Populism, religious zealotry, social media: the unholy trinity that made a lawless mess of Pakistan

  • Kevin Rafferty says the blasphemy case against Asia Bibi is an emblem of a Pakistan that has broken its founding father’s promise of safety for people of all faiths, and a nation that has lost its way
PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 27 November, 2018, 4:49pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 27 November, 2018, 7:49pm

When Pakistan’s highest court acquitted Aasiya Noreen, also known as Asia Bibi, of a false charge of blasphemy, some naive commentators hailed the judgment as a harbinger of hope for a freer Pakistan.

The judges ordered that Bibi, a poor Catholic farm labourer who had spent eight years on death row, be released immediately. But Muslim extremists reacted to her acquittal by threatening to bring Pakistan to a bloody halt and demanding that she be put to death, whatever the evidence.

Imran Khan’s government caved in to the mob, put Bibi on an exit-control list to stop her leaving the country, and allowed a review of the court’s acquittal. She is in a – supposedly – safe place, but extremists are going house to house hunting her family members.

Pakistan is a potentially rich country that has become an unholy lawless mess through the combined evil forces of populism, religious zealotry and mob rule.

Muhammad Ali Jinnah, Pakistan’s founding father whose photograph hangs proudly in all government offices, promised that all people, of whatever religion, would be safe. He decreed: “You are free; 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.”

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But Jinnah died from tuberculosis within 13 months of independence. Squabbling politicians tried to keep a government together until generals took over in 1958. I first encountered Pakistan just before the country fell prey to modern populist religious savagery. It was a time of opportunity, of elections to restore democracy from discredited generals.

The army’s slothful response to the terrible Bhola cyclone, which struck East Pakistan in 1970 and killed half a million people, gave an overwhelming victory in the national elections to the Awami League, a party based in the East. But West Pakistanis’ contempt for Bengalis in the East led to a government crackdown, a disgraceful defeat for the Pakistani military at the hands of India, and ultimately, the creation of an independent Bangladesh from East Pakistan.

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West Pakistan, now Pakistan, was taken over by Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, who had swept to power promising “food, clothing and shelter” for all. He could have become a great reconciler, admitting defeat, cutting the military down to size, making proper peace with India, and throwing his energies into building on the assets of this historic land to forge a new tiger economy. But he did not.

He played the populist card, promising reforms and land for all; nationalising leading industries and banks for the people; decreeing universal, free education; bashing the fat cats of Pakistan’s 22 richest families. But there was no follow-through. He chose ministers, badly, for their loyalty, not competence, while he devoted himself to bringing down new opponents.

When Bhutto felt his popularity slipping, he cynically played the Islam card – developing an “Islamic bomb” to appeal for Arab money and outflank a growing number of Muslim parties. He overrode army seniority and Zia ul-Haq as army chief, mistakenly believing that Zia would be blindly loyal.

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How wrong: Zia overthrew Bhutto, imprisoned him, and had him hanged. Zia then trumped Bhutto’s Islam card, encouraging madrassas and the influence of Salafist Islamic doctrines from Saudi Arabia; ensuring that the military, bureaucracy and judiciary were dominated by Islamic purists; and tightening laws, including against blasphemy, to ensure an Islamic state, in defiance of Jinnah’s promises.

After Zia’s death in an aircraft crash in 1988, Pakistan’s march of Islam continued with generals and politicians vying for the spoils of power. Social media, featuring attacks on religious minorities, encouraged outbursts of mob rule. Christians with the wherewithal left; the poor ones, like Asia Bibi, had no such recourse.

In its verdict, the Supreme Court said the sisters who had accused Bibi of insulting the Prophet “had no regard for the truth”. The verdict ended with a quote from Hadith, in which Mohammed calls for non-Muslims to be treated kindly.

That was not good enough for the Islamic mob, whose leaders called for the deaths of the judges, as well as Bibi. This is the toxic state of affairs in Pakistan, the world’s ninth-biggest arms importer and a nation that, in spite of massive doses of aid from the World Bank, China and the US, languishes in 135th place in terms of per capita income.

Kevin Rafferty first went to Pakistan overland after winning the British Young Journalist of the Year award