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Islam in Pakistan: An Internal Perspective

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The SIPA South Asia Association (SAA) hosted Mr. Justice Khalil-ur-Rehman Ramday, a senior judge of the Supreme Court of Pakistan on Friday April 15th for a discussion with students and faculty members. Professor Hassan Abbas and Professor Quaid-i-Azam of the South Asia Institute moderated the interactive session. Justice Ramday is currently on a speaking tour of the United States and was invited to SIPA to speak to students as part of the tour. He chose to take the opportunity to speak about his experiences during the Lawyers Movement in Pakistan, as well as on the broader topic of the role of religion, specifically Islam, in jurisprudence and society.

Speaking about the perception of Islam in the west, and hoping perhaps to explain and allay recent international concerns regarding the influence of Islam in Pakistan’s legal system, Justice Ramday stated that Islam had become “somewhat of a bogeyman.” He went on to stress that “there is nothing in our religion of which one could be so fearful of, Islam is nothing but a continuation of earlier religions. That is our faith.”

As part of this discussion, some students asked the judge to comment on recent events in Pakistan involving the targeted killing of individuals who had been perceived to support the amendment of a blasphemy law in Pakistan. There was a general feeling among the questioners that these events contradicted the judge’s views. Justice Ramday’s response was that these acts of vigilante justice “have nothing to do with Islam” and that “even God himself says before I punish you I will confront you with evidence.” Islam he said “is as abhorrent of this kind of behavior as is any other society.”

Mr. Justice Ramday was a permanent judge of the Supreme Court of Pakistan from 2002 to 2010. Upon reaching the age of retirement he was asked to stay on as an ad-hoc judge of the court by the Chief Justice of Pakistan in view of his expertise and record on the bench. He is considered an extremely informed source on how the religion has impacted judicial performance.

There was however some disagreement amongst the audience members as to the topic that the judge ultimately chose to focus most of his time on. This was because during the time he was a permanent judge of the Supreme Court, he, along with several other judges, was illegally removed from his position by the military dictator General Pervez Musharraf. All of these judges were subsequently reinstated as a result of a popular mass movement in Pakistan from 2007-2009, a movement which has also been credited with the restoration of democracy in the country. Some students had hoped he would spend more time speaking about this movement.

Professor Abbas had earlier also chosen to open the discussion by drawing parallels between this movement in Pakistan – and the fact that it had received little international mainstream attention or credit – and the current string of demonstrations in Arab countries demanding democratic rule colloquially referred to as the “Arab Spring.” The judge did speak about the lawyer’s movement in Pakistan briefly. However, his discussion centered primarily on the court’s view of the movement as opposed to either a personal account of what happened or even on the transformative effect that the movement has had on Pakistani society in the intervening years.

Some felt that the judge failed to take this opportunity to bring attention to Pakistan as a leader and very much a part of the discussion on democratic transition. On the other hand, others felt that given the current international climate and concerns regarding Pakistan, the judge made a good decision to focus his discussion on talking points that may have been of more immediate interest to a North American audience.

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Islam in Pakistan: An Internal Perspective