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Will the real Pakistan stand up, please?

Dr. James M. Dorsey

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Two headlines this month beg the question US officials have been grappling with for more than a decade: Will the real Pakistan stand up, please?

Pakistan’s The News reported that the government had designated Islamabad as a pilot project to regulate Friday prayer sermons in the city’s 1,003 mosques, of which only 86 are state-controlled, in a bid to curb hate speech, extremism and demonization of religions and communities.

The project is modelled on procedures in Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Egypt that are primarily intended to exert political control. The Islamabad project is in part designed to counter mounting criticism by the Trump administration, which has suspended funding to Pakistan, as well as growing unease in China over what Pakistani militancy could mean for its massive investment in the country.

It is also intended to support Pakistani efforts to evade blacklisting by the Financial Action Task Force (FATF), a 37-member inter-governmental agency that polices adherence to anti-money laundering and funding of political violence measures.

The government has drawn up a list of 44 subjects on which prayer leaders should focus in their sermons. They include women rights; Muslim unity; Islamic principles of trade, cleanliness and health; concepts of an Islamic state; the importance of hard work, tolerance, and honesty; and the notion of the finality of the Prophet Mohammed.

The belief that Mohammed was the last prophet or Khatm-e-Nabuwwat is core to Muslim faith. Yet, it has allowed Sunni Muslim ultra-conservatives and others to whip up popular emotion in pursuit of political objectives, nowhere more so than In Pakistan where a draconic anti-blasphemy law has aided and abetted them.

The military late last year mediated an end to a weeks-long blockade of a main artery leading into Islamabad that disrupted traffic in multiple cities to protest a perceived softening of the government’s adherence to Islam in a proposed piece of legislation. The protesters successfully called for the resignation of the justice minister for failing to refer to Prophet Mohammad in a constitutional bill.

The second headline reported that Islamabad High Court judge Shaukat Aziz Siddiqui demanded in a ruling that parliament “take measures which can completely terminate those who scar (the belief in Khatm-e-Nabuwwat).”

Justice Siddiqui sits on the bench of a courthouse that last year had graffiti in a corridor demanding that blasphemers be beheaded. Mr. Siddiqui, who has defined blasphemers as terrorists, was ruling in a case brought before him by some of the protesters who had blockaded traffic that would effectively bar from public service Ahmadis, a sect considered heretic by orthodox Muslims because it views its 19th century founder, Mirza Ghulam Ahmad, as a prophet.

Pressured by Saudi Arabia, Pakistan in 1974 excommunicated Ahmadis in a constitutional amendment that enshrined the principle of Khatm-e-Nabuwwat as integral to the Islamic faith. Pakistani President Zia ul-Haq criminalized Ahmadi practices a decade later by barring Ahmadis from “posing as Muslims” or using Islamic titles, greetings, scriptures or calls to prayer.

Mr. Siddiqui’s ruling appeared to contradict the government’s effort to get a grip on expressions of Sunni Muslim supremacism that amount to hate speech and discrimination of the other in a country in which extremism has been fuelled by intolerant, anti-pluralistic views.

The ruling, despite paying lip service to constitutional guarantees of “complete religious freedom, including all the basic rights of the minorities (Non-Muslims)” and the state’s obligation to “protect their life, wealth, property, dignity and protect their assets as citizens of Pakistan,” spotlights contradictions in the constitution.

On the one hand, the constitution recognizes the principle of Khatm-e-Nabuwwat. On the other, article 20 enshrines the notion of freedom of religion while article 27 bans discrimination in recruitment for public office.

Without explicitly identifying Ahmadis, Mr. Siddiqui said it was “alarming” that “one of the minorities” was “often mistaken for being Muslims” due to their names and general attire. He warned that this “can lead them to gain access to dignified and sensitive posts, along with benefits.”

Human rights activists and lawyers have called for the ruling to be challenged in the Supreme Court. “This is clear hate speech. What is the judge asking them to be terminated from? Their jobs? Doesn’t that take away their basic right to life and dignity?” said lawyer and human rights activist Jibran Nasir.

The plaintiffs in Mr. Siddiqui’s case were supporters of Tehreek Labbaik Pakistan (TPL), a political front for Tehreek Labbaik Ya Rasool Allah (TLR), which glorifies Mumtaz Qadri, who was executed in 2016 for killing Punjab governor Salman Taseer because of his opposition to Pakistan’s blasphemy law.

Tens of thousands attended Mr. Qadri’s funeral and his supporters have built a well-frequented shrine to honour him in his home town. Lawyers associated with TPL have instigated multiple blasphemy cases in Pakistani courts.

The Lahore-based Centre for Social Justice estimated that at least 1,472 people have been charged with blasphemy 1987 and 2016. Of the 730 Muslims charged, 501 were Ahmadis.

Activists and scholars argue that a rollback of the country’s blasphemy law which applies the death sentence to those convicted is a requirement if Pakistan is serious about combatting extremism. A study by political scientist Nilay Saiya of 51 Muslim majority countries concluded that those that enforced ant-blasphemy laws were more susceptible to political violence.

“Both the concept of blasphemy and the prescription of any sort of punishment for its occurrence stand contrary to the Qu’ran… The modern invocation of religious defamation laws stems from political leaders in Muslim-majority states…who have exploited such laws as a crafty way to use religion for political purposes including inflaming religious sensibilities, silencing criticism of the regime, generating patriotism, fostering national cohesion, co-opting Islamic supporters, and undercutting detractors,” Mr. Saiya said.

Mr. Saiya argued that blasphemy laws encourage militants to attack with impunity individuals, homes, places of worship, and businesses of those believed to be blasphemers in the knowledge that the state will turn a blind eye to their actions.

“Violent non-state actors thus feel empowered to commit acts of terrorism with little or no fear of governmental reprisal because blasphemy laws, in effect, lend the authority of the state to religious figures and reinforce extreme views. Rather than control the forces of extremism, blasphemy laws appease and encourage them. The result, expectedly, is that states that attempt to curry favour with radicals embolden them to take matters into their own hands; eventually such countries fall prey to violence carried out by those same radicals,” Mr. Saiya said.

“The vagueness of the (Pakistani) language concerning blasphemy allowed radicals to interpret the code in very loose ways and open-endedly persecute those believed to be guilty of defiling, in any way, ‘the sacred name of the Holy Prophet Muhammad’… Pakistan’s blasphemy law thus opened the floodgate for extremism and terrorism which the government was unable to subsequently control,” Mr. Saiya added.

Given Mr. Saiya’s analysis, both headlines represent Pakistan. The problem, however, is that the Pakistan that wants to reign in supremacism, hate speech and extremism has little chance of succeeding with out far-reaching political and legal change that would uproot the vested interests of the Pakistan that sees religious and political militancy as a useful tool.

That may be a step too far for those interests even if they recognize a need to be seen to be advocating change with band-aid solutions like trying to control Friday prayer sermons.

Dr. James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, co-director of the University of Würzburg’s Institute for Fan Culture, and the author of The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer blog, a book with the same title, Comparative Political Transitions between Southeast Asia and the Middle East and North Africa, co-authored with Dr. Teresita Cruz-Del Rosario and three forthcoming books, Shifting Sands, Essays on Sports and Politics in the Middle East and North Africaas well as Creating Frankenstein: The Saudi Export of Ultra-conservatism and China and the Middle East: Venturing into the Maelstrom.

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South Asia

Kashmir Issue at the UNGA and the Nuclear Discourse

Haris Bilal Malik

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The Kashmir issue has more significance in view of the nuclearization of South Asia as many security experts around the world consider Kashmir a potential ‘nuclear flashpoint’ between India and Pakistan. The revocation of the special constitutional status of Kashmir by the BJP government on August 5, 2019, also referred to as Jammu and Kashmir Reorganization Act 2019 and the subsequent lockdown in Kashmir has since considerably increased political and diplomatic tensions between India and Pakistan. India’s recent moves and actions in Kashmir have once again internationalized the Kashmir dispute. This was evident during the UN General Assembly’s 74th Session, where the Kashmir issue remained a crucial agenda item for several countries.

During this year’s session prominent leaders of the world condemned Indian brutalities in Kashmir. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan criticized the international community for failing to pay attention to the Kashmir conflict and called for dialogue to end this dispute. Malaysian Prime Minister Dr. Mahathir Mohamad said that Kashmir “has been invaded and occupied” by India despite the UN resolution on the issue. Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi also discussed the issue and called for a peaceful resolution of the dispute based on the UN Charter and Security Council resolutions. Based on the grave importance of Kashmir as a potential ‘nuclear flashpoint’ between India and Pakistan, Prime Minister Imran Khan, while addressing the UNGA warned the world community about the dangers of a nuclear war that according to him might break out over Kashmir due to Indian atrocities. The current situation appears to be the most critical time for both the countries and the region as both countries are nuclear-armed.

However, unfortunately, the Indian leaders and media perceived Prime Minister Imran Khan’s warning as a nuclear threat and termed it as ‘brinkmanship’. Contrary to this perspective, it is worth mentioning here that the Indian leadership itself is involved in negative nuclear signaling and war hysteria against Pakistan in recent months. For instance, the 2019 Indian General Election campaign of Prime Minister Modi was largely based on negative nuclear signaling comprising of several threats referring to the possible use of nuclear weapons against Pakistan. Furthermore, as an apparent shift from India’s ‘No First Use’ (NFU) policy, on August 16, 2019Indian Defence Minister Rajnath Singh, while on a visit to the Pokhran nuclear test site paid tribute to the late former Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee and asserted that India might review its NFU policy. He stated that a change in future circumstances would likely define the status of India’s NFU policy. Since then there is no official denial of this assertion from India which indicates that India might abandon its NFU policy.

Moreover, India’s offensive missile development programs and its growing nuclear arsenal which include; hypersonic missiles, ballistic missile defence systems, enhanced space capabilities for intelligence, reconnaissance, and surveillance and the induction of nuclear-powered ballistic-missile-capable submarines clearly indicate that India’s nuclear weapons modernization is aimed at continuously enhancing its deterrence framework including its second-strike capabilities vis-à-vis Pakistan. This is also evident from India’s military preparations under its more recent doctrines such as the 2017 Joint Doctrine of the Indian Armed Forces (JDIAF) and the 2018 Land Warfare Doctrine (LWD)which are also based upon more proactive offensive strategies and indirect threats of pre-emptive strikes against Pakistan.

As evident from the above-mentioned developments, it seems likely that India aspires to increasingly project itself as a regional hegemon and a potential superpower. The BJP government under Prime Minister Modi inspired by the Hindutva ideology is taking offensive measures under the notions of ‘a more Muscular or Modern India’ based on strong military preparedness. In such circumstances, Pakistan’s threat perception would likely remain increasingly inclined towards its eastern border. Pakistan due to its economic constraints would also likely face considerable difficulties in competing with India toe to toe with respect to its military modernization plans. Pakistan is already punching well above its weight, and nuclear deterrence would be the only way through which Pakistan can maintain a precise balance of power to preserve its security. This could only be carried out by deterring India with the employment of both minimum credible deterrence and full-spectrum deterrence capabilities. This posture clearly asserts that since Pakistan’s nuclear weapons are for defensive purposes in principle, they are aimed at deterring India from any and all kinds of aggression.

Hence, at the present India’s forceful annexation of occupied Kashmir and the resultant nuclear discourse at the UNGA has further intensified Pakistan-India tensions. Under present circumstances, the situation could easily trigger another politico-military escalation between India and Pakistan. Prime Minister Modi has bet his political reputation on his move to annex the region and his political career is on the line. The same way Pakistan’s politico-military establishment is equally unlikely back down from its stance on Kashmir. It would be difficult for both countries to come down from the escalation ladder because politico-military reputations would be at stake at both ends. Consequently, Pakistan might be forced to take action before India’s modernization plans get ahead and might respond even sooner.

The nuclear discourse in Prime Minister Imran Khan’s speech against the backdrop of the Kashmir crisis at such a high forum like UNGA would likely keep the issue internationalized. The situation demands the UN fulfill its responsibility of ensuring peace and to prevent billions of people from the dangers of a nuclear war. However, Indian blame game, aggressive behavior and offensive nuclear signaling against Pakistan all present a clear warning of nuclear war. It would greatly limit the prospects for international mediation especially by the United Nations whose resolutions on Kashmir clearly provide a right of self-determination to decide Kashmir’s future.  

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1.2 trillion rupees on the move: Modi’s greatest piece of purchase yet

Sisir Devkota

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Last week, the RBI (Reserve Bank of India) was taken aback by more than a surprise. Just when it was dealing with the uncomfortable series of events that led to the transfer of surplus 1.2 trillion rupees into the government of India; social media erupted. It quickly realized that losing the battle regarding the transfer would only add fuel to the hoax of closing down nine commercial banks. RBI enjoys considerable amount of autonomy and independence in the largest democracy, and still, it had to kneel down to Modi’s alleged quick fix.

The RBI would have to vouch for the government in times of need, it is primarily what is expected of the institution; but there was a great deal of discomfort in how the government justified it. A committee set up under the ex-governor, Mr Bimal Jalan, cited how central banks would not need so much of surplus to carry out their affairs. Effectively, it was an order, not a request, which became the underlying discomfort behind RBI’s hesitancy in adhering to the views of capital transfer committee. Not that anyone expected the central lender to protest longer, it did however, request Mr Jalan to reconsider the decision at the face of various consequences. To say the least, it was embarrassing for a premier financial institution to be put under the public eye. The social media hoax was another ridicule of the sickly RBI. In the tales of grand conquests, the victorious army steals the wealth from the losing party. Similarly, the BJP led government in India are redefining all forms of state tools in favour of their interests.

Stolen wealth is most often than not used to correct economic blunders. Just like in the tales of grand conquests, the decision to transfer national wealth from the reserve bank is nothing new. It is nevertheless baffling, that the money transfer is looping in the same direction. While the BJP government in India were imposing a comprehensive GST (Goods and Service Tax) policy, they would not have anticipated complaints from large industries over decreased consumer consumption. For a party that is now known to redefine the legitimacy of governance, falling prey to NBFC’s (Non-bank Financial Companies) incompetence or bankruptcy is a visible defeat. Unlike many other soaring economies, there are large group of subsidiary lenders operating in India. On hindsight, economic policies are barely creating tunnels through which the capital is getting recycled in the same loop. Revenues are not generating further revenues. It is merely closing down on its self-inflicted gap.

The Security and Exchange Board of India (SEBI) almost played with fire. Uncharacteristically, it proposed a framework to work together with the RBI in order to claim outstanding defaults from high value clients. The RBI was never going to agree with a defaming offer as such but the incident did fuel the argument of capital shuffling. It only makes the bluff look more real. A strategic plan to counter all measures that would have blocked the transfer of trillions. As Mr Jalan sheepishly implied how the importance of central bank and what is does is only limited to the public perception, RBI fought a fix in between larger or rather dangerous political agendas. Consolidating requests from SEBI to only fall into the whims of the government shows the lack lustre personality of the central funding institution. For the time being, Narendra Modi has his way, a theft of national treasure-like his opposition colleague Rajiv Gandhi expressed in the media. However, there will also be a far-fetched evaluation of Modi’s actions. A move of 1.2 trillion rupees in the same pot. Not by any means, a cunning cover up.

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Walking the tight rope: India’s Diplomatic Strategy in the Middle East

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India’s diplomatic corps have been resolutely articulating India’s stances and furthering its interests in the international fora where multiple challenges emanating from historical and contemporary contexts are being faced. One important factor which India’s astute foreign policy makers have faced is the complicated and crucial engagement with the Middle East. There are multiple facets to India’s engagement in the contemporary context that add to this complexity. One, India’s old adversary and neighbor Pakistan has upped the ante in its diplomatic blitzkrieg especially within the Muslim world. Second India’s has varied strategic interests in the warring Middle East factions. Third, the economic interdependencies and the crisis in the international trade in the Trump era has further complicated India’s position as an economic actor in the region. While there are various constituent elements of India’s Middle East outreach, the contemporaneous concerns relate more to its relationship with the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, Islamic Republic of Iran and the Republic of Turkey.

India and Saudi Arabia have historically engaged in deep and multi-dimensional political, economic, cultural, defence and strategic cooperation. Saudi Arabia has long been an important Indian trade partner; the Kingdom remains a vital source of energy for India, which imports almost a fifth of its crude oil requirement from Saudi Arabia. Enhanced security cooperation has added a new dimension in the bilateral ties between New Delhi and Riyadh. Recently, Indian PM Narendra Modi was conferred with the highest civilian award of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia even as the top leadership continues to send signals of deep comradarie and solidarity.

With the ascent of the crown prince Mohammad Bin Salman, various layers in this important diplomatic relationship have surfaced. This has happened in a particularly peculiar geopolitical and geostrategic context where both countries have faced tough challenges to their internal stability and international position. While Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is still emerging from the consequences of the massive attack in its oil fields as well as the widespread criticism of humanitarian crisis in Yemen at the international fora, India is grappling with international criticism and discourse about the situation in Kashmir in context of dilution of its political autonomy as well as prolonged information and communication blackout.KSA has had a mediating role in the Indo-Pak tussle since Pulwama and how this hyphenation has led to competitive photo-ops of diplomatic support. Even as KSA has stood by Indian leadership’s vital interests. However, the Pakistani leadership has been relentless in its attempts to appeal to the leader of the Islamic world for vital economic and diplomatic support, especially in context of the Kashmir situation. Even as Saudi Arabia has managed this delicate equation with deftness, it has given in to Pakistan’s economic demands while making a symbolic gesture of closeness by offering the private jet to Pakistani Prime Minister for his visit to the West.  It doesn’t help that the Indian economy is going through a rough phase. However, the audacious announcement to invest $100 Billion in the fledgling Indian economy is a bold testament of the veritable and vibrant economic partnership between New Delhi and Riyadh. It is pertinent to note that in the contemporaneous challenges that the countries face, Iran as well as Pakistan emerge as key actors that affect the bilateral engagement in a pronounced manner.

Iran is India’s historic ally and third largest supplier of crude oil. However, the India-Iran relationship transcends oil. India, with an investment of $500 million, aims to develop Iran’s Chabahar port as a transit hub for Afghanistan, Central Asia, and the International North-South Transport Corridor (INSTC). Additionally, India is developing two gas fields, namely Farzad-B gas field located in Tehran and the South Pars field located between Iran and Qatar. These projects clearly highlight India’s long-term engagement with Iran. However, India’s muted response to US pressure has been causing slight tension in the bilateral relationship. Even though the top-level bilateral meeting between Indian premier Modi and his Iranian counterpart Hassan Rouhani was successful to diffuse tensions to an extent. The crisis in Yemen, oil trade and even India’s action in Kashmir continue to affect the relationship.

In this context, the challenges emanating from Turkey are also a sign of worry. Even as Turkey has remained an old ally of Pakistan and a supporter of the ‘Kashmiri’ cause, its open support for a rather lonely Pakistan should cause some worry in India’s strategic circles. This is because India has fine diplomatic relations with Turkey and has considerable economic and trade interests.

However, oil being an important consumer and agricultural good in India’s economy, it is important to secure its interests to have access to reliable and affordable Iranian crude oil. The trade negotiations and engagements with the US haven’t had any headway even as the threat of sanctions for buying oil from Iran continues. India could emerge as a trouble-solver in this context especially since this KSA-Iran conflict in oil supply context has global implications. PM Modi’s personal chemistry with the US leadership could be useful in this context.

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