In The Name of God: Religious Protests In Pakistan

After a grueling two weeks of violent protests ravaging the capital city of Islamabad, Pakistani military forces were deployed to enforce order on November 25th, 2017. These protests were sparked by conservative Islamists who denounced the Law and Justice minister Zahid Hamid, for amending parliamentary bills that weakened rules requiring lawmakers to reference the Prophet Muhammad when taking their oaths of office. This kind of religiously-charged violence is not new in Pakistan.

In the early 2010s, followers of Mumtaz Qadri formed a right-wing religious coalition by the name of Tehreek-e Labbaik Pakistan dedicated to enforcing Islamic jurisprudence. Qadri, a charismatic Islamic rebel, gained notoriety for killing Punjabi Governor Salman Taseer after Taseer criticized the country’s blasphemy law which makes insulting Islam a crime punishable by death. Though Qadri was later executed for his actions, his political convictions would later become the central tenets of Tehreek-e Labbaik Pakistan. And in current times, protestors who subscribe to the faction demanded that Hamid resign and be replaced by their leader, Khadim Hussain Rizvi. With the threat of a fatwa, or religious ruling, causing unrest in the Pakistani judicial system, Hamid had little choice but to eventually resign from his position.

This embrace of theocratic governance as a political institution has had immense impacts on the efficacy (and to a greater extent, safety) of Pakistani public officials like Hamid. Islamic fundamentalist rhetoric is leveraged by government oppositionist campaigns in order to incite fear in the political establishment. Instead of championing the parliamentary bills they’ve drafted, Pakistani politicians are forced to abandon them if Islamic groups find them objectionable. This drought of political openness and transparency extends far beyond the walls of any legislative chamber, though. As the BBC reports, the Pakistani government suspended private news channels and blocked social media sites in the hopes of quashing any emerging protests. Despite these measures to crackdown on dissent, the government has just inspired more public discord with the political administration.

Rizvi has capitalized off of public discourse, giving speeches laced with fundamentalist propaganda, and attracting crowds of protestors that seem to be in agreement. His rise to power has, in a large part, been marked by social upheaval of the government’s strides towards secularism. These protests, the most recent of which caused 112 people to be treated for injuries, are a sign of ongoing resistance to loosening religious codes. As long as fundamentalist factions continue their campaigns against legal secularism while the government cracks down on dissent, Islamabad will remain a hotbed for clashing ideologies.

Tanya Mahadwar