At a press conference on Thursday, Pakistan Army spokesman Major General Asif Ghafoor handed religious extremists a huge PR victory. Speaking to reporters on Thursday, the Army spokesman said, “Neither the armed forces have compromised on Namoos-e-Risalat (SAW), nor would they compromise on it in future.” Gen. Ghafoor was answering a question about Pakistan’s election law, which requires candidates to sign a document declaring their belief in the finality of the prophethood of Muhammad. The Army’s action is likely to encourage violent extremists.
The declaration of Khatm-e-Nabuwwate is a sectarian litmus test that excludes from office Ahmadi Muslims who follow the teachings of 19th century religious leader Mirza Ghulam Ahmad. Ahmadi Muslims suffer extensive persecution by both the state and violent extremist groups in Pakistan.
Gen. Ghafoor’s statement goes even further, though. He not only spoke out in support of the controversial election law, but declared that the Army would not compromise on Namoos-e-Risalat, or “respect for the Prophet.” Namoos-e-Risalat has been used by violent religious extremists to justify the nations notorious blasphemy laws, assassination of political figures, and the subjugation of women. The Army has now delivered a clear message to these extremists that they have the military’s support.
At issue is not whether or not Gen. Ghafoor or any other officers believe in the finality of Muhammad’s prophethood, but the practical implications of what is a PR blunder of epic proportions. Recognizing the serious danger in speaking openly about religious topics, the Army spokesman only had to respond to the question about the election law by noting that such matters are the responsibility of the National Assembly, not the Army. In fact, it is arguable that by making such statements, the Army overstepped its constitutional role. Instead, the Army chose to take a side in public discussion not only about about legislative matters, but about the role of religion in society.
For an institution so obsessed with the role of “narratives” in shaping Pakistan’s society, it is hard to imagine that the Army was unaware of what it was doing by making this declaration. Sadly, for all their talk about the need to fight extremist ideology as well as militants, Pakistan’s Army just handed those extremists a major PR victory.