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Urban Religious Elitism and Blasphemy Laws


By Mustafa Kamal

18 December 2014

Sharia is open to multiple interpretations. The emergence of numerous sects in Islam is a product of such interpretations at particular times and as responses to changing social and political dynamics.

At the same time, the multiplicity of possible interpretations of Sharia has also served political and religious elites well in their effort to consolidate power. The inclusion of Wahhab’s thought in modern Saudi Arabia, for instance, or the role of the Ulema under Mughal Emperor Akbar’s rule in India can be seen as instances of this technique of extending power under the guise of Sharia implementation. In his book Tareekh Aur Danishwar, Dr. Mubarak Ali cites various examples to illustrate how Akbar did not hesitate to use fatwas from different schools of thoughts to legitimize his royal orders and thus exercise control over his subjects.

In his books The Mughal Emperors and The Islamic Dynasties of India, and Iran and Central Asia, Francis Robinson argues that collaboration between Akbar and the Ulema of various fiqh was an integral part of the former’s monarchical power. In contrast Ulema opposing the Emperor’s orders were often sent away on pilgrimage.

This sort of active collaboration between powerful religious and political elites has been an integral part of history. Across religions, the elite have instrumentalised religious cannon and scriptures to strengthen their hold over power. American sociologist Clifford James Geertz calls such collaboration a ‘Sanctification of Social Inequality’, a process by which religious and political elites collaborate with each other to use religion to maintain their power over people.

Another author Ira M. Lapidus in his voluminous book, A History of Islamic Societies, defines such collaboration as ‘urban religious elitism’.

In Pakistan, this sanctification of social inequality by the way of mullah-elite collaboration has been a crucial aspect of political and public life.

This collaboration reached its peak during the Zia dictatorship. In the 1980s, the partnership between Jamat-e-Islami (JI) and General Zia-ul-Haq resulted in the introduction of the Hudood Ordinance and Blasphemy laws into Pakistan’s constitution. Through this collaboration, the JI attempted to gain political influence, while Gen Zia-ul-Haq arguably sought to enhance the social base of his dictatorship.

The inclusion of JI in the Zia government multiplied the impact of such elitism and the sanctification of social inequality. It also played an important role in giving the otherwise ideological war between capitalism and communism a religious colour.

Successive governments since the Zia era have lent support to religious groups to serve their own political ends. The creation of the Islami Jamboree Ittehad (IJI) in the late 1990s and Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal (MMA) under the Musharraf dictatorship played a significant role in entrenching this process.

The growing violence in the name of religion is an expected outcome of this mullah-elite connivance, which is increasingly preying on even its own kith and kin. The case of Junaid Jamshed is its latest manifestation.

The Case of Junaid Jamshed:

Born again Muslim, pop-singer turned televangelist, Junaid Jamshed was recently implicated in a blasphemy case. He had to escape to London, to the amusement of many liberals and progressives in Pakistan, for he was wont to deliver long lectures about the rotten culture of the West. 

However, the case of Junaid Jamshed indicates that the Sharia can be moulded as per requirement. Several religious Ulema came forward in support of Junaid Jamshed, saying that the door to repentance remains open in such cases. However, in the cases of two other blasphemy accused—Asia Bibi (a Christian woman) and Junaid Hafeez (a young university lecturer)—no such voices of succour could be heard.

Junaid Jamshed’s case has highlighted the deep hypocrisy that marks the mullah-elite consensus. Everything, from the Constitution to religious order, can be amended for the benefit of the powerful and to oppress the poor.

Junaid Jamshed’s association with the Tableeghi Jamaat won him lot of sympathy from the top Ulema who had no hesitation in applying a different set of Sharia rules for Junaid Hafeez and Asia Bibi.

This farcical episode also teaches us an important lesson: contradictions cannot be reconciled merely through an elite consensus. Events intervene and disrupt the elitist scheme.

A Passive Government:

The other aspect yet again brought to light by the blasphemy laws is the passive attitude or worse, the irrelevance of the state apparatus.

In the past, the blasphemy accused have been killed by individual zealots (Salman Taseer, Salman Bhatti, Shahzad Maseeh and others).In other instances, charged crowds have taken to vandalising Christian neighbourhoods (Badami Bagh, Gojra and Shanti Nagar).

In all such cases, not only did the state apparatus prove to be impotent, but the government of the day could not find even the courage to condemn the incidents.

The need of the time is to review these laws. The urban religious elite might show willingness to do so in the context of the Junaid Jamshed affair. However, a mere repeal of the laws is not enough. There is also a need to create an environment where the ‘sanctification of social inequality’ and ‘urban religious elitism’ becomes less an instrument of state policy.

The clerics supporting Junaid Jamshed should also have the moral courage to speak for the less fortunate victims of the blasphemy laws.

One may also suggest that the government breaks its silence.