For several weeks, the streets of Islamabad, Karachi and other Pakistani cities have been filled with protesters organised by the ultra-religious Tehreek-e-Labbaik Ya Rasool Allah party and other religious hard-line groups. The origins of the protests are opposition to a new legal clause removing the requirement for all lawmakers to accept the Prophet Muhammad as the final Prophet of God.
Pakistan’s democracy has often been held to ransom by the ability of religious hard-line groups to mobilise popular support for their causes. They also have the ability to take issues that are at times minor in terms of the overarching responsibilities of government, and transform them into wider protests aimed at ruling parties and governing elites.
The fact that this happens on a fairly regular basis in Pakistan, is a clear indication that there is a flaw in the governmental structure of the country that can be easily remedied. If left unresolved, Pakistan’s political landscape could be constantly marred with street battles between the authorities, religious hardliners and progressives, while little gets accomplished in terms of passing laws that make any one group happy.
The solution is not a novel one, but one which is borrowed in-part from neighbouring Iran. With relations between Islamabad and Iran at their best since 1979, there is nothing to lose from considering the experience of the Islamic Republic which has produced an effective model for balancing the forces of progressive politics with religious concerns.
In reality, Pakistan’s progressive and centrist parties are more secular than those in Iran, but likewise Pakistan’s religious factions tend to be more prone to extremes than those in Iran. This is all the more reason why Pakistani leaders should consider the importance of Iran’s Guardian Council and its role in Iran’s legislative process.
Iran’s Guardian Council is made up of 12 Islamic scholars who are appointed by the Supreme Leader for a 6 year term. The role of the Guardian Council is to insure that legislation passed by the Majlis (Iranian Parliament) and that candidates standing for elected office are in fitting with the Islamic nature of Iran’s constitution.
Because of the differences between Pakistan and Iran’s constitutions, such an assembly in Pakistan would function differently by critically, would provide similar public assurances to religious factions in the country.
If Pakistan’s President or National Assembly were to appoint a council of religious scholars to oversee the final phase of legislation and/or the approval of new parties and candidates, it could do a great deal to make religious parties feel included in the governance of the country, while removing their incentive for obstructing the rule of law and obstructing the free flow of streets and thoroughfares.
If Pakistan’s version of the Guardian Council were to hold veto power of any kind over legislation, it would be crucial to appoint scholars who while respected among religious communities, are also deeply ingrained with the security and political apparatus of state. In reality, the role of such a council would be less to use a veto than to approve new legislation, as its role would be one of giving a religious stamp of approval for measures taken by centrist parties.
I would not except the creation of such a body to deprive religious political parties of influence all at once, however over time, such a body could persuade religious conservatives to gradually support more centrist politicians, or at least not obstruct the work of centrist parties, because they would be safe in the knowledge that all legislation would ultimately be reviewed by religious scholars to make sure that nothing haram (forbidden by Islam) could become part of Pakistan’s corpus of law.
Because of Iran and Pakistan’s different histories, while the Guardian Council in Iran is often described as a chamber used to deter or strike down overly liberal or socially radical pieces of legislation, in Pakistan it would serve to do the opposite. In Pakistan such a body would serve to restrain ultra-conservative religious forces who do not believe centrist parties are passing legislation that is sufficiently Islamic in nature and scope.
I realise that if I did not mention that such an idea is inspired from Iran, it might gain more support among patriotic Pakistanis, but as Pakistan is the South Asian leader in pursuing multi-polarity, patriotic Pakistanis should embrace inspiration for reform from all angles, irrespective of their origin.
Iran is of vital importance for Pakistan’s greater regional connectivity which explains why past disputes, particularly over Afghanistan, are no longer obstacles to cooperation. As China and Russia have offered the only realistic international peace proposals for Afghanistan, and one which itself owes a great deal to Pakistani proposals, there is no reason for two neighbours not to learn from one another as they embrace a century of enhanced global connectivity on all fronts.