Islamabad cannot hope to advance a counter-narrative without appealing to the same forces that have set the account for decades.
Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif visited the Jamia Naeemia madrassa in Lahore on March 11 and asked the scholars there to invent a new biyania [narrative] that would oppose the worldview of terrorists killing Pakistanis in the name of Islam. Naeemia’s founder-priest Allama Dr. Sarfraz Ahmed Naeemi was killed in 2009 by a suicide-bomber after he condemned the killing of innocent people by the Taliban in the name of Islam. Sharif made a fervent appeal to the madrassa’s current head to advance the genuine narrative of Islam that forbids Muslims from killing other Muslims.
Jamia Naeemia has always been known as a moderate madrassa that swings away from the current clerical consensus in favor of radicalism. However, its anti-blasphemy stance in the Barelvi tradition has always been extreme. In 2005, the Christians of Sangla Hill in Punjab’s Nankana district experienced a particularly hair-raising day of violence and vandalism after a member of the community was accused of desecrating the Quran. Three churches, a missionary-run school, two hostels and several houses belonging to Christians were destroyed by a 3,000-strong mob. This happened after Maulana Naeemi’s statement that “the government had paid scant attention to the desecration of the Quran but had rounded up 88 Muslim citizens of Sangla Hill on fake charges of destroying Christian churches.”
Pakistan, as an Islamic republic, officially follows the same narrative of sharia as the hardline interpretation of Islam advocated by madrassas set up with foreign funds. Any new narrative the state propounds will have to be approved by the same madrassas or it will be condemned and the judiciary will be forced to stand by them, as happened in the “riba” (bank interest) case. An Islamabad High Court judge has already signaled this trend by ruling against the presence of so-called blasphemous material on social media.
Historically, Pakistan has empowered madrassas and used them as an instrument of its foreign policy. This power now threatens the state and the presence of Islamic State and Al Qaeda in the country only consolidates the power of the madrassa.