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Minorities at risk

AS a country, we bask in the praise of foreigners, but when they are critical — as they often are — we bristle with indignation and go into our usual ostrich mode.

So when Pakistan was placed on the US State Department list of countries of particular concern for engaging in or tolerating “systematic, ongoing and egregious” religious freedom violations, government spokesmen and editorial writers went into denial. Earlier, Pakistan was on the only slightly less humiliating ‘watch list’.

I’m not much concerned by what the Americans think of the way we treat our minorities. But as a Pakistani, I have been deeply ashamed of how our non-Muslim citizens have been steadily marginalised over the years.

The state has a responsibility to protect all its citizens.

With sickening regularity, human rights organisations, including the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, report incidents in which Christians, Hindus and Ahmadis have been targeted by extremist groups. Shias, specially the Hazaras, have been killed in large numbers.

While the state may not have been complicit, it has created an environment of impunity by failing to arrest, try and punish those responsible for these murderous attacks. Mullahs incite mobs at regular intervals to torch churches and the homes of Christians. Hapless non-Muslims are regularly victimised under the blasphemy laws.

We often complain of the growing Islamophobia in the West. But what our minorities suffer in Pakistan on a daily basis is far worse. There is discrimination against them in jobs, schools and society as a whole. Sanitary workers are considered sub-human, and have been unable to escape their untouchable status despite their conversion to Islam or Christianity.

Many educated non-Muslims have emigrated to escape the discrimination they faced in Pakistan. In secular states, they have thrived, finding opportunities denied to them in their homeland. Hazaras have risked their lives to flee violence: in Quetta, they live as virtual prisoners in an enclave. Due to their distinctive Central Asian features, they are easily identified as Shias by Sunni extremists. Hundreds have been killed, but few assailants have been arrested.

A major factor driving the rise of Islamophobia in the West is the persistent threat of terror attacks carried out by jihadist individuals and groups. The US, Britain, France and Germany, among other countries, have suffered multiple atrocities carried out against innocent civilians. India, too, has had its share of cross-border terror attacks carried out by extremist groups.

Imagine that a major building in, say, Lahore, had been blown up by a Christian group, and there were hundreds of casualties. In such a scenario, people would be wading in blood in local Christian settlements. In the immediate aftermath of prime minister Indira Gandhi’s assassination by her Sikh bodyguards in 1984, up to 17,000 of their co-religionists were chased down and murdered (the official figure is 2,800).

Mercifully, despite the regular terrorist attacks and uncovered plots, Muslims in the West are not subjected to this kind of mindless backlash. And as hate speech is a crime in many countries, victims can report incidents to the police. Here, non-Muslims stay as far away from the police as possible, knowing they can easily be accused of blasphemy as the charge does not carry the same burden of proof as other crimes do.

We tend to blame Gen Zia for the environment of fake piety that pervades the country. But the reality is that when we created a state in the name of religion, it was only a matter of time when the most extreme version of the faith dominated the public discourse. In this atmosphere of religious zeal, non-Muslims rapidly became second-class citizens, tolerated at best, and suspected of being anti-Pakistan at worst.

Many liberal Pakistanis cling to the famous speech made by Mr Jinnah to the Constituent Assembly a few days before the creation of Pakistan. In his eloquent enunciation of the secular principle, he declared that non-Muslims would be guaranteed equal rights. But ask a student or a cleric what he thinks of the speech, and you will probably draw a blank. One reply is that if Mr Jinnah wanted a secular state, why did he insist on the partition of India? A fair point, and one difficult to refute.

So when we are accused of ‘systematic, ongoing and egregious’ religious freedom violations, on what grounds do we protest our innocence? The state has a responsibility to protect all of its citizens, and not just Sunni Muslims. Time after time, those responsible for attacking non-Muslims have got off scot-free, encouraging others to pick these soft targets for persecution and mayhem. In all this, the police are usually silent witnesses. Mullahs are hardly ever prosecuted for provoking mobs, and non-Muslim villagers live in fear.

We need to take a hard look at our treatment of minorities, not because of American pressure, but to become a just society.

Email: irfan.husain@gmail.com

Irfan Husain, "Minorities at risk," Dawn. 2018-12-22.
Keywords: Religious freedom violations , Human rights organisations , Blasphemy laws , Secular states , Terror attacks , Public discourse , American pressure