Pakistan has a long history of politicians playing the faith or religion card to woo the voter, or to settle scores against political opponents. Apart from the religio-political parties who rely heavily on such arguments, members of mainstream political parties have often used religious references to pursue their political goals. Some have resorted to religious notions to attack and discredit their political rivals.
Captain (Retd) Safdar
Among all the members of mainstream political parties who have expressed bigoted views about the faith of political opponents or religious minorities, Nawaz Sharif’s son-in-law, Captain Safdar, tops the list. From paying homage to Mumtaz Qadri’s ‘bravery’ and extolling the virtues of vigilantism against alleged blasphemers, to venting outrage against Ahmadis in parliament, he has never shied from flaunting his bigoted views.
These views have invited the ire of people who term his narrative dangerous, and call on the government to charge him for glorifying terrorism, an act punishable under the law.
Former Law Minister Punjab and a prominent member of Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N), Rana Sanaullah, is among the most controversial figures in this regard. He is known for his close ties with proscribed religious outfits, including the Ahle Sunnat Wal Jamaat (ASWJ). In 2010, Barelvi religious clerics demanded his resignation from the PML-N and criticised him for not taking action against the murderers of Maulana Sarfaraz Naeemi, who was killed in a suicide attack, for which the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) claimed responsibility. The PML-N supported him, as he was instrumental in forging electoral alliances and seat adjustments with the ASWJ in the by-elections, as well as the 2013 general elections.
When the PML-N provincial government had differences with then Governor Punjab, Salmaan Taseer, he resorted to personal attacks and released pictures of Taseer’s family gatherings to the press, accusing him of conducting un-Islamic activities in the Governor’s House.
Taseer was later killed by his guard, a policeman, after religious clerics declared him a blasphemer for his efforts to help Asia Bibi, a poor Christian woman accused of blasphemy. The witchhunt against Taseer and his family, led by Rana Sanaullah, was termed a “politically incited murder” by a PPP woman lawmaker.
Six months after the assassination of Salmaan Taseer, in a war of words with then PPP leader and cabinet member, Babar Awan, Sanaullah declared Babar Awan Wajib ul Qatal (one liable to be murdered). The remarks caused a stir and the upper house of parliament adopted a resolution against his remarks, demanding that the PML-N government remove Sanaullah from the post. In spite of the uproar, he remained unscathed.
However, last year, his surprising comments about the lack of religious freedom for minorities, especially Ahmadis, brought him at odds with conservative religious circles. The Barelvi radical group, Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP), asked him to clarify his position on Ahmadis before a body of religious clerics. This was one of the demands in their negotiations with the Punjab government to end their April sit-in.
Sanaullah continues to spark controversy. In May, in a bid to demean the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI)’s show of strength in Lahore, he passed some extremely misogynistic remarks against the women participants of the jalsa. Subsequently, Shahbaz Sharif, the party head, had to apologise for his remarks through a tweet.
Babar Awan, former Senator and member of the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) for almost two decades, parted ways with the PPP and joined the PTI last year. Awan, a prominent lawyer, has a tainted past due to his association with the military dictator, General Zia-ul-Haq. After joining the PPP, he became close to then party chairperson Benazir Bhutto and Asif Zardari and defended the cases against them in court.
Awan resorted to bigoted remarks against the Ahmadis when he was accused of taking 35 million rupees allegedly to bribe judges, from Sheikh Afzal, the owner of Haris Steel Mills, whose cases were pending in the courts. To defend himself, Awan termed the charges against him as a conspiracy by the Ahmadi lobby.
Babar Awan parted ways with the PPP last year and joined the PTI. He was appointed adviser to the Prime Minister on Parliamentary Affairs by Imran Khan, but had to resign from the post in the wake of corruption reference filed against him by the National Accountability Bureau (NAB) for allegedly causing delays in the Nandipur Power Project.
Syeda Shehla Raza
PPP leader and former deputy speaker Sindh Assembly, Shehla Reza is one of the most active women parliamentarians, but has a history of passing bigoted remarks against Ahmadis. She extolled the 1974 law that declared them non-Muslims. In early September this year, she mocked the PTI government’s decision of appointing Dr Atif R Mian as a member of the Economic Advisory Council, saying he was the great-grandson of Mirza Ghulam Ahmed Qadiani, founder of the Ahmadi faith.
She faced criticism for her tweet from within the party as well as from journalists and activists. She had to retract her remarks and delete the tweet. Later, she clarified that her social media team had tweeted the remark and it was not her opinion. In a surprising move, a few representatives of non-governmental organisations came to her defence through a press conference, terming the criticism against her a smear campaign.
A spokesman of the PTI provincial government in Punjab, the Minister for Information and Culture is termed the PTI equivalent of the PML-N’s Rana Sanaullah, for using derogatory language and bringing the religious beliefs of opponents into politics. Chohan recently caused outrage by his misogynistic remarks against Pakistani film and theatre’s female actors. He defended himself on TV by abusing a news anchor, and later apologised for it. Earlier, in 2015, he called Pervaiz Rashid, then federal Information Minister, an Ahmadi and termed his religious views as being heretical.
Recently, a video of Chohan reciting a naat on a visit to Mumtaz Qadri’s grave, appeared on social media. The family of Salmaan Taseer criticised the act of paying homage to a proclaimed offender, who was sentenced to death for committing murder.
The PTI, though, has played the Khatm-e-Nabuwwat card at the party level throughout its election campaign, to gain an edge over the PML-N, so the presence of politicians such as Chohan and the infamous Sheikh Rashid in their fold should not come as a surprise. In October 2017, a federal minister had made an amendment in the Khatm-e-Nabuwwat clause of the Elections Act 2017, which deals with the finality of the prophethood of Muhammad (PBUH). In the rewording of the clause (which was reversed after the backlash that followed), “solemnly swear” was replaced with “believe.” It resulted in weeks-long protests organised by the TLP at the Faizabad Interchange in Islamabad, in November. The PML-N government and the military finally caved in to the demands of the Khadim Hussain Rizvi-led TLP and the dharnacame to an end. To gain political leverage over his opponents during the 2018 election campaign, Imran Khan repeatedly referred to the PML-N government’s attempt to amend the clause.
Ali Arqam main domain is Karachi: Its politics, security and law and order