Politicized Islam

Pakistan Table of Contents

From the outset, politics and religion have been intertwined both conceptually and practically in Islam. Because the Prophet established a government in Medina, precedents of governance and taxation exist. Through the history of Islam, from the Ummayyad (661-750) and Abbasid empires (750-1258) to the Mughals (1526- 1858) and the Ottomans (1300-1923), religion and statehood have been treated as one. Indeed, one of the beliefs of Islam is that the purpose of the state is to provide an environment where Muslims can properly practice their religion. If a leader fails in this, the people have a right to depose him.

In 1977 the government of Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto outlawed alcohol and changed the "day off" from Sunday to Friday, but no substantive Islamic reform program was implemented prior to General Zia's Islamization program. Starting in February 1979, new penal measures based on Islamic principles of justice went into effect. These carried considerably greater implications for women than for men. A welfare and taxation system based on zakat and a profit-and-loss banking system were also established in accordance with Islamic prohibitions against usury.

Zia's Islamization program was pursued within a rather complicated ideological framework. His stance was in contrast of the popular culture, in which most people are "personally" very religious but not "publicly" religious. An unexpected outcome was that by relying on a policy grounded in Islam, the state fomented factionalism: by legislating what is Islamic and what is not, Islam itself could no longer provide unity because it was then being defined to exclude previously included groups. Disputes between Sunnis and Shia, ethnic disturbances in Karachi between Pakhtuns and muhajirs, increased animosity toward Ahmadiyyas, and the revival of Punjab-Sindh tensions--can all be traced to the loss of Islam as a common vocabulary of public morality. More profoundly, in a move that reached into every home, the state had attempted to dictate a specific ideal image of women in Islamic society, an ideal that was largely antithetical to that existing in popular sentiment and in everyday life.

A major component in the Islamization program, the Shariat Bill, was passed in May 1991. This bill required that all laws in the country conform with Islam. Women's groups in particular were concerned that the reforms in the Muslim Family Laws Ordinance of 1961 could be jeopardized by the new bill.

A controversial law, Section 295-C of the Pakistan Penal Code, drew a great deal of attention from critics associated with the Human Rights Commission in 1993-94. Introduced in 1986 by Zia, the law, referred to as "the blasphemy trap," states that "whoever by words, either spoken or written, or by visible representation or by any imputation, innuendo, or insinuation, directly or indirectly, defiles the sacred name of the Prophet Muhammad shall be punished with death or imprisoned for life and shall be liable to fine." The law extends to Muslims and nonMuslims alike, but it has been indiscriminately used against members of minorities. According to Amnesty International, several dozen people had been charged under Pakistan's blasphemy laws by early 1994. In all cases, these charges appear to have been arbitrarily brought and to have been based on an individual's minority religious beliefs or on malicious accusations. The current government of Benazir Bhutto, sensitive to Pakistan's image in the world community, has attempted to approve changes in the blasphemy law in order to "curb abuses of the law"--especially those involving false accusations and fabricated cases. Critics claim, however, that Benazir, constantly under attack for being too liberal by the religious right, has been overly cautious and slow to introduce amendments to the law.

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress