- Let’s start with Pakistan
This month, the UN General Assembly passed a resolution on promoting inter-religious and inter-cultural dialogue ‘to advance a culture of peace and non-violence based on education, tolerance, dialogue and cooperation in the world. Sponsored by Pakistan and the Philippines, the text reaffirmed the solemn commitment of all states to fulfill their obligations to promote universal respect for, and protection of all human rights and fundamental freedoms, in accordance with the United Nations Charter and Universal Declaration of Human Rights.’ While the effort on part of Pakistan at a global level is commendable, I suggest we start a dialogue more urgently at a national one.
Terrorism, blasphemy and forced conversions
Less than a week after the resolution was adopted, at least nine people were killed and over 50 wounded when two suicide bombers stormed a packed church in Quetta. Following the Quetta blast, security at places of worship has been beefed up across the country. However, majority of the 1,200 worship places of minorities present in Sindh still lack permanent security arrangements. This is despite last year’s announcement by the Sindh government of a Rs400 million project to protect temples, churches, and gurdwaras by installing surveillance cameras and appointing security guards. The lethargy in the attitude cannot be helped but noticed.
The church attack came a day after the third anniversary of a Pakistani Taliban attack on an army-run school that killed 134 children, one of the single deadliest attacks in the country’s history. Last year’s Easter Day attack in a public park had killed more than 70 people in Lahore – amid many other similar incidents inflicted on the country’s minorities.
The Open Doors, a Christian advocacy watchdog group, reports that Pakistan’s blasphemy law continues to be abused to settle personal scores, particularly against minorities, including Christians. ‘A Christian couple was thrown into the brick kiln where they worked and burned to death after being accused of blasphemy, orphaning their four children… An estimated 700 Christian girls and women are abducted every year and often raped and forcibly married to Muslims,’ the report added. Pakistan has ranked sixth on the list of the countries where Christians are most persecuted, according to the world watch list 2016.
Our hearts bleed at the atrocities committed in Kashmir, we storm the streets at the injustices done in Palestine, we gawk at the cold blooded ethnic cleansing in Myanmar, but avoid talking about the inhumane practices in our country on the pretext of blasphemy
In 2010, Asia Bibi – a Christian — was the first woman who was awarded the capital punishment of hanging to death on charges of blasphemy. In 2014, the High Court of Lahore not only upheld the verdict of the session court against Asia but issued a stay order against presidential pardon which remains in force till today, while a hearing date for the case is pending since last year.
Last week, the Sikh community in Pakistan raised serious concerns after ‘being forced to convert to Islam’ by a government official in Hangu district of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP). In November last year, the Sindh Assembly passed a bill against the practice of forced conversions in the province, particularly in the case of the Hindu community. But before the governor could sign it into a law, ‘some religious organisations threatened widespread agitation if the government did not withdraw it. Their main objection was to the provision stipulating that the conversion of underage individuals would not be formally recognised until they reach the age of majority.’
Monologues and dialogues
So where do we start the dialogue from? Laws and their amendments put forth in the parliament do receive a debate, but often progress is hampered by some frantic reactions, as evident in the case of forced conversion law. When debates take place in social forums, only a few voice their concerns openly at the stifling atmosphere in the country and they also fear for their lives. Occasionally, there may be gatherings of inter faith harmony, but only for promotional purposes and declarations of love, brotherhood and tolerance only for the time being.
The oft quoted but sadly disregarded are the words of the founder of the nation, Muhammad Ali Jinnah. In an address to the Constituent Assembly of Pakistan few days before the independence, he had stated:
….You will find that in course of time Hindus will cease to be Hindus and Muslims will cease to be Muslims, not in the religious sense, because that is the personal faith of each individual, but in the political sense as the citizens of the State.
Not many years after and in complete oblivion to the statement quoted above, Khawaja Nazimuddin, the second prime minister of Pakistan and one of the leading founding fathers of the country, had said:
I do not agree that religion is a private affair of the individual nor do I agree that in an Islamic state every citizen has identical rights, no matter what his caste, creed or faith be.
In her research paper aptly titled Pakistan’s descent into Religious Intolerance, Farhanaz Ispahani, media advisor to the President of Pakistan from 2008 to 2012, writes that ‘the country’s first Constituent Assembly heard arguments by theologians like Maulana Abul Ala Maududi and Shabbir Ahmed Usmani about how Muslims needed protection from the negative impact of non-Muslim culture on the Muslim way of life.’ Ispahani further quotes a judicial inquiry commission concluding in 1954, headed by Supreme Court Justice Muhammad Munir and Punjab High Court Justice Muhammad Rustam Kayani. The commission had interviewed almost all the leading clerics of the time and one of the most noteworthy findings was related to the Islamist leaders’ attitudes towards non-Muslims. ‘According to the leading ulemas, the position of non-Muslims in the Islamic Republic of Pakistan will be that of dhimmis (meaning protected person in Arabic) and they will not be full citizens of Pakistan because they will not have the same rights as Muslims. They will have no voice in the making of the law, no right to administer the law and no right to hold public offices.’ She argues that the Islamisation of the curriculum in schools and colleges of Pakistan have only added fuel to the fire, with crafting ‘a version of history that emphasised Islam’s martial traditions, spoke of a long standing conflict between Hindus and Muslims in the subcontinent, highlighted a pan-Islamic ummah and depicted other religions as inferior to Islam.’ Not surprisingly, she notes that the population in Pakistan of religious minorities has decreased from 23pc in 1947 to around 3-4pc of the population today.
Our hearts bleed at the atrocities committed in Kashmir, we storm the streets at the injustices done in Palestine, we gawk at the cold blooded ethnic cleansing in Myanmar, but avoid talking about the inhumane practices in our country on the pretext of blasphemy. We lecture with pride the freedom given to non Muslims in an Islamic state, but beg to disagree from the fact that ‘when Pakistan was created in 1947, its secular founding fathers did not speak of an Islamic State. Muhammad Ali Jinnah declared that non-Muslims would be equal citizens in the new country.’
To advance a culture of peace and non-violence based on education, tolerance, dialogue and cooperation, we need to start a dialogue with ourselves. We need to first convince ourselves and then the others, that equality for all citizens of Pakistan, regardless of religion, is their fundamental right. We need to educate ourselves, not only on the contributions made by all sectors of the society, but the horrors afflicted on them despite them being loyal to the country. We need to cooperate with others, in believing that we are all Pakistanis. The day when a Muslim in Pakistan will stand shoulder to shoulder with a non Muslim and feel the pain of injustice as his own, will be the day when an atmosphere of peace and nonviolence could be promoted. We could start today.