A crippling strike by Islamist parties brought Pakistan to a standstill on Friday as thousands of people took to the streets and forced businesses to close in an attempt to head off any change in the country’s blasphemy law, which rights groups say has been used to persecute minorities, especially Christians.
The blasphemy law was introduced in the 1980s under the military dictatorship of General Mohammad Zia ul-Haq as part of a policy of promoting Islam to unite a deeply fractious society. Many attempts to revise the law have since been thwarted by the strong opposition of religious forces, which continue to gather strength.
In fiery speeches across all major cities and towns, religious leaders warned the government on Friday against making any changes in the law.
“The president and prime minister should take the nation into confidence and assure in unequivocal terms that there will be no change in the blasphemy law under any international pressure,” Sahibzada Fazal Kareem, a religious leader and member of parliament, said at a rally in the southern port city of Karachi, where police fired tear gas to stop protesters from marching toward Bilawal House, one of the residences of Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari.
The governing Pakistan Peoples Party, which is struggling to keep its government coalition intact, has been conciliatory on the issue.
Pakistani Minister for Information Syed Sumsam Ali Bokhari tried to placate religious forces by assuring them that the government did not intend to amend or repeal the law.
“Neither the Pakistan Peoples Party nor the government has discussed the issue to bring any amendment in the blasphemy law,” Bokhari said on Thursday at a press briefing.
However, such assurances have failed to calm the religious parties, who issued their call on Dec. 15 for a nationwide strike.
“I call it a natural result of religious extremism that is on the rise in Pakistani society,” said Mehdi Hasan, chairman of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, an independent rights group, when commenting on the strike. “The liberal and democratic forces in the country have retreated so much that it has created an ideological vacuum that is now being filled by the religious extremists.”
The commission has documented scores of cases in which men have been harassed for being Christian or for being members of the Ahmadi sect, a minority group within Islam, and then accused of blasphemy. The mere fact of being a Christian or an Ahmadi in Pakistan makes a person vulnerable to prosecution, the commission says. Often the mere accusation of blasphemy has led to murders, lynchings and false arrests.
Rights activists, critics and several government officials, including Salman Taseer, the governor of Punjab Province, and Sherry Rehman, a lawmaker and former information minister, have urged the government to repeal or revise the laws.
“These laws institutionalize injustice,” Rehman said. “People have to feel secure as first-class citizens of this country.”
Rehman expressed disappointment that the government had distanced itself from her proposed amendments to the law.
The general strike and protests on Friday showed the power Islamists hold on the streets of Pakistan. They also contrast sharply with the campaigns by rights activists and opponents of the blasphemy laws, who have vented their opposition and discontent mostly on the Internet and social networks such as Facebook and Twitter. Protest rallies by rights activists have been ineffective and relatively small.
Rehman said the secular, democratic forces need not be deterred by the show of force by Islamists.
“Eventually, I think we have to keep at it with the help of the civil society and media — their street power is disproportional,” Rehman said, referring to the religious parties. “The mainstream political parties need to push back and resist the religious extremists who hijack issues through street power.”
However, analysts said the huge show of force by religious parties, and even the attention local news media outlets gave them on Friday, would only embolden the religious elements in the country.
The dynamic is such that “the government may not be able to make any changes in the blasphemy laws in the coming years,” Rais said.
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