Dossier 22: Pakistan: Religious Intolerance Rides Over Freedoms

Publication Author: 
Beena Sarwar
January 2000
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ISLAMABAD, Nov 10, [1998] (IPS) - Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif's attempt to Islamise Pakistan has been checkmated by the imposition of Governor's rule in the troubled Pakistani province of Sindh.

The controversial 15th Constitutional Amendment Bill, popularly called the Shariat Bill, has lost even the slimmest chance of ratification in the Senate, but rights activists who are alarmed by the loss of freedom say the reprieve is at best temporary.

Just last Wednesday, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif made the bill the main plank of a public speech in the mountainous northern areas, where he urged listeners to ''force the Senators into passing the bill.''

''The very introduction of this unnecessary legislation has already caused immense damage and encouraged religious fanatics to physically threaten those who have a different world view,'' says Rubina Jamil of the Working Women's Association.

She said that one of the hostel's run by the association in Lahore was threatened by an extremist religious party, who pasted notices warning ''hostelers ... not (to be) seen walking on the streets and asked if they had their burqas stitched yet.''

Rights activists say the bill threatens the Constitution, as well as the principles of the federation and provincial autonomy, notwithstanding Sharif's protestations that Pakistan had made history by ushering in 'Islamic law' through democracy and not bloodshed, after it was voted through the ruling party-controlled National Assembly or lower house of Parliament in October.

Interestingly there was a significant number of abstentions to the vote (50), since members of the treasury cannot vote against government bills on pain of disqualification from the Assembly.

Nor was the bill debated in the house. ''But then, why should it have been given any hearing at all? The prime minister is known for not consulting even his own party members on important issues,'' says a bitter ruling Pakistan Muslim League activist.

Since he was sworn in last year, Sharif has taken momentous decisions without taking his Cabinet into confidence, like the enforcement of the Anti-Terrorist Act, the swearing in of right-wing Judge Rafiq Tarrar as Pakistan President, conducting nuclear tests, imposing Emergency and most recently, Governor's rule in violence-torn Sindh.

All these moves have systematically chiselled away the principles of provincial autonomy, say political activists, particularly those from the ''smaller'' provinces whose voices have been studiously ignored.

Sinking political differences, opposition political parties have joined hands with non-governmental groups and individuals against the Shariat Bill. Last month in Lahore they flexed their muscle at a large political rally.

Last week, hundreds of prominent citizens from Pakistan's big cities of Islamabad, Lahore, Karachi, Peshawar and Quetta rejected the bill in an open letter to the Senators, that was reported in papers on Nov.4. Informal surveys, including one conducted by 'The News' daily on the Internet, indicate that over 75.5 percent are strongly against the bill.

Many fear that its very introduction has intensified the threat of ''Talibanisation'' of Pakistan. ''In this situation, women and religious minorities are particularly threatened, as is cultural and artistic expression,'' comments Mehboob Khan, a lawyer.

Many people are trying to counter the atmosphere of repression and fear by clutching at the straw of cultural expression. The rock band Junoon has never been as popular as it is now, since it was banned by the government for allegedly making anti-Pakistan statements during a recent tour of India.

Classical Kathak dancer Naheed Siddiqui from Birmingham, England, who is currently in Lahore, is overwhelmed by the interest in dance now that it might again become taboo as during the martial law rule of Ziaul Haq. ''By word of mouth alone, students are flocking to me, even though they say their parents will never let them perform in public,'' she says, bemused.

The privately organised annual Music Conference in Lahore at the end of October drew record crowds the last night leaving not even standing room in the 3000-seat open-air theatre and ending well past three in the morning.

Record numbers of people and performers attended the Fourth International Puppet Festival, which hosted as many as 38 troupes from 27 foreign countries, including India, between Oct. 17 and 27.

Each time the festivals of dance, drama and music have taken place against all odds, mostly on private funding since government support for the performing arts has always been almost negligible.

''Culture is the anti-thesis of anarchy,'' observes I.A. Rehman, director of the independent Human Rights Commission of Pakistan. ''It has little chance to flourish in a society that has chosen the path of chaos and fratricide.''

He warned those wielding the axe against artists ''will not only harm cultural flowering in Pakistan, but will also aggravate society's state of debility.''


Source: © 1998, InterPress Third World News Agency (IPS), All rights reserved.