On the power of religious scholars in Pakistan

Published January 7th, 2011 - 08:18 GMT
Pakistani civil society activists hold lit candles as they march in tribute to slain governor Punjab province Salman Taseer during a rally in Lahore on January 7, 2011.
Pakistani civil society activists hold lit candles as they march in tribute to slain governor Punjab province Salman Taseer during a rally in Lahore on January 7, 2011.

Technically there is no civil war in Pakistan. But the recent murder of the Punjab governor showed how society is deeply polarised. The alarming — and disgusting — wide approval of the assassination of Governor Salman Taseer amongst the Pakistani elite underlines the powerful influence of religious parties.

When the confessed assassin of Taseer, his bodyguard, appeared in court, dozens of lawyers showered him with rose petals. Hundreds of religious scholars issued a statement applauding the killer and warning those who mourned the assassinated politician of a similar fate.

It is no secret that the current government has failed to stop the violence. It has failed to impose state authority and the rule of law. It has failed to revive the economy. And it has failed to protect its strongest ally, Taseer, who had been on the hit list since he visited a jail to meet a woman being held under the infamous blasphemy law.

Taseer was a leading advocate of scrapping the law, seen by many as a driving force behind the rise of extremism and an obstacle to the revival of civil society.

What is happening in Pakistan is seriously dangerous. The current conflict between moderates and religious extremists will have a devastating impact on the fate of the country itself unless the government takes the bold decision to support state institutions and curtail the powers religious scholars have enjoyed since the early 1980s.

Democracy in Pakistan will have no future unless Islamist parties accept the supremacy of the state and stop intimidating the people in the name of religion. The intimidation has so far been working. Those who showered Taseer's murderer with rose petals are lawyers, until recently the vanguard of secularism in Pakistan.


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