Pakistan’s prime minister is defying the clerics — very carefully


Source: The Washington Post

During a speech to international business leaders here in late November, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif shocked the country’s powerful religious community by calling for a new, more “liberal” Pakistan.

Amid an outcry, within hours, Sharif’s staff was downplaying the speech, saying he didn’t really mean to imply Pakistan should become more like the West.

But so far this year, Sharif and his party have defied Islamic scholars by unblocking access to YouTube, pushing to end child marriage, enacting a landmark domestic violence bill, and overseeing the execution of a man who had become a symbol of the hatred that religion can spawn here.

The shift in tone can be traced to Sharif’s ambitious economic agenda, the influence his 42-year-old daughter has over him, and his awareness that Pakistan remains the butt of jokes, according to his friends, senior government officials and analysts.

“He knows the international community needs a progressive Pakistan,” said one senior Pakistani government official close to the prime minister who asked not to be identified so he could speak candidly about his boss. “So if he thinks a moderate, progressive or liberal agenda can help with his economic agenda, he goes for it.”

With strong support from rural voters and the religious community, Sharifreturned as prime minister in 2013 after his party, Pakistan Muslim League-N, won a decisive majority in parliamentary elections.

Sharif, who had also served two terms as prime minister in the 1990s, has long been associated with Pakistan’s stodgy conservative establishment. And the election of a man rumored to go to bed shortly after dark was widely viewed as a sign that Pakistan was settling into a period of stale governance.

But Sharif, 66, and his PML-N lawmakers are now challenging Pakistan’s religious community, charting a new path for their party while unsettling a constituency that includes hundreds of thousands of Islamic clerics.

“This is turning into the worst-ever experience for our party,” said Aman Ullah Haqqani, a religious scholar and former provincial chief of Jamiat-e-Ulema Islam, an Islamist political party that had entered into a power-sharing agreement with PML-N. “He and his party are trying to impress the United States of America and the Western countries by becoming a liberal leader.”

In Pakistan, where Islam is embedded in the constitution, the term liberal is relative.

Few analysts expect Sharif — or any national Pakistani leader — to seriously consider legalizing alcohol consumption, much less same-sex marriage. And when past leaders such as the late Benazir Bhutto tried to soften the country’s image, they struggled to overcome opposition from hard-line Islamic clerics. Bhutto was assassinated in 2007.

For Sharif, the fraying of relations with religious conservatives began this winter when the government and military began quietly sending notice to mosques to tone down their sermons. In January, Sharif’s government ended a three-year ban on YouTube that had been supported by religious clerics to shield Pakistanis from videos defaming Islam.

Later that month, a senior PML-N lawmaker, Marvi Memon, introduced a bill to ban child marriage by raising the age limit from 16 to 18. The Council of Islamic Ideology, an influential committee that reviews legislation, objected by saying the change runs counter to Islamic law. Memon withdrew the bill but said the party is intent on showing a more “progressive side.”

“We are going to be talking about family planning, about immunizations, getting women out to work, domestic violence and literacy,” said Memon, named by Sharif to run a government program that gives cash subsidies to impoverished women. “He has never once told me I am stepping overboard.”

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