Is rising Islamisation a real threat?


RELIGIOUS minorities in Pakistan face complex challenges. A fundamental source of tension and contestation in the state is the struggle to settle on its Islamic orientation, and this impacts the status and place of religious minorities in drastic and profound ways.

Pakistan was the historical outcome of the two-nation theory, which asserted that (colonial) India was home to two distinct nations: one Muslim and one Hindu. While the movement for Pakistan demanded a separate state for the Muslims of India, it left this future state’s ideological underpinnings ambiguous. The immediate post-Independence constitution-making struggled to make sense of the contradictions of the movement and its conflicting ideologies. It was not enough to state that Pakistan was Islamic since to be ‘Islamic’ required some consensus on what ‘being Islamic’ meant. The debates were most concerning for religious minorities. An overt Islamic orientation of the state risked denigrating non-Muslims to second class citizens and threatened undue state intervention into their lives.

The Objectives Resolution, a document stating the intent and purpose of the future constitution, which was passed in 1949, seemed to confirm these fears since it rendered Islam central to the state’s identity, sovereignty and goals. While the Resolution promised that the principles of democracy, freedom, equality, tolerance and social justice, shall be observed as enunciated by Islam, it was unclear what those freedoms were. The statement remained silent on whether the substance of such principles was open to political negotiations or fixed by religious mandate.

The Resolution posited that the Pakistani state acquired its sovereign authority from God and was required to exercise this authority within limits prescribed by Him. This raised the question of whether non-Muslims could, in fact, act for or on divine authority. It was also not particularly reassuring that the Resolution made vague promises that adequate provisions would be made for minorities to freely profess and practise their religions and develop their cultures. But just how this was possible in a state committed to Islam was difficult to square. The document’s authors lauded it as a watershed moment in Pakistan’s independent history. Nevertheless, Liaqat Ali Khan, Pakistan’s Prime Minister, considered the passing of the Resolution ‘to be a most important occasion in the life of this country, next in importance only to the achievement of independence’.1 The document, however, set in motion new tensions and contradictions.

The constitution-making process in the late 1940s and the early 1950s revealed that a host of competing, if not diverging, ideas speculated on how Pakistan should approach the issue of Islam and its relationship with the state. These divisions contributed to prolonging the constitution-making process, raising both the political stakes of the deliberation and the unrest that came with the extended deadlock.

The Resolution confirmed the central place of Islam in the state’s identity and its preeminent role in shaping the governance, political norms, social and public policy. But  it left a great deal of ambiguity. If Islam enunciated democracy, should Pakistan be a parliamentary democracy, presidential or something in-between or altogether unique? These questions were difficult to answer and harder still to acquire any consensus. The constitutional impasse frustrated Islamists, and the stand-off between the government and Islamic groups vying for an Islamic Pakistan produced circumstances that rendered religious minorities vulnerable to persecution as political targets.

Indeed, Islamist groups provoked the fear of non-Muslims stalling or threatening the Islamisation process; the tensions culminated in the anti-Ahmadi agitations of 1953, where riots and violence rocked Punjab over calls for the removal of prominent Ahmadi politicians and civil servants. A judicial investigation into the disturbances noted that the ulema differed on foundational questions on Islam, such as defining the Muslim and mapping the boundaries of theological toleration between faith, orthodoxy and heresy. Nevertheless, what the ulema and the Islamists often shared was a mutual distrust of the political elite and their commitment to the Islamic cause as well as non-Muslims.

That Islam was in danger drove the Pakistan cause at the twilight of the Raj. Further, prominent ulema ushered a call to ‘true’ Muslims to join the movement and ensure its success and capacity to hold its leadership accountable and committed to Islam. The anti-Ahmadi riots instrumentalised this fear over the dangers the political leadership and religious minorities posed toward realising an ‘Islamic’ Pakistan.

The 1956 constitution, though short-lived, set several precedents. Pakistan was declared an Islamic republic. The new constitution also enshrined the Objectives Resolution of 1949 as its preamble and went on to include several Islamic provisions as directive principles of state policy which were unenforceable in the final print by the courts. The idea behind this design was that Islamic principles ought to direct government policy towards facilitating Muslims to live lives collectively and individually in conformity with the mandates set by the Quran and the Sunnah.

Perhaps the most striking inclusion was Article 198, which stated that no law shall be enacted which is repugnant to the Injunctions of Islam and that existing law shall be brought into conformity with such Injunctions. Article 198 (4) sought to assure non-Muslims that the repugnancy clause was not a cause of concern, stipulating that nothing in the Article shall affect the personal laws of non-Muslim citizens or their status as citizens or any provision of the constitution.

The 1962 constitution offered similar prescriptions and a softer version of Article 198 of the 1956 constitution. In its initial iteration, the document declared Pakistan just as a republic – a measure that garnered Islamist opposition. The first amendment returned Pakistan to an Islamic republic, and though this was little more than a cosmetic change, it revealed that Islamic symbolism and signposting matter. This constitution too was short-lived.

Both the 1956 and 1962 constitutions were drawn up under authoritarian conditions and in a period in which Pakistan’s rulers had little tolerance for Islamist opposition – let alone Islamisation. While there is no shortage of references to Islam in both constitutions, the telling feature in
the design of these Islamic provisions is that Islamising the state was not a priority and that Islamisation was to be incremental and at the hands of the legislature. It was, to some extent, engineered to stall or placate rather than advance or accelerate Islamisation.

The repugnancy clauses of both constitutions provided the cover or window dressing of signalling the intent to Islamise law without the substantive powers or drive to do so. Nevertheless, neither authoritarian suppression nor constitutional manoeuvres to arrest or slow Islamisation dampened calls for an Islamic order. If anything, many of Pakistan’s failings – including the loss of its eastern wing in the 1971 civil war – suggested that Pakistan was not Islamic enough. And this had to be addressed.

As Pakistan cycled through to its third and current 1973 constitution, which had Islamic prescriptions and provisions resembling its two earlier constitutional predecessors, Pakistan’s ruling government had to offer more. Article 2 rendered Islam the state religion of Pakistan. But this was
also insufficient. A constitutional amendment in 1974 rendered Ah-madis as non-Muslims. While this is a defining, watershed constitutional moment, it is unusual and predictable.

It is well documented that the amendment effectively rendered Ahmadis second-class citizens; what makes it unusual is that Pakistan’s Islamic identity took on a sectarian character. This is unsurprising as the drive for Islamisation contained a sectarian edge, something which
the anti-Ahmadi riots of the 1950s blatantly displayed. Earlier constitutional efforts to include sects in the interpretation of Islamic injunctions did little to appease this hostility towards minority Islamic sects.

As the movement for an Islamic government gained momentum, it combined with other unrests in the country and growing disillusionment with the government. The tumult culminated in martial law and the dictatorship of General Zia ul Haq. Zia promised to transform Pakistan into an Islamic state appropriating the Islamic cause. His Islamisation programme in the late 1970s and 1980s introduced law and constitutional reform, including several controversial new criminal and blasphemy laws. He politicised Islam in a context sensitive to sectarian differences following the Iranian revolution and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.

Zia’s campaign of Islamisation sought to impose a Sunni interpretation of Islamic law and criminalised the beliefs of the Shia and the Ahmadis. These laws impose harsh, and at times, capital punishment for violations, signalling a tacit state sanction for violence and vigilantism against religious minorities and vulnerable groups such as women and the poor. This is perhaps one of the most detrimental impacts of Islamisation under Zia. Many of these laws had severe design flaws, which meant that they were open to abuse and manipulation to self-serving ends and personal gain. The blasphemy laws, for example, were imposed to prevent insult to Sunni religious sensitivities, theology and religious figures. However, these laws did not require proof of intent for registering violations and often punished the poor and illiterate sections of minority communities.

While Islamisation garnered considerable opposition and Zia did back down on some reforms on a few occasions, much of his Islamisation programme remains intact in one form or another. These laws have acquired a symbolic capital as representative of Pakistan’s Islamic promise. Indeed, to oppose them garners the scorn of hardline Islamists. The continual politicisation of Islam has entwined piety and politics together. Moreover, the defence of these laws have inspired vigilantism against those who seek to reform or repeal such laws. Perhaps the most telling example of this development is the assassination of Salman Taseer, the late governor of Punjab. He labelled Section 295-C of the Pakistan Penal Code, one of the country’s most notorious blasphemy laws, as a ‘black’ law.

Taseer’s murderer was hailed as a martyr, exemplifying the continuing blurring of boundaries between the religious and the political. The sanctification of politics has had perverse consequences, including the proliferation of acts of terrorism against the state, where state personnel, facilities and infrastructure is now commonplace. However, the most disturbing development since the Zia era has been the ongoing acts of terror targetting religious minorities and their places of worship. While Taseer’s murder was a high-profile case, the attacks and intimidation of ordinary people from minority communities in Pakistan often go unnoticed. It is difficult for religious minorities to mount substantive or lasting social or political resistance as the threat of violence and persecution looms large. The social and political context is geared towards their individual and collective silencing.

Different regimes in Pakistan have struggled to manoeuvre between the need to praise Islamic systems of government, profess their commitment to Islam, appease the political juggernaut of the increasingly influential far right political party, the Tehreek-e-Labbaik, and counter radical groups seeking to overthrow the existing state structure for a supposedly Islamic one. Caught in the middle of this deadly tug-of-war are religious minorities who continue to face government paralysis, the pressure to toe the line and the looming threat of persecution and lynching. Moreover, the brute force  of radical Islamist movements has targetted minorities’ places of worship to send a public message that Pakistan is first the land of Muslims, and the government can do little to protect minority communities.


1. Golam Wahed Choudhury, Documents and Speeches on the Constitution of Pakistan. Green Book House, Dacca, 1967, p 24.