The Pakistan government this month unveiled an historic fatwa (religious ruling) condemning Islamic extremism and vigilante “blasphemy” attacks, in a potentially positive development for the country’s minority Christian community.
By issuing the fatwa with the support of 1,829 religious leaders – who are signatories to the document officially released on 16 January – the Pakistani government is addressing extremism from a religious perspective.
The fatwa declares that terrorist activity against the state, and in particular suicide bombings, are haram (forbidden under Islamic law). It also states: “We believe that spreading sectarian hatred, armed sectarian conflict and imposition of one’s religious ideologies by force are contrary to the Shariah/teachings of Islam.”
There is a “religious obligation” to confront “evil” extremist ideology, according to the Fatwa.
The notion of “extremism” in the context of the ruling is defined as views deemed to be outside the body of mainstream Islam – this differs from typical Western definitions, which define “extremism” in relation to issues such as democracy, human rights and freedom of religion.
The document also says it is “unacceptable in Islam” that any group “takes [the] law into its own hands, [and] declares people infidels” – a statement which is understood to refer to the country’s controversial “blasphemy” laws.
Instead, the fatwa asserts that “Only the State has right to implement punishments on citizens.”
Some of the most vocal opponents of politicians who have proposed changes to the “blasphemy” laws are among the signatories to the fatwa. But it remains to be seen whether their support of the religious ruling will result in real and lasting change to the treatment of Christians and others accused of “blasphemy”, or reduce the number of spurious allegations.
This fatwa is based on the teaching of classical Islam that only the proper Islamic ruler can declare jihad or enforce punishments, such as the death penalty for apostasy and blasphemy. However, classical Islam still holds all of these as articles of faith.