mumtaz Qadri.
Much of the world looks with disappointment at these lawyers, some of whom helped to organize a non-violent movement that brought the end of the Musharraf dictatorship. Pakistanis had high hopes for the Lawyer’s Movement to act responsibly as it previously had in peacefully protesting to restore judicial independence and democracy. It may seem that the Lawyer’s Movement has lost its way by supporting anti-state actors like Qadri, but one should note that the lawyers themselves are facing an ideological split like the country as a whole.
There are two camps in the law community with several variations but many adhere either to modern secularism or religious-based traditionalism. These two opposing groups joined forces for the first time in rejecting Musharraf’s regime and his firing of Supreme Court justices. However, with the military dictatorship having ended, the voice of the liberal lawyers was drowned out by the ultra-conservative rhetoric emblematic of Pakistan’s middle class.
This does not mean that the liberal lawyers are without their support. The election of liberal human rights advocate Asma Jahangir to the Lahore Bar Council shows the ability of the left-leaning lawyers to garner votes. Much like the politics of the nation, the conservatives have the loudest voice on the streets by organizing marches and protests, but cannot turn this into seats in Parliament or in Bar Councils.
However, one must note that the confluence of religious figures and lawyers has allowed the conservative religious parties to dominate the public discussion over issues like the blasphemy laws. While the lawyers provide legal and organizational support, the religious leaders are the ones who can draw on huge numbers of supporters to attend rallies or carry out fatwa orders. The power of these imams has grown since the 1980’s when General Zia Ul Haq sent out a beacon call to all militant Islamic scholars to set up madrassas and mosques in Pakistan. He further allowed certain conservative elements to begin dominating middle class institutions like public schools and colleges, the civilian bureaucracy, the military and police.
These religious figures now enjoy considerable prominence in the society, with rather large followings, and will issue fatwas that call for the death of individuals like Salman Taseer, who was one of the few progressive voices in the nation. Thus we see that the religious figures and lawyers are working conjunctively: when someone acts on a fatwa issued by a religious leader, lawyers will attempt to legitimize this murder by defending the illegal action in court or in public. Dr. King and Thurgood Marshall employed similar tactics in fighting racism in the United States, where Dr. King would inspire an individual to break a discriminatory law and lawyers from groups like the NAACP would then defend that person.
However, the difference was that Dr. King’s movement was non-violent and called for an end to minority oppression, whereas the religious right-wing movement in Pakistan is creating an increasingly hostile and violent environment for the nation’s minorities. In the same vein, there is a lesson to learn for the liberal elements in Pakistan’s religious and legal circles: that they can collectively inspire the Pakistani people to do away with the violent narrow-minded rhetoric of the past in favor of a new modern and tolerant era for Pakistan to enter.