In Pakistan, judges are a part of the problem of religious conservatism trumping justice
In February, the chief justice of the supreme court of “Pakistan-administered Azad Jammu and Kashmir” (AJK) imposed compulsory namaz on the court bureaucracy, and no one in Pakistan thought it was anything out of the ordinary. Chief Justice Ibrahim Zia actually made his inaugural speech impressive by his own reckoning as a Muslim-first-and-judge-later, telling his staff they should offer their prayers punctually behind him. Then he added something that should have caused alarm: “Your annual salary increments will now hinge on your offering prayers regularly and on the prescribed times. To make sure you offer your prayers regularly, I will be secretly checking observance”.
Justice Zia was an advocate of the AJK Supreme Court from 1984 and was elected president of AJK’s Supreme Court Bar Association. That he must be a pious man, there is little doubt of. But why does he want to do something that his counterpart in Pakistan’s supreme court is not doing?
Pakistan suffered this kind of coercion in 2009 too. In Malakand, the de facto ruling Tehreek Nifaz-e-Shariat-e-Muhammadi (TNSM), led by Sufi Muhammad, imposed Qazi courts in the territory under his son-in-law, Mullah Fazlullah. Prayers became compulsory, but like Saudi Arabia, the lawyers were no longer allowed in the courts. Sufi Muhammad is now in prison and his terrorist son-in-law has fled to Afghanistan as chief of the Pakistani Taliban. Another warlord, Mangal Bagh of Khyber Agency, had imposed compulsory namaz in the mosque by outlawing it at home. He too is now in Afghanistan.
Judges happen to be most attracted to coercion under Islam. Namaz is regarded as “farz” (compulsory) like zakat (religious charity tax), and presumably enforceable on pain of punishment. Some judges, not able to lay down the law from their court, showed the way by their behaviour. One judge of the Lahore High Court would withdraw to a mosque near his residence and perform a pious night vigil, covered by the media. He couldn’t impose the practice on others because Islam, Muslims say, doesn’t allow coercion. Heavily bearded Justice Nazir was so fond of punishing blasphemers, he told a public meeting in Lahore that they should kill blasphemers on sight.
The latest news is about the pious judge of the Islamabad High Court, Justice Shaukat Aziz Siddiqui, allegedly shown in a photograph when, as a lawyer, he kissed the killer of Punjab governor Salmaan Taseer after the governor was accused of having defended a poor Christian girl under a death sentence for having allegedly insulted the Holy Prophet (PBUH). (Siddiqui denied it was him.) But now, as a judge of the Islamabad High Court, his passion for Islam has been cause for some in-court theatre.
On March 9, Siddiqui wept copiously as he pointed to the grave insult to the Prophet (PBUH) he had seen on social media. He ordered the department concerned and the federal interior minister to present themselves in his court to undertake the arrest of the blaspheming bloggers, so that the court could sentence them to death — the minimum punishment for those who dare insult the most revered personage of Islam.
He ordered the government of Pakistan to open an investigation into online blasphemy and threatened to ban social media networks like Facebook if this was not done. He wept some more the following day and was angered by the interior minister not turning up. (It was reported later that the minister was getting his eye operated on, but on his return he treated the nation to: “We will go to any extent including permanently blocking all such social media websites if they refuse to cooperate.”)
Reporting the incident, AFP wrote: “Rights groups say the label of blasphemer is liberally applied by religious conservatives in order to silence criticism of extremism. Even unproven allegations can be fatal. At least 65 people including lawyers, judges and activists have been murdered by vigilantes over blasphemy allegations since 1990, according to a recent think-tank report.”
Siddiqui is a particularly pious judge. He banned this year’s Valentine’s Day. One reported incident had the police arresting a boy selling red balloons with hearts printed on them, symbolising the day. Lawyers around the court feared if he wrote his banning order in the strict Islamic framework, the Supreme Court too would be forced to bow to his piety, reinforced by madrasas. One “blasphemous” media website was blocked in Pakistan on court orders for four years.
Siddiqui’s piety goes back a long time: In 2002, he tried to get elected — without success — on an MMA ticket, the clerical alliance that ruled in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, but fell out with the Supreme Court because of its draconian lawmaking. In 2007, he defended the extremist cleric of the Red Mosque in Islamabad who had offended China. He is also said to have defended the blasphemy-killer of Governor Salmaan Taseer. According to reports, he has cases against him pending with the Supreme Judicial Council.
The policeman, Mumtaz Qadri, who shot Taseer, was hanged in 2016 after being sentenced by a judge of an anti-terrorism court. The judge left immediately for Hajj after the sentencing, but the prosecutor complained of death threats being flung at him daily. Qadri has a grand mausoleum just outside Islamabad, where thousands go to pay homage to him. The son of the murdered governor, Shahbaz Taseer, was kidnapped by the Taliban and kept under savage conditions in Afghanistan for three years before he was able to escape.
- The writer is consulting editor, ‘Newsweek Pakistan’ and the write-up was first published in The Indian Express.