Putting Pakistan’s Politicians to a Piety Test: Are You Muslim Enough?

If you aren’t, you may not be allowed to run for Parliament. How the country’s judges may be turning ethical standards into religious ones

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Muhammed Muheisen / AP

An election poster for the Pakistan Muslim League–Q seen on a wall in Islamabad on April 5, 2013

When Pakistan’s politicians filed their nomination papers for the forthcoming elections on May 11, many were startled to find that they were being tested on whether they were pious enough to face the electorate. Judges from the lower courts, who are overseeing the scrutiny of candidates, quizzed them on whether they could recite particular Koranic verses from memory or knew how to perform various Islamic rituals. One candidate was asked to pledge that from now on he would pray five times a day.

A well-known politician and long-standing newspaper columnist has even been disqualified. Ayaz Amir, one of Pakistan’s best-known English-language columnists who entered politics in 2008, was told he couldn’t run for Parliament because the judge frowned on a reference to alcohol in one of his weekly articles. As part of an elegy for Ardeshir Cowasjee, another columnist who passed away last year, Amir described the late writer’s “well-stocked bar,” including a euphemistic reference to “Scottish holy water.” Alcohol is banned in Pakistan, though bootleggers discreetly do a brisk trade.

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Amir’s disqualification is part of an intense scrutiny being enforced for the first time in Pakistan. Much of it is focused on ethics and the civil law. Some candidates have been disqualified — and handed down prison sentences — because they forged their university degrees. Others are accused of a variety of offences, including defaulting on bank loans and failing to pay water bills. The steps have won much praise for holding the feet of the powerful to the fire. Former military ruler General Pervez Musharraf’s nomination papers were rejected on Friday because judges said he subverted the constitution when he mounted the 1999 coup that overthrew a civilian government. But rights advocates and legal experts say the judges are also reaching past questions of financial probity to arbitrarily decide who is a pious enough Muslim to sit in Pakistan’s next Parliament.

When it comes to questions of piety, the judges are drawing on vaguely worded clauses in Pakistan’s constitution that insist all Members of Parliament must be devout Muslims. The clauses were imposed by General Mohammed Zia ul-Haq, a former military ruler and religious hard-liner, as part of his sweeping “Islamization” program during the 1980s. In the past, election officials turned a blind eye to the exacting religious standards set out by the clauses. As many observers have quipped over the years, the stipulated demands that lawmakers be “sagacious,” “nonprofligate,” observe all mandatory religious duties and abstain from “major sins” would likely lead to an empty Parliament.

It is impossible, says leading lawyer Babar Sattar, to decide who is and who isn’t “a good Muslim.” “The language of Article 62,” he says, referring to the relevant clause in the constitution, “isn’t judicially enforceable. Are we saying someone who doesn’t pray five times a day can’t be a Member of Parliament?” The wording is so misty as to be open to widely divergent interpretations. “Part of the problem,” says Salman Raja, another lawyer and constitutional expert, “is that the judges can read into these words their own anxieties.”

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Many of the members of the lower judiciary who are scrutinizing the candidates, adds Raja, have inherited their religious views from the austere readings offered in standard Pakistani textbooks. The attitudes on display also appear to reflect a growing sense of religiosity in Pakistan and disenchantment with the political class. A report issued this week by the British Council found that 38% of young voters between the ages of 18 to 29 think Shari‘a law is the best political system for Pakistan. Nearly a third said they would like military rule. And a paltry 29% said they wanted a continuation of democracy.

Along with failing to persuade the youth of the merits of democracy, the politicians have also been unsuccessful in rolling back Zia’s legacy. “These provisions should not be in the constitution,” says Sattar, the lawyer. “The Parliament has clearly failed to take them out.” Despite passing three constitutional amendments, the parliamentarians left the Islamic provisions untouched. Some ascribe the reluctance to fear of a religious backlash. In 2011, two senior politicians were killed after speaking out against the country’s notorious blasphemy laws.

The scrutiny process, critics say, could end up tilting the electoral field. “They are using a controversial overbroad law imposed on the constitution by a dictator for precisely the purpose of arbitrary political screening,” says Ali Dayan Hasan, Pakistan director of Human Rights Watch. Rather than allowing the voters to decide who’s fit to sit in Parliament, Hasan adds, the judges are arrogating that right to themselves. “This is a form of prepoll rigging against those who do not meet the approval of these authorities on extremely flimsy grounds.”

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In recent days, a number of high-profile candidates were shown being carted off to prison for faking their university degrees. In 2002, Musharraf imposed a condition that all parliamentarians should be graduates. The principal targets were the traditional parties, which opposed Musharraf and had the fewest graduates. One of the candidates facing accusations of having forged his degree was the last government’s Education Minister. The graduate condition is no longer in place, but the fake-degree holders were retrospectively found guilty of perjury.

The judges won applause for standing up to lying politicians. But some question the wisdom of the move. “It is illegal, but there’s a political context to it,” says Hasan of Human Rights Watch. “The courts themselves have ruled that the degree law was discriminatory.” In Pakistan, only around 5% of the population is made up of university graduates. “Why have convictions been handed down for a law that no longer exists, limits political participation and was imposed by a dictator in the first place?”

When it comes to Pakistan’s elections, many derive comfort from the fact that the religious right never wins more than 10% of the vote. But the political parties that neatly evade both the laws imposed by Zia and Musharraf are from the religious right. After being chastened at the last elections, they are back on the ascendant. When it came to the degree requirement, their madrassa education was mostly deemed equivalent to an advanced degree. And, of course, they breezed through the piety tests.

This story was made possible in part by the International Reporting Project.

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