Nawaz Sharif speaking at the UN General Assembly in New York on 30 September 2015. (United Nations / Flickr / CC)
Nawaz Sharif speaking at the UN General Assembly in New York on 30 September 2015. (United Nations Photo / Flickr / CC)

Pakistan celebrates its 70th birthday today (14 August). And there’s a new Prime Minister after Nawaz Sharif, founder of the largest political party, was disqualified by the apex court on 29 July on charges of not being “righteous” and “ameen”*.

This Supreme Court decision about Sharif “will throw the governing party and the country at large into turmoil ahead of elections due next year”, according to the Guardian newspaper.

Former cricket star Imran Khan, chairman of the opposition party he founded (Tehreek-e-Insaaf, PTI), filed the corruption charges against Sharif with the head of the right-wing party Jamaat-e-Islami, Siraj-ul-Haq.

Both PTI and Jamaat-e-Islami are accused of being close to the military establishment, the most organised and ordered institution in the country. However, these claims are rejected by former PTI central executive committee member Brigadier (r) Samson Simon Sharaf who said the accusations were nothing more than an effort to create a rift among state institutions and so destabilise the country.

Pakistan has had a bumpy ride of democracy, with three military coups – lasting more than 30 years – since its independence exactly 70 years ago in 1947.

Nawaz Sharif was disqualified under Article 62 of Pakistan’s Constitution, which requires that parliamentarians are “sadiq” (the same Hebrew word tsadeq is translated as “just” and “righteous” in the Bible) and “ameen“, an Arabic word loosely translated as “truthful”.

These Islamic terms were introduced by military dictator General Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq (1977 to 1988), who was mainly responsible for Islamising Pakistan and introducing blasphemy laws, Islamic hadd punishments and even making divorce laws for Christians more stringent (after which they mostly converted to Islam for dissolution of marriage).

But Sharif’s ousting, based on Islamic terms introduced by a dictator, has developed sympathy for him in a sizeable number of the educated liberal left. Leading this section is none other than former Supreme Court Bar Association President and UN Rapporteur on human rights, Asma Jehangir, held in high esteem abroad but considered highly controversial inside the country.

“It is a populist judgment, which has opened the doors for the disqualification of politicians on flimsy grounds. It is highly flawed in procedure and substance,” Jehangir told the Washington Post.

Brigadier Sharaf says all this is only false propaganda of “international agents” which have deep penetration in Pakistan. He says some Pakistani media sections and organisations are controlled from abroad.

Pakistani Christians

Sharif’s political party, Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N), a centre-right party which is currently the ruling and largest political party in Pakistan, has a history of supporting Islamisation.

Christians comprise little more than 1.5 per cent (3 to 5 million) of a 200 million-strong population. The country has stringent blasphemy laws and religious minorities are nowhere in the political and social strata.

Brigadier Sharaf told World Watch Monitor that all incidents of communal violence against Christians took place during Nawaz’s tenure because of his ties with the banned outfit Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LeJ).

“The LeJ does not feel content until it kills a few people. This is their diet, you know! And above all, the blasphemy law of 295-C of the Pakistan Penal Code, which Christians dread most, was made most stringent during Nawaz’s tenure in 1991,” he said.

Senator Farhat Ullah Babar, a senior politician from the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP), says that the Nawaz government was not known for upholding minorities’ rights. “In cases like arson attacks on Christian neighbourhoods, investigation and trial were not pursued as vigorously as they should have been,” he said.

“But Sharif’s ousting will weaken Parliament and elected members, which means the rights of all sections of society tend to be weakened. Because minorities are the most vulnerable section, so their rights are also undermined.”

National Assembly Women Parliamentary Caucus general secretary Shaista Pervaiz, in the PML-N, says terrorism hits the entire country and attaching its consequences to a certain political party is not appropriate. “The volatile situation in the country has hit every community irrespective of their religion or belief,” she told World Watch Monitor.

Ms Pervaiz says Sharif’s ousting may affect the already ongoing pro-religious minority policies, but she hopes there will be no fallout. “That is why we say that the democratic system should be allowed to continue – and such hiccups hamper progress,” she said.

Despite its previous record, the PML-N has endeavoured to acquire a more moderate face in recent years with a “softer” view of religious minorities.

India is considered an archenemy of Pakistan, while “a Hindu” and “an Indian” are interchangeable terms, which is why the Hindu community (mainly in Sindh) has a largely ignored and obscured life. Though, to everyone’s surprise, Sharif went to a Diwali programme in November 2015, where he said: “You are residents of Pakistan. Every resident of Pakistan, no matter who it is, Hindu, Muslim, Sikh, Christian and Parsi … belongs to me, and I belong to them… If any Hindu is victimised, and the aggressor is a Muslim, I will take action against the Muslim. This is what my religion teaches me.”

In a similar vein, Nawaz’s younger brother, Shahbaz Sharif, who is Chief Minister of the biggest province Punjab, wrote in March: “An egalitarian, tolerant, and peaceful polity where non-Muslim minorities enjoy religious freedoms and a complete sense of security is the answer to all our challenges.”

The Daily Ummat, a conservative newspaper, headlined on 31 July that Sharif’s ousting was the result of the hanging of Mumtaz Qadri in February 2016, on the Supreme Court’s orders, for killing Punjab Governor Salmaan Taseer.

A bureaucrat also privately told World Watch Monitor that the hanging caused a loss to PMN-L of hundreds of thousands of votes. On terms of anonymity, he said that, due to this unpopular decision, Sharif’s party would suffer a backlash in the 2018 elections.

Brigadier Sharaf, however, says Qadri’s hanging brought a good number of Barelvis, chief supporters of the blasphemy laws, to the strict school of thought of the Deobandis.

Taseer was in the PPP (considered a left-wing, socialist and progressive party) but the PPP did not have the courage to rule on Qadri’s appeal between 2008-2013, and left the job for the next government.

This in turn means there seems little hope that the Supreme Court will pick up Asia Bibi’s case again (Asia Bibi is a Christian woman on death row for blasphemy). The Lahore High Court had requested that Parliament amend legal loopholes it identified in 2014, but no government has requested this.

‘Religious minorities can swing 2018 election’

It is yet to be seen how minorities will be given more inclusive participation in the 2018 elections.

The PTI is considered a “burger-class” – which to an ordinary Pakistani means “a more educated, tech-savvy bourgeoisie”, while the PML-N has been accused by the PTI of involvement in “theft” and “land grabbing” and being composed of “illiterates”.

Although the PPP is considered socialist and progressive, it nationalised educational institutions, including Christian missionary ones, in early 1970, greatly harming the community. The 1973 Constitution, enforced during a PPP government, requires the country’s President be a Muslim. The PPP enacted an 18th Amendment in 2010 to require that the Prime Minister must also be Muslim.

But Farhat Ullah Babar says the PPP has learnt from its past mistakes. “In the past, it succumbed under pressure from the religious right. But we have learned if you give an inch to the religious right, it will demand a mile,” he said.

In the 2013 elections, the Taliban openly threatened to attack the PPP and other secular parties, but signalled to Khan’s PTI and Sharif’s PML-N to openly hold gatherings and continue their campaigns without fear. In this scenario, the N-League bagged the highest votes and the PTI stood only second in the elections. (Khan declared the long war with the Taliban in the troubled northern hilly areas as “someone else’s war” and advocated negotiation, after which he was nicknamed “Taliban Khan”.)

On the other side of the political spectrum is Jamiat-Ulema-e-Islam-Fazl, whose head Maulana Fazlur Rehman, himself very close to the Taliban, has repeatedly called Khan an agent of the Western and “Jewish” lobby, who “drives youths to obscenity.

Since Khan’s heyday as Pakistan’s cricket team’s captain, Pakistani Christians have believed he is prejudiced, having never allowed a Christian to reach the national cricket team.

“By temperament Imran believes there should be no ‘minorities’ in Pakistan. He believes that Pakistan should be an equal-opportunity country,” says Brigadier Sharaf. He says he gave Imran Khan a plan to mainstream religious minorities from 2007 to 2011 but it hasn’t been implemented until now: a main reason why Sharaf has now intellectually distanced himself from the PTI. “Any party that truly co-opts Hindus and Christians into the mainstream will emerge victorious, because in 60 to 70 constituencies their vote could swing results. I briefed Khan but he didn’t take my advice,” he said.

In this political tug of war, of the three main parties – PML-N, PPP and PTI – it remains to be seen how they give actual representation to religious minorities, since all three claim to be defenders of religious minorities.

Pakistan is 4th on the Open Doors 2017 World Watch List of the 50 countries in which it is most difficult to live as a Christian.

*An Arabic Islamic term which equates to “truthful”, kept in Arabic though the Constitution is written in English.