(CNSNews.com) – Pakistani authorities have done a deal with Muslim radicals who paralyzed the capital to protest a proposed law change, which they suspected was designed to appease a sect regarded as heretical.
The agreement ending the 21-day-long sit-in at a major thoroughfare near Islamabad, which senior military officers helped mediate, amounted to acceptance of the protesters’ demands, including the resignation of the federal law minister whom they blame for the botched attempt to change the law.
It was the latest of a long series of government capitulation to Muslim hardliners, enraged by what they view as blasphemy and slights to Mohammed, the 7th century founder of Islam. Last week a court ordered the release of a radical accused by the U.S. and India of masterminding a deadly terrorist attack in Mumbai nine years ago.
Concerns about the blasphemy laws and related intolerance have long prompted calls by religious freedom campaigners for the U.S. government to blacklist Pakistan for religious freedom violations – to no avail so far.
Pakistan is a major recipient of U.S. foreign aid.
At the center of the latest controversy was a small wording change to election laws.
Candidates for elections have customarily been required to affirm their belief in the “finality of the prophethood of Mohammed.”
But whereas in the past they were expected to take an oath including the words “I … do solemnly swear,” an amendment changed the wording to “I believe.”
After an uproar erupted, the government blamed a “clerical error” and it was quickly reversed by parliament. But radicals took to the streets, demanding a more serious response, including the sacking of the person they hold responsible, law minister Zahid Hamid.
The mass protests were led by a radical group calling itself the Movement in Service to the Messenger of Allah, and protestors’ chants included, “We will die to protect the honor of the prophet.”
A police attempt on Saturday to break up the protest – after participants ignored government ultimatums to vacate the area – ended in violence, triggering sympathy protests elsewhere in Pakistan.
Hamid then resigned on Monday, and under the deal ending the protests the government also agreed to release protestors who had been detained, and an inquiry into Saturday’s failed bid to evict the protestors.
They also secured an agreement for an investigation into the attempt to change the wording.
Critics saw the abortive wording change as an attempt to accommodate Ahmadis, members of a Muslim sect that is considered heretical by mainstream Muslims.
Ahmadis recognize a 19th century Indian religious leader, Mirza Ghulam Ahmadi, as a Muslim messenger or messiah, a belief that contradicts the Muslim doctrine that Mohammed was the “last” prophet sent by Allah.
Although the movement claims millions of adherents in some 200 countries – mostly in South Asia and Africa – it is an often-persecuted minority in Pakistan, where the Barelvi school of Sunni Islam holds extreme views regarding blasphemy and shari’a.
Pakistan’s constitution declares Ahmadis to be “non-Muslims,” and Ahmadi worship is a criminal offense under the penal code.
In addition to his resignation, law minister Hamid posted a video message online pleading for forgiveness for upsetting religious sentiments, and emphasizing that he does not regard Ahmadis as Muslims.
He also pledged that he and his family were prepared to “lay down our lives for the honor and sanctity” of Mohammed.
‘Absolute and unqualified finality’
According to Pakistani media accounts, another amendment to the Election Act, approved by lawmakers, requires candidates to declare:
“I… do solemnly swear that I believe in the absolute and unqualified finality of the Prophethood of Muhammad (pbuh), the last of the prophets and that I am not the follower of anyone who claims to be a prophet in any sense of the word or of any description whatsoever after prophet Muhammad (pbuh), nor do I belong to the Qadiani group or Lahore group or call myself an Ahmadi.”
PBUH stands for “peace be upon him.” Qadiani is a pejorative name for Ahmadis, and the “Lahore group” is a small Ahmadi split-off.
In Pakistani media, the focus of new coverage is almost exclusively on the unorthodox involvement of the army in ending the protests – a sensitive issue in a country which for just under half of its history as an independent state has been under military rule.
Largely lost in the debate are questions of religious discrimination, or government capitulation to radicals.
Pakistan boasts some of the world’s most controversial blasphemy laws, which carry the death penalty and are frequently used to target Ahmadis, Christians and other minorities.
When a lawmaker in the then-ruling party attempted in 2011 to get the laws amended, the risky effort was dropped weeks after a state governor was assassinated by a bodyguard who accused him of blasphemy.
The campaigning lawmaker, who had received death threats, lost the support of her own party, and the-then prime minister assured agitated Muslim leaders there would be no move to change the laws.
Last year the government again gave in to protestors who held a four-day sit-in near the federal parliament, assuring them it would not seek changes to the blasphemy laws or treat with leniency anyone convicted of blasphemy.
The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, an independent watchdog that advises the federal government on religious freedom around the world, has called every year since 2002 for the State Department to designate Pakistan as a “country of particular concern” for religious freedom violations.
The State Department each time has overruled the recommendation.