NEW DELHI: Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif has landed himself in the middle of a heated controversy after referring to Pakistan as a “liberal” and “democratic” country.

Speaking at the second Pakistan Investment Conference, PM Sharif referred to a “liberal” Pakistan. His statement drew the ire of several people in the conservative country, most notably religious leaders who called upon the Supreme Court to take suo motu action on the Prime Minister’s statement.

Maulana Samiul Haq, chief of a faction of the Jamiat Ulema-i-Islam, (quoted in Dawn News) said that millions of people had sacrificed their lives for the creation of an ‘Islamic country’, adding that the slogan of a “liberal Pakistan” was a violation of the ideology of Pakistan. He said the constitution had no term, “liberal Pakistan” and instead had envisaged the country as “Islamic democratic Pakistan”.

Jamaat-i-Islami Amir Seraj ul Haq called on the PM to withdraw his statement. “The statement given by PM Nawaz Sharif on his return to home from US visit that people of Pakistan should make Pakistan liberal be withdrawn by him. This statement runs contrary to constitution of Pakistan, philosophy of Allama Iqbal and principles laid down by Quaid-e-Azam. As per constitution Pakistan is an Islamic democratic country. We demand of him to withdraw his statement,” he said this while talking to journalists outside parliament house (as quoted in The Nation). Haq further criticised the Pakistani PM for previously remarking that the cultures of India and Pakistan were congruent and borders between the two states were unnecessary. Such statements do not befit the head of government and PM Sharif should be ashamed, Haq said.

PM Sharif had a few supporters as the controversy played out. The Pakistan People's Party (PPP) praised the PM’s vision of Pakistan as a democratic and liberal country. In a backhanded compliment, Senator Farhatullah Babar of the PPP told reporters, "It is encouraging because PM was not earlier known (for) these ideas. In 1990, he was having a thought of bringing Caliphate in the country. I think it is a general transformation in the thinking of PM.” Babar added that a backlash against the statement is to be expected, but PM Sharif should not give in.

What did PM Sharif actually say? Here are the relevant excerpts:

“Our goal is to create a progressive society, where our children—-boys and girls—-can go to school and get educated, where health care is available to everyone irrespective of their financial condition, where a bright young person can get college and university education, and where jobs are available to their seekers on a fair basis.….. you will be pleased to know that despite our limited resources, we have started taking steps towards making Pakistan an educated, progressive, forward looking and an enterprising nation.”

“Our democratic and economic journey has not been without setbacks. But the Pakistani nation has once and for all decided that its future lies in a liberal and democratic country, where the private sector thrives and no one is left behind. I can confidently say that our direction is set, and we are now implementing our nation’s economic and democratic agenda. And indeed, driving a democratic Pakistan forward in its journey towards an economically vibrant future is a labour of love for me.”

Meanwhile, in a move that probably did not go down too well with religious leaders in Pakistan, PM Sharif delivered a message on Diwali calling on Muslims in Pakistan to accept the country’s minority Hindus, Sikhs, Christians, Parsis and others as equals.

PM Sharif, who became the first head of government to attend a Diwali function in Pakistan, delivered an emotional speech calling on a more inclusive society. Pakistan is known for being deeply intolerant of its minorities, and not just religious minorities but Muslim minorities such as Shias, particularly Hazaras, and Ahmadis as well.