Extremism and minorities

Islamabad, Pakistan - In Faisalabad, the textile capital, members of the Ahmadi community were listed on flyers that said they should be murdered.

This pattern of hate and violence is said to have been perpetuated by certain elements in the establishment that have silently supported the militant ideologies of groups like the outlawed Sipah-i-Sahaba Pakistan. It is symptomatic of a shrinking liberal space and has seen a substantial rise in violence towards minorities.

Struggling for decades with its choice of polity, and lack of civil liberties, the debate on whether Pakistan is a democratic nation-state with secular values or an Islamist one with religion running the show has little significance for marginalised communities.

However, Islamist radicalisation has adversely dented the status, rights and social development of minority groups, raising the security question. And it is the fallout of vacillating between religion and politics because of complex historical and social factors that makes certain communities (Christians, Hindus and Ahmadis) vulnerable to persecution.

A report by the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) states 418 Muslims of various sects were killed in terror attacks in 2010. Twenty-five per cent of Sikh families in Orakzai Agency were forced to leave their homes by the Taliban while 500 Hindu families from Balochistan migrated to India.

In the absence of true representational political structures, there is sanctioned disregard for certain communities with draconian laws infringing on their rights. After Partition, religious and political parties wanted a Muslim country with minorities on the fringes despite Mr Jinnah’s politics reflected in his speech to the first constituent assembly in August 1947: “You may belong to any religion or caste or creed — that has nothing to do with the business of the state. …”

Mr Jinnah may have preached secularism given his personal interests and political ideology but the suited barrister with an impeccable European lifestyle was pressured by religious leaders aligned to a new Muslim state. Clamouring for an Islamic system of governance, they proposed that jazia (tax) be made mandatory and non-Muslims kept out of government positions. Pakistan’s identity crisis had taken root.

Post-Partition politics reads like a story of retrogressive mindsets with minorities experiencing the beginnings of prejudice, with no steps taken in decades to alter hostility to tolerance. The 1956 constitution allocated nine seats for minorities comprising seven members from East Pakistan and one each from Punjab and Sindh and with Pakistan declared an Islamic republic, non-Muslims could not run for president or prime minister.

Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto further marginalised minorities talking about “Islam [as] our faith, democracy our politics and socialism our economy” as the religious right became part of the Islam equation. Bhutto caved in to the deadly nexus between political and religious forces and amended the constitution leading to a downward spiral that was to fuel religiously motivated violence for future decades.

ZAB’s state began physically attacking Ahmadis in 1974. His legacy of anti-Ahmadi laws “criminalise various practises of their faith” says the US Commission on International Religious Freedom report where Pakistan is designated as a country of particular concern in 2011 because its “government [has] engaged in — or tolerated — particularly severe violations of religious freedoms”.

Hundreds of Ahmadis have been murdered in religiously driven violence: in May 2010 militants attacked two Ahmadi places of worship where more than 90 were killed. The state’s woeful collusion as spectator failing to condemn extremist blood sport is confirmed by a 2011 Pew Research Centre report Rising Restrictions on Religion listing 198 countries where religious violence increased in the past three years.

Zia’s Islamisation crusade instituted laws curtailing religious freedoms, when the Penal Code was amended and it became a criminal offence for Ahmadis to ‘pose’ as Muslims. He brought to the political fore separate electorates in 1985 and the blasphemy law victimising Christians among others. The former was abolished in 2002. But it was the blasphemy law that left deep psychological scars and political ramifications compared to other legislation creating an environment of self-censorship and fear. The state is tight-lipped and distance when it comes to this law. No evidence is needed, just the ‘offensive’ remarks and few witnesses for a conviction.

More draconian is the procedure to file a complaint. An individual can file a case against any person under these laws that are repeatedly misused. In most cases complainants are private individuals with a personal grudge or religious motivation. While no one has been executed under these laws which include no penalty for false allegations, individuals have been killed when in police custody.

According to the State of Human Rights 2010, last year over 32 people were killed extra-judicially by mobs or individuals on allegations of blasphemy and 64 were charged under this law.

Given that discrimination and oppression endure and justice is barely visible it was not shocking when in February this year families of the Gojra victims withdrew their cases against the 150 alleged attackers. In 2009, Christian homes in Gojra, in Punjab were razed to the ground and eight people burnt alive.

Through decades governments have failed to protect citizens, turning a blind eye to a growing culture of violence, intolerance and vigilantism. Why do Pakistan’s Christian nurses work in fear of assault and rape and Hindu women of forced abductions? Why do Pakistan’s Hindus continue to struggle when applying for a National Identity Card? Why are quotas for menial jobs reserved for low-caste Christians compelled to clean gutters? Why are key political players divorced when it comes to amending discriminatory laws or ensuring they are not abused?

The question of faith and equality is disturbingly not part of the political agenda when schizophrenic politicians find it easier to pander to the religious right and treat certain minorities as second-class citizens.