Following the Hagia Sophia’s conversion to a Muslim mosque this August, Pakistan’s Prime Minister Imran Khan and President Arif Alvi called Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to congratulate him. Subsequently, President Alvi tweeted that the premiers had also discussed the Indian occupation of Kashmir and the COVID-19 pandemic. Alvi wrote that Pakistan pledged to support Turkey in all its “legitimate interests,” noting that the “brotherly countries have similar goals.” Of course, this statement begs the question, What goals do the two countries share?
Until recently, Turkey was a secular state supporting Western countries, but Erdogan’s conversion of the church shows how far he has led the country toward Islamist values and the degree to which he is pushing for an Islamic empire while encouraging discrimination and persecution of ethnic and religious minorities in Turkey and abroad.
While Erdogan’s English tweet following the sixth-century church’s conversion emphasized that the Hagia Sophia would better serve the “shared heritage of humanity” as a mosque, Erdogan’s Arabic tweet affirmed the need for the “liberation of the Al-Aqsa Mosque” in Jerusalem. Hinting at the conquest of a Jerusalem mosque draws on the Muslim Turks’ heritage of Mehmet II, the Ottoman sultan who conquered Turkey in the fifteenth century.
The fact that Erdogan has recruited jihadists from Syria and Libya and that he backs the Syrian National Army, which is responsible for gross atrocities against the Kurds, shows his support of an Islamic empire. An opinion piece in Newsweek notes that not only did the president’s speech following the conversion carry “jihadist undertones,” but both the Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas immediately congratulated Erdogan.
In contrast to Russia, the United States, and the multiple European states who have condemned the conversion of the Hagia Sophia, Pakistan has aligned itself with Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood by congratulating Erdogan. Pakistan is a relatively secular Muslim nation—it elected the first female prime minister in a Muslim-majority country—but recent hardline developments signal a trend similar to that of Turkey’s.
First, last month the province of Punjab passed the Tahaffuz-i-Bunyad-i-Islam law, which is translated as the “protecting the foundation of Islam law.” Under the guise of prohibiting terrorist propaganda, the law requires all publications to be reviewed by the Directorate General Public Relations (DGPR) before printing and allows the DGPR to visit any press office, publication, or store to investigate and confiscate objectionable material. The law also requires all references to the Prophet Muhammad and various descendants or followers to be preceded by the darood, an Arabic prayer for blessing upon the stated to receive a reward or blessing in this life or the next in return. This will only fuel confrontations between the Sunni and Shia sects, who have long disagreed about which descendants should be honored.
The apparent goal of the legislation is to strengthen the “constitution of Pakistan,” according to the Punjab Assembly Speaker Chaudhry Pervaiz Elahi. However, some argue that the law is superfluous. One of Pakistan’s blasphemy laws, which prohibits “derogatory remarks against holy personages… either spoken or written,” already bans objectionable material. Additionally, human rights groups and other activists condemn the law because they believe it will incite greater religious persecution against religious minorities and sectarian opposition between the Sunnis and Shias.
Second, in July an extremist shot Tahir Ahmad Naseem, an American citizen and former Ahmadi minority accused of blasphemy, while he was on trial after a two-year imprisonment. The police immediately arrested the shooter in the courtroom, but later an elite squad posted proud selfies with him, whom they viewed as a hero, on social media. Protests supporting the assassin and glorifying his act were held throughout Pakistan.
Pakistan has never executed anyone found guilty of blasphemy—the punishment for blasphemy is death under Pakistani law—but what happened to Naseem was not out of the ordinary. While Pakistan condemned 1,472 people for blasphemy between 1987 and 2016 according to the Center for Social Justice in Lahore, vigilantes have extrajudicially murdered an estimated 77 people convicted of blasphemy, according to Al Jazeera. This number includes the Punjab governor Salman Taseer, whom his own police guard murdered. The assassin now has his own shrine in Islamabad.
In the past year, Pakistan has held numerous blasphemy trials. To name a few, a former foreign and defense minister was convicted of blasphemy for saying “all religions are equal.” A Sindhi professor was sentenced for blasphemy after critiquing high-level clerics. In December, a professor was recently sentenced to death for “derogatory comments” about the Prophet Muhammad over seven years ago. His first lawyer was shot dead in 2017. An Ahmadi woman from a small sect of Muslims whom Sunnis believe are heretical was accused of blasphemy after a mosque refused to accept her charitable donation due to her minority status. While minorities make up less than 4 percent of the Pakistani population according to Minority Rights Group International, a disproportionate amount of blasphemy cases (estimated at 52 percent) are against minorities. The recent release of Asia Bibi, imprisoned for eight years on blasphemy charges, could have been a positive indication, but some hold that the blasphemy laws have become an “Islamist tool” to persecute minorities. Asia Bibi emigrated to Canada, but still receives death threats.
Last month, police charged a Pakistani actor and a singer with blasphemy for filming a music video in a historic Lahore mosque. The music video depicted the two as a happy couple following their niqah, or wedding ceremony. It appears to have a scene where the bride is twirling inside the mosque. While the actor and singer have affirmed that they did not play music or dance inside the mosque (the twirling was shot by a series of stills taken in a circle) and have since cut the scene from the video, the suggestion of singing or dancing in a mosque resulted in outrage from Pakistanis and government officials. Police arrested the two and have now released them on bail to await their trials. If convicted, they could be executed under the law or murdered extrajudicially.
In the same vein, after the suicide of the Indian actor Sushant Singh Rajput earlier this summer, an uproar occurred on social media after some wished the actor “RIP.” Because suicide is forbidden in Islam, Rajput could not be wished “RIP” as he died a non-Muslim. Such a “piety brigade” against seemingly innocuous language points to increasing religious extremism, no less when blasphemy laws are widely used to control speech.
Third, in July, the government granted land to the Hindu population of Islamabad to build a temple. However, extremists made threats that pressured officials to shut down the construction, again highlighting the influence hardliners are gaining.
Finally, authorities don’t properly enforce domestic violence laws and allow for the following of Islamic marriageable age laws, instead of codified marriageable age laws. Although the legal age of marriage on the books varies province to province, courts in numerous abduction and forced conversion cases have upheld Islamic marriage laws, which hold it is legal for a girl to marry once she has menstruated:
- The courts ordered Maria Shabaz, a 14-year-old Christian girl, to return to her abductor after staying in a women’s shelter while waiting for her case to be heard.
- The courts upheld the abduction and forced conversion of a 15-year-old Christian, Huma Younis, who has been repeatedly raped and is now pregnant and confined to one room.
- In June, a Muslim man abducted a Sikh minor, Resham Kaur, forced her to convert to Islam, and married her.
- Another Sikh, 18-year-old Jagjit Kaur, returned to her abductor, who had forced her to convert to Islam, for fear of her life last September.
Favoring Islamic law over codified law for the legal age of marriage is disconcerting, let alone the fact that authorities disregard of the abductions.
Taken all together, the West should be wary of Turkey’s boldness that is encouraging Pakistan’s quickening trend toward hardline Islam. Pakistan wields significant political clout in South Asia, shares a porous border with Afghanistan, and continues to build its nuclear arsenal. It is the fifth most populous nation at 233 million people, according to the US Census Bureau, and 64 percent of the nation is under the age of 30, according to the United Nations Development Programme in 2018. Dr. Alfonse Javed of RAM Foundation Pakistan and executive director of the Heart for Muslims Conference notes that steps such as “converting an ancient church into a mosque” and Imran Khan’s support of that conversion “only [distance] the Islamic world from the West.” However, any progress in “Pakistan and the Islamic world depends on less extreme steps toward Islamization and more collaboration between the Islamic world and the West.”