January Issue 2005

By | News & Politics | Published 15 years ago

When the government started issuing the new machine read-passports earlier this year, who would have thought it would become yet another test of President Pervez Musharraf’s claim of transforming Pakistan into an enlightened and moderate country?

The credit goes to the Mullah brigade — Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal (MMA) — that made an issue out of a non-issue, created a controversy where there seemed none, and managed to find allies even within Musharraf’s dream team of “open-minded and sensible individuals.” However, these chosen ones seem to have a different worldview that stands in direct contrast with Musharraf’s agenda of fighting extremism and religious bigotry.

None other than Chaudhry Shujaat Hussain, the leader of the ruling Pakistan Muslim League, has cast the first stone by throwing his weight behind the forces demanding that passports include a column specifying holders’ religion. The ruling party in a resolution has demanded that the government include the omitted column introduced in 1980 by the former military dictator General Zia-ul Haq. No wonder his son Ejaz-ul Haq, the religious affairs minister, is pleading the cause of the MMA that sees the deletion of this column as an attempt to secularize the country and an assault on its Islamic identity. The religious alliance, the self-proclaimed custodians of public morals and Islam, argues that the new passports would allow the minority Qadianis, who were declared non-Muslims in 1974, to travel to the holy places of pilgrimage in Saudi Arabia.

Those who oppose the controversial column maintain that the passport is a simple travel document meant to show the nationality, not the religion of its holder. The religion column is a blatant act of discrimination against religious minorities and stands in violation to the constitution, which sees all Pakistanis as equal citizens. Even the Saudi Arabian government, which in principle should be the most concerned about the possibility of non-Muslims visiting holy sites, has no objection to the machine-readable passports. The Saudi missions in Pakistan have complete access to the database on which the new passports are based.

The government introduced the new passports to bring the documents on par with standards set by the International Civil Aviation Organisation. In current global practices travelling documents are being kept as simple as possible and many countries, including leading Muslim nations, are following the new format. The new passport format has been widely welcomed across the country, as it has deleted the contentious religious column, and brought Pakistan on par with modern global practices.

However, this small progressive and otherwise routine official step has been blown out of proportion because of the knee-jerk reaction of ruling party stalwarts who are ever ready and willing to stoop before the clergy. The issue is now viewed as a significant symbol in the tussle against parochial and extremist forces, which have received a shot in the arm thanks to the orthodox elements within the PML. Ironically enough, our chosen Citibank-trained Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz helplessly looked the other way as his party passed the resolution endorsing the MMA demand. Now his government appears set for a retreat on the issue similar to when Musharraf backed out on the Hudood Ordinances, buckling under pressure from the religious parties.

The backtrack on the passport issue appears even more ominous as Interior Minister Aftab Ahmed Sherpao had rejected the MMA demand only a few days before the PML meeting passed the resolution against the deletion of the controversial column. Concerned quarters in the interior ministry are now contemplating how to add the religion column without affecting the format of the electronically read passports.

This issue has exposed the cracks and fragility of the ruling coalition in which some of their major allies, including the Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM) and the dissident faction of the Pakistan Peoples’ Party (PPP), do not share the views of the conservative elements within the ruling PML. So far, however, the secular allies of the ruling coalition have given a muted response to the PML’s waverings. “The PML resolution is a challenge to President Musharraf. He has to put things right within the PML,” says a MQM lawmaker. “The MQM will first discuss the issue within the party before going to the public,” he said.

The PML’s topsy-turvy ideological stance exposes Musharraf’s dilemma. He has chosen the wrong men and faulty ammunition to achieve his goals of enlightenment and moderation in the country. It also brings into question the government’s credibility, its commitment and long-term goals. The real character of any government, institution and individual is revealed in how they handle small issues. Their success on bigger tests requires them to clear the small hurdles first.

The reactionary forces are far more aggressive, organised and committed compared to the forces on whose support Musharraf is trying to build his house of cards to turn the tide of extremism. It is clear that they will fight for every inch of territory granted to them by General Zia-ul Haq with the blessings of the powerful military establishment. Men like Shujaat Hussain, whom Musharraf banks on for most of his political wheeling and dealing, can hardly provide the material for change. They are the legacy of Zia-ul-Haq who stood for the exhibitionist form of Islamisation, blending it with the politics of opportunism and corruption. Now this element appears shaken by the possibility of the military establishment’s understanding with former premier Benazir Bhutto’s PPP. It will do whatever it can to keep its nuisance value alive and frustrate any move that threatens Zia’s legacy.

The opposition’s Alliance for Restoration of Democracy (ARD) is also feeling the strain on this issue, as the small faction of the Pakistan Muslim League led by former premier Nawaz Sharif, is also all for the inclusion of the discriminatory column in the passports though the PPP has no objection to it.

If President Musharraf and his in-house army clique are really serious about changing the course of this nation towards the long-term goals of progress, moderation and enlightenment, they have to make the right choices. The fight on extremism needs to be fought first on the small fronts, before hoping for victory in the macro picture.