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Minority matters

“I AM the prime minister of all Pakistanis, whether they are Hindu, Muslim, Sikh, Christian, Parsi, or any other religion. I will stand by victims of violence and ensure perpetrators are brought to justice, even where the perpetrators are Muslim.”

Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s seemingly heartfelt address to the Hindu community at a Diwali event in Karachi last week has immense symbolic importance given the environment of insecurity and marginalisation in which religious minorities live in Pakistan. That all people in Pakistan are equal regardless of their religion is still a radical notion for some, as was illustrated by the condemnation by some commentators of the allegedly un-Islamic views expressed by the prime minister.

However, given the increase in the persecution of religious minority communities in recent years — as illustrated by the torching of a chipboard factory owned by Ahmadis followed by attacks on an Ahmadi ‘place of worship’ in Jhelum on Saturday, reportedly in response to ‘blasphemy’ allegations — what is needed now is a lot more than heartfelt sentiment.

The events in Jhelum come nearly a year after the government adopted a comprehensive National Action Plan (NAP) to combat terrorism and extremism in the country following an attack on the Army Public School, Peshawar, last December. As part of NAP, the government pledged to take “strict action against the literature, newspapers and magazines promoting hatred, decapitation, extremism, sectarianism and intolerance” and to ensure the “protection of minorities”.

State institutions can take concrete measures to address religious persecution. In June 2014, a few months before NAP was adopted, the Supreme Court in a judgement highlighted the state’s failure to protect religious minority communities and their places of worship from violence. The court found a “lack of awareness about minority rights” among law-enforcement agencies and had observed that attacks against religious minorities could be attributed to the failure by the state to take adequate preventive measures.

The court directed the government to carry out corrective responses, including: ensuring that school curricula promote “a culture of social and religious tolerance”; constituting a national council for the protection of minorities to frame policy recommendations for safeguarding and protecting rights of religious minorities; constituting a special police force to protect places of worship of religious minorities; and ensuring that action, including registration of criminal cases, is promptly taken to bring to justice perpetrators who abuse the rights of religious minorities. However, the Supreme Court’s directions and provisions of NAP still remain largely unimplemented.

The current predicament of religious minorities in Pakistan has roots in the state’s use of political Islam for its purported national security and foreign policy interests coupled with an ‘Islamisation’ drive premised on crafting a dominant narrative with non-Muslim Pakistanis as ‘the other’. Reversing this trend will require rethinking the relationship of the state with its non-Muslim citizens and the role of Islam in governing public lives, areas that remain contentious, and even hazardous, to engage in politically.

In the short-term, however, the various institutions of state can take concrete measures, including implementing the Supreme Court’s directions and under NAP, to address the widespread and systematic persecution faced by non-Muslims and members of minority sects within Islam in the country.

One key corrective measure is the substantial amendment of laws on “offences related to religion” in the Pakistan Penal Code, commonly known as blasphemy laws, which include a number of crimes including misusing religious epithets, defiling the Holy Quran, deliberately outraging religious sentiment, and directly or indirectly defaming the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH). Sentences for these offences range from fines to long terms of imprisonment, and in the case of defamation (Section 295-C), a mandatory death sentence.

Reform of offences related to religion is particularly timely, as the Supreme Court has acknowledged in a recent judgement that people accused of blasphemy “suffer beyond proportion or repair” and has clarified that critiquing or amending the blasphemy laws does not in itself amount to blasphemy.

The operation of blasphemy laws continues to have a detrimental impact on pluralism in the country and feeds into the atmosphere of insecurity and religious intolerance. This is acutely felt by non-Muslims. Ahmadis are particularly vulnerable to be targeted using these provisions. According to data compiled by the National Commission on Justice and Peace, a human rights NGO, 633 Muslims, 494 Ahmadis, 187 Christians and 21 Hindus have been accused under various provisions on offences related to religion since 1987. As is evident from the figures, blasphemy laws disproportionately affect religious minority communities, who constitute only 3pc of Pakistan’s population.

In addition to individuals prosecuted for committing offences related to religion, dozens of people accused of blasphemy, their families, their neighbourhoods and places of worship have been targeted by mobs and organised extremist religious groups, particularly where the individual belongs to a religious minority community, and as many as 53 people have been killed in connection with blasphemy allegations.

In their current form, Pakistan’s blasphemy laws fly in the face of human rights guarantees, including the rights to freedom of religion and belief; freedom of expression; and equal protection of the law. In addition, as documented in detail by the International Commission of Jurists in a recent report, blasphemy laws serve as tools for people to settle personal vendettas and achieve political purposes; misuse of the law is facilitated by the vague language in which offences related to religion are framed and the absence of intention in the text of the blasphemy provisions.

Moreover, threats of violence — which are often realised — coupled with bias against individuals accused of blasphemy displayed by various actors in the criminal justice system, including the police, lawyers and most significantly, judges, contribute to making blasphemy trials fundamentally unfair, denying blasphemy accused any real chance at defending themselves. Yet, the state continues to turn a blind eye to these gross injustices, which are directly attributable to the current blasphemy regime.

Returning to the prime minister’s Diwali speech: he expressed his intention to return to celebrate the festival of Holi with the Hindu community next year. By then he will need to have demonstrated his government’s commitment to protecting religious minorities through action in addition to conveying the correct sentiment.

The writer is a legal adviser for the International Commission of Jurists. reema.omer@icj.org, Twitter: reema_omer

Reema Omer, "Minority matters," Dawn. 2015-11-24.
Keywords: Social sciences , Religious issues , Blasphemy law , Religious groups , Human rights , Hindu community , Social reforms , Social security , Law Enforcement , International policy , Supreme court , Extremism , PM Nawaz Sharif , Pakistan , Karachi , Peshawar , NAP