Show Hide image

Pakistan’s tenets of the faith

Blasphemy laws in Pakistan endanger lives as well as freedom of speech.

The country of Pakistan was created primarily to allow the Muslims of the subcontinent to practise their religious beliefs freely. It would be fair to assume, then, that Pakistan would also provide ample space to its religious minorities. Inevitably, though, the rationale for an independent country was translated into making Pakistan a model Islamic state. To date, there is no near-consensus on what that means.

After independence, the ruling elite employed Islam as a central theme for nationhood. However, when the occasion arose to implement Islamic laws, the politicians shied away from this, comprehending the risks involved. Islamisation would naturally empower the orthodoxy, relegate religious minorities and women to second place, and pose challenges to modern governance. Initially, some com­promises were made in the name of religion, many of which were detrimental to the rights of women. All personal laws (family laws and rules of inheritance) were based on religious tenets and a preamble was adopted in the constitution that paid lip-service to the democratisation of Pakistan "as enunciated by Islam".

General Zia-ul-Haq, a dictator and unscru­pulous political actor, used Islam as a pretext for waging war in Afghanistan and adopting an aggressive stance towards India. By advancing a more orthodox version of Islam, he was able to hold on to a repressive regime and quell any opposition. Zia's first pieces of legislation were the hudood ordinances, introduced in 1979. Hudood laws made all sex outside of marriage punishable for both males and females, with stoning to death as hadd punishment (which has never been carried out). The lesser sentences are imprisonment and 30 lashes of the whip, or ten years' imprisonment, which were routinely executed. Women were greater victims of this law on two counts. First, the loss of virginity led to a presumption that zina (sex outside marriage) had been committed. Second, rape victims had to prove a watertight case or risk being accused, even where they had pressed charges.

There used to be very few women in prisons, but this changed with the introduction of the hudood laws. Initially, hundreds of women were hauled into prison, until a small but energetic women's movement forced Zia to modify his plans and stop them further degrading the status of women. Instead, he turned his attention to religious minorities to keep the rigid and bloodthirsty mullahs satisfied.

The Ahmadiyya sect in Pakistan was declared non-Muslim by parliament in 1974, when Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto was prime minister. Muslims have a strong animosity towards Ahmadis - some advocate killing them for holding heretical beliefs. In 1984, Zia introduced harsh penal laws that banned them from calling their places of worship mosques or professing their religion openly. Pakistan's courts validated these laws on the premise that Ahmadis were posing as Muslims, which in itself was heresy and therefore punishable.

This was not enough to abate the orthodox fervour of Zia's cronies, who began to demand harsher punishments for blasphemy. This led to the addition to the penal code of Section 295C, which prescribes a mandatory death penalty for anyone who, through "either speech, writing" or other visible representation or by way of "imputation, innuendo or insinuation, directly or indirectly", defiles the name of the Holy Prophet Muhammad.
Initially religious minorities were accused of violating the law, but later Muslims were also implicated. The elderly, physically and mentally disabled, women and children were accused and convicted. Very few convictions were upheld, due to a lack of evidence. But in a large number of cases the accused were murdered before arrest or during trial. Some were murdered while in prison and no inquiry has ever been held over these deaths in custody.

Sanction for jihad

The fear of being accused of blasphemy rose, especially among the non-Muslim population of Pakistan. Voices were raised to repeal or at least amend the law. Human rights groups documented incidents of alleged blasphemy and were able to demonstrate that a disproportionately large number of accusations were made by Muslim clergy and that a huge number of them were false. The accused were almost always helpless in the face of intimidation and a frightened or biased judiciary.

The right wing, meanwhile, took up the cause of retaining the law. Successive governments kept both sides hopeful. They promised both to end misuse of the law and to leave it be, as it portrayed true tenets of the faith. This indecision emboldened Islamists, who openly vowed to kill anyone who dared to criticise the law.

Tragically, in January 2011, the governor of Punjab was murdered in broad daylight in Islamabad. He had visited a young Christian woman jailed for blasphemy, and had called for a change in the law. In March, the minister for minority affairs, a young and courageous Christian activist, was gunned down in Islamabad. Several others are on the hit list of the militants.

It appears that the worst is yet to come as political instability increases. Past experience has shown that the Islamists gain space when civilian authority weakens. The proliferation of arms and official sanction for jihad have made militant groups a frightening challenge for the government. Pakistan's future remains uncertain and its will to fight against rising religious intolerance is waning.

This article first appeared in the 11 April 2011 issue of the New Statesman, Jemima Khan guest edit

Ralph Steadman for the New Statesman.
Show Hide image

Tim Farron: Theresa May is "the prisoner of the Ukip wing of her party"

The Liberal Democrat leader on his faith, Blairism and his plan to replace Labour as the opposition. 

This is Tim Farron’s seventh general election. His first was in 1992, when his Tory opponent was a 36-year-old called Ther­esa May. He was just 21 and they were both unsuccessful candidates in the Labour fortress of North-West Durham. He recalls talking “to a bunch of ex-miners who weren’t best pleased to see either of us, some kid Liberal and some Tory”. Now he sees his former and current opponent as “the prisoner of the Ukip wing of her party . . . I think it has rendered Ukip almost pointless – she is Ukip now.”

May was elected to parliament in 1997, but it took Farron until 2005 to join her. She leads the dominant Conservatives while he heads a party of only nine Liberal Democrat MPs. Still, their reversal of fortunes gives him hope. “After the 1992 election, every­one said there’s no way for a non-Tory government, and it turned out there was. So let’s not assume it’s a given there’s a Tory government [for ever].”

In April, I accompanied Farron to Manchester Gorton, in the lead-up to a by-election that was cancelled by May’s decision to call a snap election on 8 June. Still, the 46-year-old’s party has been in campaign mode for months; Lib Dems spoke of using last December’s Richmond Park by-election to test their messaging. It clearly had an effect: the incumbent Conservative, Zac Goldsmith, lost to their candidate, Sarah Olney.

Brexit, to which the Liberal Democrats are vehemently opposed, will be a dominant theme of the election. Their party membership has just exceeded 100,000, close to an all-time high, and they have enjoyed much success in council by-elections, with more to come in the local elections of 4 May.

However, any feel-good factor swiftly evaporated when Farron appeared on Channel 4 News on 18 April. He was asked by the co-presenter Cathy Newman whether or not he believes that homosexuality is a sin, a question that he answered obliquely in 2015 by saying that Christianity started with acknowledging that “we’re all sinners”.

This time, he told Newman, he was “not in the position to make theological announcements over the next six weeks . . . as a Liberal, I’m passionate about equality”.

The Channel 4 interview divided opinion. One Liberal politician told me that Farron’s stance was “completely intolerable”. Stephen Pollard, the influential editor of the Jewish Chronicle, described it as
“a very liberal position: he holds certain personal views but does not wish to legislate around them”. Jennie Rigg, the acting chair of LGBT+ Liberal Democrats, said it was “as plain as the nose on my face that Tim Farron is no homophobe”.

Farron declined the chance to clarify his views with us in a follow-up phone call, but told the BBC on 25 April: “I don’t believe that gay sex is a sin,” adding, “On reflection, it makes sense to actually answer this direct question since it’s become an issue.”

For his critics, Farron’s faith and politics are intertwined. He sees it differently, as he told Christian Today in 2015: “. . . the danger is sometimes that as a Christian in politics you think your job is to impose your morality on other people. It absolutely isn’t.”

Tim Farron joined the then Liberal Party at the age of 16 but didn’t become a Christian until he was 18. Between completing his A-levels in Lancashire and going to Newcastle University to read politics, he read the apologetics, a body of Christian writing that provides reasoned arguments for the gospel story. “I came to the conclusion that it was true,” he told me. “It wasn’t just a feel-good story.”

In speeches, Farron now takes on the mannerisms of a preacher, but he had a largely non-religious upbringing in Preston, Lancashire. “I don’t think I’d been to church once other than Christmas or the odd wedding,” he says. “I went once with my dad when I was 11, for all the good that did me.”

When we meet, it is Theresa May’s religion that is in the spotlight. She has condemned the National Trust for scrubbing the word “Easter” from its Easter egg hunt, a row it later emerged had been largely invented by the right-wing press in response to a press release from a religious-themed chocolate company.

“It’s worth observing there’s no mention of chocolate or bunny rabbits in the Bible,” Farron reminds me. “When people get cross about, in inverted commas, ‘us losing our Christian heritage’ they mean things which are safe and comfortable and nostalgic.” He pauses. “But the Christian message at Easter is shocking, actually, and very radical.”

British politics is tolerant of atheists (such as Ed Miliband and Nick Clegg) alongside those who, like David Cameron, are culturally Christian but whose faith is “a bit like the reception for Magic FM in the Chilterns: it sort of comes and goes”. But the reaction to Farron’s equivocation on homosexuality prompted many to wonder if a politician who talks openly about his faith is now seen as alarming. Nebulous wishes of peace and love at Christmas, yes; sincere discussions of the literal truth of the Resurrection? Hmm.

Tim Farron’s beliefs matter because he has a mission: to replace not only Jeremy Corbyn as leader of the opposition but Theresa May in Downing Street. Over lassis at the MyLahore curry house in Manchester, he tells me that Britain is facing two calamities. “One is Brexit, indeed hard Brexit . . . and the other is a Tory government for 25 years. We have to present a genuine, progressive alternative that can not only replace Labour as an opposition, it can replace the Tories as a government.” This is ambitious talk for a party with nine MPs. “I understand the ridicule that will be thrown at me for saying those things: but if you don’t want to run the country, why are you in politics?” He pauses. “That’s a question I would ask most people leading the Labour Party at present.”

What does he think of May, his one-time opponent in North-West Durham? “She strikes me as being very professional, very straightforward, somebody who is very conservative in every sense of the word, in her thought processes, her politics, in her style.” He recalls her 2002 conference speech in which she warned Tory activists: “Our base is too narrow and so, occasionally, are our sympathies. You know what some people call us: the nasty party.”

“In many ways, she was the trailblazer for Cameron in being a softer-focused Tory,” he says. “It now looks like she’s been trapped by the very people she was berating as the nasty party all those years ago. I like to think that isn’t really her. But that means she isn’t really in control of the Conservative Party.”

Voters, however, seem to disagree. In recent polls, support for the Conservatives has hovered between 40 and 50 per cent. Isn’t a progressive alliance the only way to stop her: Labour, the Liberal Democrats, the Greens, the SNP and Plaid Cymru all working together to beat the Tories?

“Let’s be really blunt,” he says. “Had Jeremy Corbyn stood down for us in Richmond Park [where Labour stood Christian Wolmar], we would not have won. I could have written Zac Goldsmith’s leaflets for you: Corbyn-backed Liberal Democrats.

“I’m a pluralist,” he adds. “But any progressive alliance has got to be at least equal to the sum of its parts. At the moment, it would be less than the sum of its parts. The only way the Tories are losing their majority is us gaining seats in Hazel Grove –” he ticks them off with his fingers, “– in Cheadle, in the West Country and west London. There’s no chance of us gaining those seats if we have a kind of arrangement with the current Labour Party in its current form.”

What about the SNP? “Most sensible people would look at that SNP manifesto and agree with 99 per cent of it,” Farron says. “But it’s that one thing: they want to wreck the country! How can you do a deal with people who want to wreck the country?”

There’s no other alternative, he says. Someone needs to step up and offer “something that can appeal to progressive younger voters, pro-Europeans and, you know, moderate-thinking Middle England”. He wants to champion a market economy, strong public services, action on climate change, internationalism and free trade.

That sounds like Blairism. “I’m a liberal, and I don’t think Blair was a liberal,” he replies. “But I admire Blair because he was somebody who was able to win elections . . . Iraq aside, my criticisms of Blair are what he didn’t do, rather than what he did do.”

Turning around the Tory tide – let alone with just nine MPs, and from third place – is one hell of a job. But Farron takes heart from the Liberal Party in Canada, where Justin Trudeau did just that. “I’m not Trudeau,” he concedes, “He was better-looking, and his dad was prime minister.”

There is a reason for his optimism. “I use the analogy of being in a maze,” he says, “You can’t see a way out of it, for a progressive party to form a majority against the Tories. But in every maze, there is a way out. We just haven’t found it yet.” 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.

This article first appeared in the 27 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Cool Britannia 20 Years On

0800 7318496