By Kamran Bokhari

Last week, two unrelated but noteworthy events took place. One was the execution of a convicted assassin in Pakistan on Feb. 29 and the other was the 92nd anniversary of the formal abolishing of the caliphate by the Turkish parliament. Both events symbolize the continuing struggle in the Muslim world between those who call for the rule of law and those seeking to implement Islamic Shariah law. This conflict will only intensify in the years and decades to come.

Defining the Law in the Islamic World

When the nation-state of Turkey succeeded the Ottoman Empire in the aftermath of World War I, the new republic, under the leadership of its founder Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, rejected both religious law and dynastic rule. Over half a millennium before the Ottoman Empire emerged as the world’s most powerful Muslim polity during the 16th century, the caliphate had ceased to be an institution of any worth, as power rested in the hands of hereditary sultanates. This is why Ottoman emperors were referred to as sultans and not caliphs and also why the Turkish parliament first abolished the sultanate on Nov. 1, 1922 followed by the caliphate 18 months later. Turkey sought to establish rule of law and do away with Shariah, in keeping with Western political ideals.

By this time, the debate over the role of religion in politics had already been going on for at least a century in the Islamic world. This debate turned into a political rivalry when largely secular yet Muslim-majority nation-states emerged in the interwar period and after World War II. Numerous Islamist groups developed with the goal of establishing Islamic states, i.e., those that implement Shariah. These organizations all agreed that such a polity should replace the secular regimes, which they believed were imposed by the West.

But beyond that, there has never been any consensus on what defines Shariah. In fact, this issue is at the heart of the intensifying conflict between Islamist groups. Islamists have been pushing for Shariah to be implemented by either authoritarian states or what Egyptian-American scholar Shadi Hamid describes as illiberal democracies. Meanwhile, the secular regimes sought to impose either avowedly secular autocratic orders or ones that would appropriate certain elements of religion as part of the national project. In this struggle, the need to establish the rule of law – a key ingredient in viable political systems – has been compromised.

Islamists specifically, but Muslims in general, have focused more on the specific type of law (Shariah) rather than the need to institutionalize the notion of rule of law. Religious ethos has been prioritized and leaders have been able to make ad hoc decisions rather than sticking to a system of laws. Thus, Muslim countries have experienced a lack of respect for the rule of law and difficulty in defining the laws themselves. Undoubtedly, there are forces in different Muslim countries calling for the establishment of democracies that would uphold the rule of law, among other modern socio-political values.

However, such forces have historically remained weak as the regimes and a host of Islamist forces have dominated the political battlespace. For the largely autocratic regimes, survival has been the goal. The Islamists, to varying degrees, seek to alter the incumbent governments. Meanwhile, the masses – given their deep attachment to religion – want Islam to have a key role in the affairs of the state.

This varies from country to country but there is no agreement on how Islam should be operationalized to form a viable political system. In fact, it would be an understatement to say that this is an extremely contentious topic. The Arab core of the Muslim world over the last five years has been hollowed out because of this struggle, which has been exponentially exacerbated following the Arab Spring. Those Arab countries that have not thus far seen regime collapse or state fragmentation, such as Saudi Arabia and the other monarchies along with Algeria and Tunisia, also remain highly vulnerable to this intense struggle over Shariah and the rule of the law.

A Closer Look at Pakistan

Even non-Arab Muslim-majority states that are far more stable, such as Turkey, Iran, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Indonesia, Malaysia and Nigeria, are struggling with how to reconcile Islam and democracy. Pakistan is a unique case in point. A country carved out on the basis of religious separatism from Hindu-majority British India, it continues to grapple with whether it was intended to be a secular state seeking to secure the material interests of British Indian Muslims or an Islamic state whose laws ought to be consistent with the Islamic ethos of the majority of its citizens. Since its inception almost seven decades ago, the South Asian nation has formally evolved into a military-dominated Islamic republic – one that is still regarded as not Islamic enough for Islamist and jihadist forces, as well as the average citizen.

It is thus no surprise that until the jihadist center of gravity shifted to Syria with the rise of the Islamic State, Pakistan was the global center of jihadism. It should be noted that Pakistan – both at the state and societal levels – has made considerable progress in countering violent extremism. Since 2009, when the first major counter-jihadist offensive was carried out, Islamabad has significantly weakened the war-making capabilities of the jihadists and attacks are now few and far between. When it comes to discourse, there is increasing pushback from the state and even more so from civil society. 

That said, the much larger phenomenon of religious extremism remains a major dilemma in the country. Part of this has to do with the state’s inability or unwillingness to crack down on militant outfits that are active in either Afghanistan or India. But this is just the tip of the iceberg. Since the 1980s, the country has shifted to the right and has experienced a massive rise in religious conservatism, which in many ways is a step toward outright extremism.

No other event better underscores this pathological state of affairs than the January 2011 assassination of Salman Taseer, the former governor of the largest province of Punjab, at the hands of one of his bodyguards. Taseer’s assassin, Mumtaz Qadri, was executed on Feb. 29 after a long delay of five years because the state was afraid that his death could trigger a significant public backlash. The tens of thousands of people who showed up for Qadri’s funeral hailing him as a martyr along with multiple violent protests across the country underscore the magnitude of the problem.

Not only did Qadri admit to murdering Taseer, but he defiantly asserted that his act was a befitting punishment for a person who had committed blasphemy against the Prophet Muhammad. Taseer had been the champion of a Pakistani Christian woman, Aasiya Noreen, who was accused of insulting the Prophet, arguing that she was innocent and did not deserve to be sentenced to death. Not long after he filed a mercy petition on Noreen’s behalf and defended her in a television interview, Taseer was gunned down in broad daylight in an upscale market in the capital in the presence of his entire security detail.

It should be noted that Qadri was not affiliated with a jihadist group. On the contrary, he was from the Barelvi sect (part of the South Asian Sufi movement), which itself has been attacked by the Deobandi sect of the Taliban and the Salafist-jihadists for being a deviant offshoot of Sunni Islam. It would have been different if Qadri was treated as a rogue social element. But the public discourse over this issue has disregarded the fact that a high-profile murder was committed and instead focused on the blasphemy aspect.

Many – representing a sizeable cross-section of society – have acted as apologists for the murderer. And many more Pakistanis are not willing to speak out against the act for fear of retribution or simply because they too view blasphemy as a much more serious crime than murder. Indeed, there was no shortage of lawyers willing to defend Qadri. Many judges were reluctant to issue a guilty verdict and when he was declared guilty and put on death row, the state for years hesitated to carry out the sentence.

The Taseer murder case is not just an issue of religious fanaticism. It exemplifies the much deeper problem that medieval interpretations of Shariah supersede the rule of law. What is worse is that this is not even an issue of draconian laws. Rather, it has to do with the fact that many people in the country and in the broader Muslim world do not see a problem with someone taking the law in their own hands. In this case, it was ironically the man who was responsible for protecting the very person he killed.


Taseer’s murder is just one among many recent examples of how many Muslims (and not just Islamists), in their quest for the supremacy of Shariah, have sacrificed the principle of rule of law. If this tendency is left unchecked, it could threaten the viability of states and even tear up the fabric of society. We are already seeing this happen in Syria, Libya, Yemen and Iraq. IS and its self-proclaimed caliphate are merely the outcome of a much bigger issue. The Muslim world is in the throes of a conflict over how to define Shariah and how it can be combined with the greater need for the rule of law.