Thursday, April 7, 2005

Pakistan: submissive government emboldens Islamists.

Date: Thursday 7 April 2005
Subj: Pakistan: submissive government emboldens Islamists.
To: World Evangelical Alliance Religious Liberty News & Analysis
From: WEA RLC Principal Researcher and Writer, Elizabeth Kendal.


The International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) held a conference in Cairo between 22 March – 2 April 2004, under the theme of 'Managing Security Challenges to Facilitate Air Transport Operations'. There the ICAO recommended that for the purposes of standardisation, aviation security, and combating terrorism and identity theft, all 188 ICAO member states should adopt Machine Readable Passports (MRPs) by 2010 in accordance with ICAO specifications.

On 26 October 2004, President Musharraf, along with his ruling Pakistan Muslim League (PMLQ), introduced Machine Readable Passports (MRPs) to Pakistan. In line with international standards, the MRPs do not have a column for religious affiliation. And why should they? They are merely travel documents to facilitate the secure travel of citizens. However, previously in Pakistan passports did identify the religious affiliation of the holder.


The omission of a religion column from the MRPs enraged Pakistan's Islamists. Muslims leaders accused President Musharraf of threatening the Islamic identity of Pakistan.

The Islamic parties began organising a series of rallies to protest the omission of the religion column and what they regard as a Western conspiracy to secularise and Westernise Pakistan. On 5 January 2005, in response to Islamic agitation, the government set up a five-member cabinet committee to look into the issue of the religion column and report back to the federal cabinet.

On 24 March the cabinet overwhelmingly approved the committee's recommendations: that the religion of the passport holder be stamped on all MRPs already issued, that the religion column be restored to the passports, and that the words "Islamic Republic of Pakistan" be printed on the passport cover.

On Monday 28 March, the National Database Registration Authority (Nadra) started issuing MRPs that included a column for religion.


On 24 March the PakTribune reported that those MPs who voted against the restoration of the religion column expressed their concern that if the government simply caved in to pressure from the MMA then it would be under pressure to yield to the demands of the Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal (MMA: a coalition of six Islamist parties) on a whole range of issues.

The Information Secretary of the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP), the party of former prime minister Benazir Bhutto, condemned the decision to restore the religious column in National Passports, noting that religion and nationality were two different issues. The PakTribune reported, "Quaid e Azam [Pakistan's founding father] had made it clear that all Pakistanis would be treated equally before the law irrespective of their religious affiliation. By including the religious column in the passport, which is not done in most Muslim countries, the regime was allowing bigots and fanatics information they could use to harass, discriminate and otherwise mistreat minorities in the country." (Link 1)

All Pakistan Minorities Alliance (APMA) Chief, Shahbaz Bhatti, also commented that the decision to include the religion column in the MRPs suggested that the government has simply 'knuckled' under pressure of extremist and hardliner religious forces.

Iqbal Haider, a former law minister and secretary general of the private Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, told Reuters, "The most tragic aspect of this [back-down over passports] is that he [Musharraf] has done it under the pressure of obscurantist and extremist forces. Once you withdraw a positive decision, it encourages the militant and extremist forces to press ahead with their other reactionary demands." (Link 2)

Reuters also reported that the PPP accused the government of "allowing bigots and fanatics information they could use to harass, discriminate and otherwise mistreat minorities."

Johnson Michel, chairman of the Bishop John Joseph Shaheed Trust in Pakistan expressed his fears to AsiaNews: "This is not the first time that the Pakistani government buckles under the pressure of Islamic extremists. It will inevitably influence Pakistan’s relations to other countries. For the moment, the situation worries us because I am convinced the extremists will keep up their pressure on other issues as well since the government has given in on several of their demands." (Link 3)

President Musharraf has buckled under Islamic pressure on several issues over recent years, including blasphemy laws, hudood laws (see link 4), madrassa reform, education reform, and the religion column in passports.

Indeed, the MMA regards the government back-flip over the MRPs as yet another decisive victory encouraging them to press ahead with their Islamic agenda. At a "Million Man March" in North West Frontier Province on 29 March, an emboldened MMA central leader Maulana Fazlur Rehman boasted and declared that the reins of power would soon be in the hands of clergy despite US attempts to keep them out of politics. (Link 5)

The most distressing aspect of all this is that the MMA does not appear to have the widespread popular support they claim with such hyperbole. Their recent "Million Man March" only attracted some 20,000 marchers, and the MMA's 2 April nation-wide "wheel jam" strike was met with a very mixed response and could not be regarded as successful. It is the government's perpetual submission that gives them hope and encourages them to pursue their repressive Islamic agenda.


On Sunday 3 April, MMA activists violently disrupted a mini-marathon being held in Gujranwala, a town in eastern Punjab province, deeming it un-Islamic to have women involved in public sports. Some 2,000 men, women and children were competing in the 3km event. Around 200 MMA activists armed with petrol bombs, clubs, stones and bricks attacked the event after authorities refused the MMA's demand to drop the women's race from the program. The Islamists rioted, torching 12 cars and 7 motorbikes outside the Jinnah Stadium. A dozen MMA activists, along with eight policemen who intervened to protect the runners, were injured. Twenty MMA rioters were arrested.

MMA spokesman Riaz Durrani said, "We had warned them in writing not to hold the race because it is against Islam. But despite that, this happened. They want to undress the entire nation." (SMH 4 April). Khaleej Times (5 April) quoted Asghar Gujjar, the MMA representative on the Punjab assembly, as saying, "We don’t want our mothers and sisters to run on the roads. As long as we have a drop of blood left in our body, we will not let happen this vulgarity to happen."

As a result, out of concerns for security, women athletes will not be permitted to compete in a similar event to be held in Sargodha, another town in Punjab, this Friday.


President Musharraf is playing politics, brandishing his banner of "enlightened moderation" in the direction of the West, upon whom he depends for aid and legitimacy, while submitting to the demands of pro-Taliban, pro-Sharia, hard-line orthodox Islamic bigots, who hold the balance of power in parliament and upon whom he depends for political survival. But Musharraf's perpetual submission to Islamic demands exposes his "enlightened moderation" message as a farce. Musharraf will do whatever is required to stay in power, even if it means selling out religious minorities, women, and all of progressive Pakistani society. These groups, who together form the majority, are fast becoming disillusioned.

According to a staff report in Pakistan's Daily Times (27 March), intellectuals and academics in Pakistan are saying "that the concept of 'enlightened moderation' espoused by President General Pervez Musharraf was becoming dilute with the passage of time and the present military government was fast retreating in the wake of mounting pressure from the clergy and reactionary forces."

The Daily Times writers charge that President Musharraf's "enlightened moderation" slogan is brandished purely for International consumption as it clearly has nothing to do with policies on the ground. Concerning the passport issue, Pakistan Association for Mental Health President Prof. S. Haroon Ahmed is quoted as saying, "The mention of religion in the passport is an extremely retrogressive step, negating everything that has been said about enlightened moderation." And leading political analyst Dr Jaffer Ahmed is quoted as saying, "General Musharraf has raised the slogan of 'enlightened moderation' but it has not gone beyond slogan mongering." Dr Ahmed is convinced the "enlightened moderation" rhetoric is purely for the purpose of securing Western support. (Link 6)


On Wednesday 6 April, the Daily Times (Pakistan) published an opinion piece by freelance commentator Rashed Rahman who comments: "Religious extremists and their parliamentary face, the MMA, want to bring about a political, ideological, theological and social change according to their fundamentalist interpretation of Islam. They therefore are always on the lookout for opportunities to assert their own agenda. It is unfortunate that despite all [Musharraf's] rhetoric about 'enlightened moderation', when confronted by pressure from the religious right, the regime has a tendency to cave in."

In commenting on the MMA victory regarding the re-insertion of the religion column into the passports, Rahman writes, "Every such 'victory' further emboldens the religious extremists to up the ante and keep the authorities on the run. Let the Musharraf government beware. If it fails to jettison the remnants of its long-standing nexus with religious extremism while pretending to be 'enlightened' and 'moderate', it will find more on its hands than it anticipated in terms of a continuous escalation of the MMA's campaign to bring about the overthrow of the present dispensation." (Link 7)

- Elizabeth Kendal


1) Cabinet approves restoration of religion column in MRPs
24 March 2005. ISLAMABAD

2) Religion Back in Pakistan Passports After Protests
By Zeeshan Haider, 25 March 2005, Reuters.

3) Government buckled under extremist pressure, Pakistani Christians say. by Qaiser Felix, 25 March 2005 PAKISTAN

4) Pakistan rejects ro-women bill
2 March, 2005. BBC

5) Million Marches to force Musharraf to take off both hats: Fazl
29 March 2005. Peshawar.

6) 'Enlightened moderation' becoming dilute
Daily Times, staff report, 27 March 2005

7) VIEW: MMA strikes —Rashed Rahman
Daily Times, Wednesday 6 April 2005