Pakistan’s shrinking minority space

By Farahnaz Ispahani

The desire of Islamist extremists to ‘purify’ Pakistan has resulted in a major catastrophe for the minorities. The country cannot emerge as a modern pluralist state until the reversal of this culture of intolerance.

“Pakistani laws, especially the one that deals with blasphemy, deny or interfere with the practice of minority faiths. Religious minorities are targets of legal as well as social discrimination”, says the author. .

The murder in Gujranwala of an elderly woman, a seven-year-old girl and an infant in a mob attack on members of the Ahmadi community highlights the continuing deterioration of Pakistan’s treatment of its religious minorities. The mob was incited by an Ahmadi youth allegedly sharing blasphemous material on his Facebook page. But the cause of incitement is hardly relevant. Pakistan has been described by several human rights organizations as one of the nations with the least tolerance in religious matters.

The latest incident should be viewed as part of a tragic pattern that has evolved over decades. Ironically, the intolerance that is now widely associated with Pakistan had little to do with its founder’s vision of a country where “in course of time Hindus would cease to be Hindus and Muslims would cease to be Muslims, not in the religious sense, because that is the personal faith of each individual, but in the political sense as citizens of the State.” The Ahmadis consider themselves Muslim but their beliefs are deemed by the orthodox as falling outside the tenets of Islam.

The community recognizes Mirza Ghulam Ahmed of Qadian as messiah and an emissary from god, a concept that runs contrary to the Orthodox Muslim notion of Khatm-e- Nabuwwat or Finality of the Prophethood. Anti-Ahmadi agitations have often been used by religious-political groups, particularly in the Punjab, as an instrument of polarization. Violent attacks on Ahmadis in 1953 resulted in Pakistan’s first instance of limited martial law being imposed in the city of Lahore.

Growing discrimination
In 1974, another wave of violence led to Pakistan’s Parliament amending the Constitution to declare Ahmadis as non- Muslims for legal purposes. It was argued at the time that once the Ahmadis’ apostasy is legally recognized and they are classified legally as non-Muslims, their orthodox Muslim critics would be satisfied and anti- Ahmadi violence would decline. But that has not happened. Instead, attacks on Ahmadis have continued unabated and along with other minority religious communities, there is an effort to marginalize the community, convert them or push them out of Pakistan.

Currently, the Ahmadis are barred by law from calling themselves Muslim or using Islamic terminology like “masjid” to describe their places of worship. Violation of that law entails criminal proceedings and imprisonment. But the community is not afforded any legal protection even as a non- Muslim minority. Over a one-and-a-half year period in 2012-2013, there were 54 recorded mob attacks against Ahmadis.

The latest incident stands out because of the frivolousness of its ostensible cause and the innocence and helplessness of its victims. A grandmother and her seven-year-old granddaughter or an infant could hardly pose a threat to Islam in Gujranwala, a large city with millions of inhabitants and hundreds of mosques and madrasas. The desire of Islamist extremists to “purify” Pakistan has resulted in a major catastrophe for the country’s minorities.

The violence of Partition denuded Pakistan of the majority of its Hindus and Sikhs, who would have otherwise constituted almost 20 per cent of the new country’s population based on the 1941 census. Now that a sizeable swathe of Pakistan’s Muslim population has been turned into zealots, communities such as the Ahmadis, who were considered Muslim at independence, have joined the ranks of endangered minorities. Even the Shia, almost 20 per cent of the populace, are being attacked by extremists who do not acknowledge them as being a part of Muslim society.

The attempts to describe Shias as non-Muslims are particularly ironic in view of the fact that Pakistan’s founder, Quaid-e- Azam (the great leader) Muhammad Ali Jinnah was himself a Shia Muslim. Jihadist groups created and trained to fight “infidel” communists in Afghanistan and “Hindu” India have become a threat at home and no one in a position of power seems to have the will or the courage to shut them down.

Such is the sway of extremist ideology that the murder in cold blood of Ahmadis, Shias, Christians, Hindus and now increasingly Barelvi or “soft Sunni” Muslims and other religious groups who do not belong to the majority Sunni Muslim interpretation of Islam no longer seems to have any shock value left. According to reports, crowds celebrated all night on July 27 after the bloodshed in Gujranwala.

Erosion of diversity
That this occurred in the month of Ramzan, a month meant to be spend praying and asking for forgiveness of one’s earthly sins, indicates the absence of any connection between violence against minorities and any notion of religious piety among the orthodox Sunnis who victimize them. More than three days have passed since the Gujranwala attack and most Pakistanis have seen the television images of the crowd who perpetrated this calumny, dancing in the streets all night in celebration.

However, there was no condemnation heard from the Prime Minister of Pakistan, Nawaz Sharif or his brother, the Chief Minister of Pakistani Punjab. The utter irrationality of the rejection of the Ahmadiyya community in Pakistan is encapsulated in the manner in which one of its most famous sons, Dr. Mohammad Abdus Salam was spurned by his country. The physicist was the first and the only Pakistani as well as the first Muslim to win a Nobel Prize in science.

After his death in 1996, Salam’s remains were returned to Pakistan and buried in an Ahmadi cemetery, with his tombstone describing him as the “First Muslim Nobel Laureate.” A magistrate subsequently ruled that the word “Muslim” on an Ahmadi grave was blasphemous and ordered it to be sanded off. It seems that nobody in Pakistan remembers Jinnah’s comments when confronted with the demand to exclude Ahmadis from the fold of Islam. Jinnah had said, “If someone describes himself as a Muslim, how can I judge him otherwise.

Let God decide that matter.” When Pakistan was born on August 14, 1947, the new country’s capital, Karachi, was home to a religiously diverse community. The city’s architecture, too, reflected the traditions of several religions. In addition to mosques of various Muslim denominations, there were Catholic and Protestant churches, a Jewish synagogue, Parsi (Zoroastrian) fire temples, as well as Jain and Hindu temples devoted to various deities. The Muslim call to prayer (Azan) was called on loudspeakers by Shias, Sunnis and Ahmadis five times a day.

Various religious holidays were observed openly and often across communities. Sixty seven years later, Karachi is no longer Pakistan’s capital. The country’s federal government now conducts its business from a purpose built capital, Islamabad, whose very name suggests a close relationship between Pakistan and Islam. Karachi’s synagogue has shut down as have several of its churches.

The few remaining churches have a dwindling number of worshippers. Many Pakistani Christians have emigrated to North America or Australia. Most Jain and Hindu temples have either been destroyed or taken over by squatters or land-grabbers and property developers. The Parsi populations have also declined though their temples exist. The Muslim call to prayer no longer sounds from Ahmadi places of worship.

Incremental intolerance
Pakistan’s incremental intolerance in matters of religion is exemplified by the brutal assassination of former Punjab Governor Salmaan Taseer and its aftermath. Taseer had attempted to help a poor unlettered Christian woman, Asia Bibi who was facing false blasphemy accusations. He was accused of being a blasphemer himself and killed by his own bodyguard.

His murderer, Mumtaz Qadri, was garlanded and showered with rose petals by educated middle class lawyers outside a courthouse at his arraignment. According to the independent Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP), the country’s problem is the tolerance of “pervasive intolerance” in the country. The commission’s director, I.A. Rehman, asserts that “Pakistan continues to offer evidence of its lack of respect for the rights of religious minorities.”

He attributes it to “the virus of intolerance” that he maintains “has infested the Pakistani people’s minds.” Human rights advocates like Mr. Rehman demand “visible action to end abuse of minorities’ rights” instead of “half-truths and subterfuge in defending the state,” which they feel have been consistently employed by Pakistan officials over the years. Pakistani laws, especially the one that deals with blasphemy, deny or interfere with the practice of minority faiths.

Religious minorities are targets of legal as well as social discrimination. Most significantly, in recent years, Pakistan has witnessed some of the worst organized violence targeting religious minorities. Over an 18-month period covering 2012 and part of 2013, at least 200 incidents of sectarian violence were reported, that led to 1,800 casualties, including more than 700 deaths.

Those of us who have been born in Pakistan have seen and experienced the effects of the hatred fed to us through our textbooks, television sets, newspapers, religious clergy and military dictators about the purity of only one religion and one version of Islam.

Their need to destroy any threat to its purity, and therefore the purity of the state, has ensured that the well of tolerance has by now been well and truly poisoned. Pakistan cannot emerge as a modern pluralist state until the reversal of this culture of intolerance.

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