The news first emerged mid afternoon, on 29 December 2015. Soon, it was all that prime time talk shows and newscasters in Pakistan could talk about. Two senior religious clerics, both bearded, both well-regarded among their followers, had used their fists rather than their words, to settle an argument during the 201 meeting of the Council of Islamic Ideology (CII), Pakistan’s top Islamic advisory body. News outlets were salivating. Leaked videos of the brawl emerged. The incident was unusual; religious hardliners are more likely to face-off against liberals than one of their own. “I am stronger than him,” boasted the pot-bellied Maulana Tahir Ashrafi while talking to a television crew. He held back, he insisted, out of respect for his opponent, the 78-year-old Maulana Sheerani, also the chairman of the advisory body, who grabbed his collar and ripped out the buttons.
The two came to blows after the council reopened debate for the legal status of the already persecuted Ahmadis—declared non-Muslims under a parliament amendment in 1974—on whether they should instead be categorised as murtads (those who renounce Islam and are punishable by death according to Sharia). It was a dangerous suggestion that could put the minority community more at risk of being hunted and killed.
During the meeting, Ashrafi spoke first, and loudly. He challenged Sheerani’s decision to focus on topics which were controversial and could potentially lead to a bigger fall-out in society. “There is a dictatorship within the body,” a frazzled Ashrafi told us over the phone on 13 May. “The environment is such that no scope for dissent is left.” The new chairman, he argued, had made the body unnecessarily notorious.
Ashrafi had a point. Since the death of military dictator General Zia ul-Haq in a plane crash in August 1988, the CII had remained mostly invisible. Its annual reports—over 100 in number—were gathering dust and cobwebs in a forgotten corner of the parliament. Here was a constitutional body no lawmaker seemed to want to talk about, until the current chairman Sheerani took over in 2010. Under him, the council began making headlines, but for all the wrong reasons.
Consider this. In the last week of May, the council proposed a draft for a women’s protection bill. One clause stated that a Pakistani husband could “lightly” beat his wife if she defied his commands or refused to have intercourse with him. In April, the council argued that Pakistan should revoke the current economic system and paper currency and replace it with gold and silver coins. Earlier, in January, its members agreed that girls as young as nine-years-old were eligible to be married. Marvi Memon, a politician from the ruling Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz), who had called for a ban on child marriages, was bullied into withdrawing her bill, after the council dubbed it “unIslamic” and “blasphemous.” In fact, if previous declarations by the CII ever make it through the parliament, co-education would be banned in Pakistan, airhostesses would wear burqas and the government would sack civil servants who do not say their daily prayers. If the CII had its way, Pakistan would be a theological state like Saudi Arabia.