Islamic fundamentalists expanding their grip on Pakistani society: Report

Rawalpindi, Jan 21(ANI): The assassination of liberal Pakistani politician Salmaan Taseer for his vocal opposition to the country's blasphemy law and the warm reception for his killer has exposed the rising influence of Islamic fundamentalism over Pakistani society, a mind-set that increasingly radicalises the nuclear-armed nation, breeds intolerance and further weakens Islamabad's feeble civilian government.

Hard-line clerics are now turning their anger toward another leading member of the ruling Pakistan People's Party, Sherry Rehman, who, like Taseer, called for changes aimed at reforming the blasphemy law after a Pakistani Christian woman accused of insulting the prophet Muhammad was given the death penalty.

Journalist Ali Kamran Chishti attended a January 7 gathering in Karachi, at which the Imam of the Sultan mosque, Munir Ahmed Shakir, labeled Rehman an infidel for proposing changes to the country's blasphemy law, which makes it a crime to defame the Prophet Muhammad or Islam, but is often used as a tool to repress minorities.

"This kind of rhetoric radicalises people," The Los Angeles Times quoted Chishti, as saying.

Imams such as Shakir, he added, "are slowly poisoning minds and making people intolerant. Praising people like Qadri is indirectly saying to society that anyone who takes this line [against the blasphemy law] should be shot dead. This is wrong."

"A mind-set has been created that has to be undone," said Ijaz Khan, who heads the International Relations department at the Peshawar University. "It poses a serious existential challenge to the so-called liberal community of this country.

"We still do not know how many more Qadris are out there, and what will happen next," he added.

Pakistan's religious extremists thrive on street power rather than on ballot-box appeal, said the report, adding that although the nation is governed by the largely secular Pakistan People's Party, in the thousands of mosques and madrasas across the nation, fundamentalists enjoy a captive audience, and hard-line clerics delivering fiery Friday sermons are seen as more credible than the country's government leaders.

"If there was economic development and more job opportunities on the horizon, they wouldn't be as apt to listen to these clerics," said Hasan Askari Rizvi, a Lahore-based security analyst. "At least not all the time."

The rise of the Islamists has its origins in the military rule of General Zia ul-Haq, who in the 1980s forced a more conservative brand of Islam on the country, which resulted in the start-up of legions of madrasas, many of which became incubators for extremism, the report added.

Even state education under Zia "socialized young minds into religious orthodoxy," Rizvi said, adding, "Now these people who studied in high schools and state universities from 1985 onward are the ones who support this kind of far-right religious orientation."

The outpouring of praise for Qadri also sends disturbing signals to Washington, said the report, adding that at a time when the Obama administration is hoping for a more reliable ally in the US-declared war on terrorism, the Taseer assassination and its aftermath suggest that extremism in Pakistan may be going mainstream. (ANI)

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