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State vs clerics

THE religious right in the country is once again in a state of fervent agitation. Ostensibly, this is because the Punjab Assembly recently passed a historic women`s rights law. Yet, other provinces have passed similar, arguably more robust, laws in recent times and there has been little outcry. The difference this time may be the straits the religious right has found itself in and its urgent need to put pressure on the federal government the PML-N to reverse policies that have caused it to lose ground in the public arena. The signs are several. The conference convened by the Jamaat-i-Islami in Mansoora on Tuesday saw many speakers veer away from the Punjab law and condemn the hanging of Mumtaz Qadri and the clampdown on the activities of the Tableeghi Jamaat.

More remarkably, in attendance were avowed anti-democrats like Hafiz Saeed, whose interest in parliamentary democracy is nil. The constellation of ignominy that gathered in Mansoora clearly has wider goals than simply nullification of a pro-women law.

The recent fulminations of Fazlur Rehman, the JUI-F chief, give an indication of what those wider goals may be. In evoking the spectre of a PNA-style opposition alliance, the maulana appears to be seeking unity of the religious right so as to put concerted pressure on the centre, with the intention of either bringing down the federal government or aggressively increasing the public space for the religious right and its extremist partners. Behind those grand schemes lies a harsh reality: the JUI-F and its political and extremist cohorts face an existential crisis. The National Action Plan made explicit for the first time the need to combat religiously motivated militancy and also called for the regulation of the sprawling network of madressahs across the country. In truth, however, the slow collision between the state and religious right had already begun. The infamous outburst of Munawar Hassan in November 2013, in which the former JI chief condemned Pakistani soldiers drawing a sharp response from the military, may have set the parameters of conflict and dissent.

What remains to be seen is how firm the PML-N will stand in this ideological conflict between the forces of regression and those on the right side of history. Pakistan must return to the vision of its founding father and become the progressive, modern and thoroughly democratic country that the Quaid wanted it to be. Thus far, the PML-N has surprised with its willingness to dabble in more progressive and forward-thinking politics. Yet, its mettle has not truly been tested. The Punjab Assembly is little more than a rubber stamp for the Sharif family`s pet projects. The hanging of Mumtaz Qadri was cleared by the courts. Now comes the real baptism of fire stand firm and stand tall against the religious right and the PML-N will earn itself a place in history. Crumble now and history will be less forgiving.