ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — During a speech to international business leaders here in late November, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif shocked the country’s powerful religious community by calling for a new, more “liberal” Pakistan.
Amid an outcry, within hours, Sharif’s staff was playing down the speech, saying he didn’t really mean to imply Pakistan should become more like the West.
But so far this year, Sharif and his party have defied Islamic scholars by unblocking access to YouTube, pushing to end child marriage, enacting a landmark domestic violence bill, and overseeing the execution of a man who had become a symbol of the hatred that religion can spawn here.
The shift in tone can be traced to Sharif’s ambitious economic agenda, the influence his 42-year-old daughter has over him, and his awareness that Pakistan remains the butt of jokes, according to his friends, senior government officials and analysts.
“He knows the international community needs a progressive Pakistan,” said one senior Pakistani government official close to the prime minister, who spoke on the condition of anonymity so he could speak candidly about his boss. “So if he thinks a moderate, progressive or liberal agenda can help with his economic agenda, he goes for it.”
With strong support from rural voters and the religious community, Sharif returned as prime minister in 2013 after his party, Pakistan Muslim League-N, won a decisive majority in parliamentary elections.
Sharif, who had also served two terms as prime minister in the 1990s, has long been associated with Pakistan’s stodgy conservative establishment. And the election of a man rumored to go to bed shortly after dark was widely viewed as a sign that Pakistan was settling into a period of stale governance.
But Sharif, 66, and his PML-N lawmakers are now challenging Pakistan’s religious community, charting a new path for their party while unsettling a constituency that includes hundreds of thousands of Islamic clerics.
“This is turning into the worst-ever experience for our party,” said Aman Ullah Haqqani, a religious scholar and former provincial chief of Jamiat-e-Ulema Islam, an Islamist political party that had entered into a power-sharing agreement with PML-N. “He and his party are trying to impress the United States of America and the Western countries by becoming a liberal leader.”
In Pakistan, where Islam is embedded in the constitution, the term liberal is relative.
Few analysts expect Sharif — or any national Pakistani leader — to seriously consider legalizing alcohol consumption, much less same-sex marriage. And when past leaders such as the late Benazir Bhutto tried to soften the country’s image, they struggled to overcome opposition from hard-line Islamic clerics. Bhutto was assassinated in 2007.
For Sharif, the fraying of relations with religious conservatives began this winter when the government and military began quietly sending notice to mosques to tone down their sermons. In January, Sharif’s government ended a three-year ban on YouTube that had been supported by religious clerics to shield Pakistanis from videos defaming Islam.
Later that month, a senior PML-N lawmaker, Marvi Memon, introduced a bill to ban child marriage by raising the age limit from 16 to 18. The Council of Islamic Ideology, an influential committee that reviews legislation, objected by saying the change runs counter to Islamic law. Memon withdrew the bill but said the party is intent on showing a more “progressive side.”
“We are going to be talking about family planning, about immunizations, getting women out to work, domestic violence and literacy,” said Memon, who was named by Sharif to run a government program that gives cash subsidies to impoverished women. “He has never once told me I am stepping overboard.”
In Punjab province, where Sharif’s brother, Shahbaz, serves as chief minister, legislators recently approved new legal protections for abused women.
In one of the Sharif government’s boldest decisions, it did not intervene to stop last week’s execution of an assassin who was both celebrated and feared.
Mumtaz Qadri had become a hero among religious leaders after he shot and killed the former governor of Punjab province, Salman Taseer, in 2011. Qadri, then a police officer, targeted Taseer over his call to modify a law that makes insulting the prophet Muhammad — even by innuendo — punishable by death.
Muhammad Ibrahim, a senior leader of Jamaat-e-Islami Pakistan, predicted Sharif could be “ousted from power” by so aggressively challenging the religious community.
But government leaders say Sharif is attempting to shift the focus away from Pakistan’s reputation for being a hotbed of Islamic extremism to better pursue his economic agenda.
With Pakistan’s economy still sputtering, Sharif is pinning his hopes on China’s promise to invest $46 billion here as part of a deal to ship more Chinese goods through Pakistani ports. U.S. business leaders are also increasing the frequency of their visits here.
“Nawaz Sharif may still be right-of-center, but he knows extremism is not good for business,” said Afrasiab Khattak, a former senator and Islamabad-based political analyst. He realizes that “Talibanization” and Chinese investment can’t go together.
From the other side, many of the prime minister’s critics argue that his government remains too timid in cracking down on radical religious seminaries and clerics.
“There are known terrorists, even in Islamabad, and they are scared of them,” said Saleem Mandwiwala, a Pakistani senator from the rival Pakistan People’s Party.
Miftah Ismail, Sharif’s special assistant for investment, said the prime minister “is a very religious guy, but he is perfectly okay with other people not being religious.” Ismail, who helped write Sharif’s November speech promoting a “liberal” Pakistan, added, “He sees we need to change the narrative about Pakistan.”
In the coming days, Sharif plans to announce a new plan for “empowering women” by expanding maternity leave and access to child care. He recently held a screening at his mansion of “A Girl in the River: The Price of Forgiveness,” an Oscar-winning movie that is drawing attention to honor killings in Pakistan.
“What’s going on here?” Fahd Hussain, a television news executive, asked in a newspaper column last week. “Is Nawaz Sharif in mortal danger of becoming a good man? Is he transforming into a Liberal?”
Hussain concluded that Sharif is making a political calculation to appeal to Pakistan’s growing population of urban voters. Other analysts say Sharif is increasingly influenced by his Twitter-savvy daughter, Maryam. She is viewed as Sharif’s potential successor as the leader of his party.
The senior government leader who spoke on the condition of anonymity said the “more progressive, more educated and better-read” Maryam Sharif has her father’s ear.
But the official stressed that Nawaz Sharif is driving the party’s overall national philosophy.
“He watches Western movies, he listens to music, he shakes hands with women,” the official said, “and he has respect for Christians, Ahmadis and Hindus.”
If Pakistan’s religious right thinks that makes someone a liberal, the official added, so be it.