Twenty-seven bullets were fired at Pakistan’s Punjab Governor, Salman Taseer, by the man who was paid to protect him. Malik Mumtaz Hussain Qadri said he killed Taseer for criticising Pakistan’s blasphemy laws. More shocking was the way in which Qadri was treated later by many religious parties. The self-confessed assassin was showered with rose petals and garlands.
The assassination of Taseer has reignited the debate of national identity crisis faced by Pakistan. In an exclusive interview with Kamna Arora of Zeenews.com, Ed Husain discusses Pakistan’s blasphemy law, lack of counter extremism strategy, and the steps Islamabad should take to stop Islamic extremism.
Ed Husain is a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, Washington DC. He is the author of ‘The Islamist’, and co-founder of the Quilliam Foundation, a British think-tank.
Kamna: Punjab’s Governor Salman Taseer was assassinated by a member of his security protocol for advocating reform of Pakistan`s blasphemy law. Will liberals soon be an endangered species in the South Asian country?
Husain: No. Pakistan still retains a very strong, intellectually rooted liberal tradition. Its vibrant civil society, free media, and relatively progressive status of women illustrate that we are not talking about Afghanistan or Saudi Arabia here. Pakistan has much to offer. Granted, at times, prominent liberals seem under siege but on balance, vast swathes of Pakistan’s youthful population still yearn to be part of that liberal political elite. Essentially, this is a battle of ideas and not people. Therefore, the situation is in flux: Today’s fanatic can become tomorrow’s liberal and vice versa. That is what happens in the ongoing battle of ideas that determines these outcomes.
The fanatics have violence (and sometimes the mob) on their side, but the stronger arguments, national infrastructure and material resources are on the side of the pluralist liberals. Liberals, sadly, due to infighting, arrogance, and rivalry lack ways in which to utilise their strengths.
Kamna: Pakistan’s Interior Minister Rehman Malik has suggested Sherry Rehman, a female Parliamentarian from Karachi, to leave the country as she has tabled a Parliamentary Bill advocating reform of the blasphemy law. Does that mean the Pakistan government is not efficient in protecting people from extremism?
Husain: I’d go further: Key sections of the Pakistani military and intelligence community have been infected with extremist ideas. The military remains an all-powerful institution within Pakistan, and therefore, occasionally, the government will make overtures toward them with populist gestures, such as the one to which you allude. Regrettably, as matters stand, the Pakistani government has no coherent counter extremism strategy. It has given no serious thought to what constitutes religious radicalism, and how best to uproot it. In this vacuum, extremist groups of various hues continue to operate with very little challenge in Pakistan. Yes, the government mostly clamps down on terrorism – but by then it’s too late. Extremism produces terrorism, and unless the former is tackled efficiently then Pakistan will continue to suffer from terrorism.
Kamna: It was not shocking when religious parties refused to condemn Taseer`s death, but what I found appalling is the lack of leadership from Pakistan’s secular forces. What kind of crisis is Pakistan facing?
Husain: Pakistan is essentially facing that curse of several modern nation states: what does it mean to be a nation today? In Pakistan’s case, its identity crisis is amplified by false debates around the conflict between religion and secularism. One can be a perfectly pious Muslim, while living within a wholly secular or religiously-neutral public space. Millions of Muslims in India and Bangladesh are the best advocates of this working model. Indeed, great Muslim scholars, such as Husain Ahmad Madani, were opposed to the creation of Pakistan for these very reasons. Madani and Indian Muslims were broadly right in their prediction that Pakistan as a so-called ‘Islamic State’ was likely to be a disaster.
To this day, Pakistan is struggling with what it means to be ‘Islamic’. The flawed premise that a secular state cannot be sufficiently Muslim continues to paralyse Pakistan’s public discourse, and the religious right continues to agitate. All the while, sadly, the liberal left has swallowed this extremist narrative that Islam is a political ideology. In many cases, the left’s atheism and hostility towards Islam (the faith) helps bolster the religious right. Added to this national identity crisis is Pakistan’s rivalry with its neighbours, economic weakness, educational under-achievement, religious extremism, terrorism, weak governance, natural disasters, and a burgeoning youth population.
Kamna: Do you think blasphemy laws in Pakistan should be reformed?
Husain: Yes, and more: all religious and other minorities ought to be treated as full human beings with full rights. Reforming the blasphemy laws would help send the right signals that religious minorities in Pakistan are an integral part of that land’s history, present, and future. It’s not easy to defy the mob in Pakistan’s major cities, but plausible political leadership must entail protecting all of Pakistan’s citizens. And leading Pakistan to a better future, rather than following the worst aspects of human emotion.
Kamna: What steps should the Pakistan government take to stop Islamic extremism from killing liberalism and to protect the space of secular Pakistanis?
Husain: Learn from neighbouring Indian and Bangladeshi Muslim communities that there is no contradiction between being Muslim in religious observance, and secular or pluralist in political conduct. Disinfect the military, police and intelligence communities from the virus that is religious extremism, conspiracy theories, and blaming others for Pakistan’s problems. Introduce a comprehensive counter-radicalisation strategy in Pakistan’s schools, madrasas, and universities in which religious text should be taught in a real-world context.