Sunday’s suicide bombing of a Christian church in Pakistan continues to shake the largely Muslim nation. The government declared three days of mourning for the dozens killed. Thousands of people, from lawyers to students, have joined Christians in countrywide protests.
Just as important, the terrorist attack – which two groups with Taliban links have claimed responsibility for – has pushed many moderate Muslims to look again at how government itself treats religious minorities, including Shiites. At least one major party, the Pakistan Movement for Justice, wants a review of strict blasphemy laws that severely penalize any perceived critic of Islam. In the past, politicians have been shot for even suggesting such a move.
If Pakistan now acts to ensure that civic values such as freedom of conscience play a dominant role over radical Islam, it will not be alone in the Muslim world. In recent weeks, both Egypt and Tunisia have seen popular uprisings against Islamists who try to impose their interpretation of the Quran on government or who exclude from power those who disagree with them.
Unlike the Arab Spring, which was largely a movement against secular dictators, the struggle in these three countries is now over Islam itself. The dividing line is pretty clear: Is society better off living by the rules of a particular faith or by an official tolerance toward many faiths?
This contest of ideas is only made easier when those who try to compel others to one faith resort to violence, such as the twin bombings of Christianworshipers in All Saints Church in the Pakistani city of Peshawar.
In Egypt, the July 3 military ouster of a government led by the Muslim Brotherhood was based on a popular revolt against the Brotherhood’s abusive grab for ultimate power. To prevent a repeat of an Islamist party ruling Egypt, a 50-member committee is now writing a new constitution, one that is expected to ensure rights for women and non-Muslim minorities while preventing Egypt from becoming a religious state.
In Tunisia, recent assassinations of two leading opposition politicians, presumably by extremist Muslim groups, have spawned a huge public backlash against the ruling Ennahda party and its attempts to introduce Islamic law. Governance in this young democracy, where the Arab Spring began, has almost ground to a halt.
A similar stirring of dissent in Iran has also pushed reform in that cleric-ruled nation. Top Islamic leaders were shocked by street protests in 2009 and again in June when a presidential election saw a relative moderate win. The new president, Hasan Rouhani, offers a new social leniency and has released many prisoners of conscience.
Worldwide, most Muslims reject extremists and are able to live alongside other faiths. When their rulers or violent groups go against such moderation, it is time for Muslims to rise up. The reaction in Pakistan over the church bombing is a testament to that.