Islamic scholars in Pakistan push for hate speech ban

Pakistan’s top body of Islamic scholars is pushing for a crackdown on hate speech in an effort to curb intra-faith violence in the world's second-largest Muslim country.

Last month, 32 groups representing the major Islamic sects in Pakistan signed on to a code of conduct that prohibits hate speech against other sects, restricts the use of mosque loudspeakers, and bans incendiary literature and graffiti.

The religious leaders are trying to combat a steady rise in sectarian disputes. In 2012, at least 537 Pakistanis were killed in attacks related to religious sect, a 71 percent increase from the previous year, according to the Pakistan Institute for Peace Studies. Yet while the effort has been praised for its goals, there is widespread skepticism that it can be enforced.

The voluntary code of conduct, announced on Dec. 2, came on the heels of lethal riots in Rawalpindi, a garrison town outside Islamabad. Eleven people died after a procession organized by Shia worshipers ended in clashes with students at a Sunni seminary.

Intra-faith violence has continued since the adoption of the code. On Jan. 1, a suicide bomber killed two Shia pilgrims returning from Iran, and on Jan. 3, gunmen killed two senior Sunni leaders in Islamabad. Last month, two suicide bombings at Shia mosques in Rawalpindi and Karachi killed four, and tit-for-tat assassinations left two Shia scholars and a Sunni leader dead. While Sunnis are in the majority in Pakistan, its Shia minority ranks second behind that of Iran.

Tahir Mehmood Ashrafi, who heads the Pakistan Ulema Council that is pushing for enforcement of the code of conduct, says his own example proves that Islamic extremists can change.

Mr. Ashrafi is a former member of Sipa-e-Sahaba, a Sunni group banned in 2002 for its ties to militants. He credits his departure from the group to time he spent with the Tablighi Jamaat, an ascetic movement whose adherents travel to remote communities in order to spark an Islamic revival.

“If we don't put an end to such fighting, Pakistan will suffer, and the rest of the world won't be spared either,” says Ashrafi.

Adherents to the code agree not to declare others as non-Muslims – usually the first step towards attacking them – and to steer clear of controversial topics. The mosques of Ahmadis, a minority Muslim sect that is routinely targeted by extremists and had no representation among the signatories, would be protected, along with churches and temples. However, the main thrust of the initiative is to dial down hostilities between Muslim sects.

Signatories to the code also pledged to hold conferences across Pakistan to promote religious tolerance, and to meet with members of parliament to urge them to put the code into law and to enforce it.

Yet the group faces other challenges. Ashrafi himself is no stranger to controversy. He is criticized for continuing to associate with Sunni leaders like Malik Ishaq, who spent the last decade in and out of prison for allegedly overseeing attacks on Shias.

“Ashrafi does not necessarily represent the mainstream perception,” says Ayesha Siddiqa, a security expert based in Islamabad. She warns that even if the heads of Muslim groups agree to stop inciting violence against each other, their rank and file is another issue.

A series of assassinations in the 1990s gave rise to armed Shia and Sunni groups that have had trouble controlling their members over the past two decades. Sunni militants formed Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, and Shias Sipah-i-Muhammad. The Pakistan government banned these groups in 2001, but both still operate. Lashkar-e-Jhangvi claimed responsibility for attacks on Shias in Quetta that killed hundreds last year.

This is not the first time a religious code has been adopted in Pakistan. In 1997, in a bid to stem the violence, senior clerics signed on to an agreement similar to the one being promoted by Ashrafi today, but no legislation was ever passed to make it a binding commitment.

“The books that were banned in the 1990's are still around” says Ahmed Ludhianvi, head of Ahle Sunnat Wal Jamaat, the group that formed after Sipa-e-Sahaba was banned. ”Just the name of the publisher, and maybe the title, has changed.”

Limits on mosque loudspeakers

In fact, Pakistan hasn't enforced much of its existing laws prohibiting speech that incites violence. Punjab, Pakistan’s most populous province, has a 1965 law on its books that prohibit the use of a mosque's loudspeakers for anything except the call to prayer and an Arabic portion of the Friday sermon. If that law had been enforced in Rawalpindi last month, said an intelligence agency inquiry into the clashes, the violence could have been prevented.

“Implementation is 95 percent of the resolution of the issue, and that is not there,” says Ms. Siddiqa. “You can't just have a few mullahs get together and say they agree...the government has to be on board as well.”

Muhammad Amin Shaheedi, the head of Majlis Wahdatul Muslimeen, one of Pakistan's largest Shia political parties, says he welcomes the effort to form an agreement among the country's scholars, but would like to see the government prosecute those responsible for violence. “Even if we sign 50 agreements, it just takes one suicide bomber, one man to come and blow up a mosque or attack a procession, and this agreement can't harm him at all.”