By Jahanzeb Hussain
A Fourteen year old mentally retarded Christian girl jailed after being accused of desecrating the Koran. An insane person, accused of the same crime, snatched from police custody, lynched by a delirious crowd, and his body burnt. A Hindu worker accused of insulting Islam beaten to death by his colleagues in a factory in Karachi. Twenty six Shiite pilgrims belonging to the Hazara community taken out of a bus and shot dead. The spectacle which is being presented in Pakistan is straight from Dante’s Divine Comedy.
The present predicament of the religious minorities in Pakistan is the result of a long and deadly evolution. Let us take things in their sequence. There is an aphorism in Pakistan which says that the country was created through a democratic process. The greater truth is that on the basis of valid apprehensions among the Muslims regarding the economic opportunities in post-independence India, which needed to be addressed with far greater vision than was the case by the leadership of the Indian independence movement, a situation was created in which mob frenzy dictated the course of history. A total break-down of civil order and the abdication by the British authorities of their responsibility of transferring the power to the representatives of undivided India in proper and due form led to the forced birth of a country which was not the ideal and viable solution to the crisis, even from the stand-point of Indian Muslims. Pakistan, at its very birth, was like a rudderless ship with no course charted. Even its founding father, Mohammad Ali Jinnah, was at pains to define the polity of the country he fancied to have founded. Anglophile and constitutionalist by education, he was dumb-founded by the specter of a theocratic state which started rising on the horizon even before the birth-rites of the new state were completed. Three day before the official birth of Pakistan, he affirmed the right of all citizens, irrespective of their religious creeds, to be equal in the eyes of law. This realization was too late; you simply cannot buy a donkey and then ask it to turn into a horse.
The next sequence of events confirmed the worst of fears of the Father of the Nation. By then buried deep under the earth, his speeches and declarations were carefully edited to keep only that part which could lend sanctity to what was to follow. During the long and painful exercise that the constituent assembly of the new state undertook to frame the country’s first constitution, a resolution known as Objectives Resolution was rushed through to pre-define the new state as an Islamic state and thus draw boundaries beyond which the constitution-makers could not go. This was a shift from the original idea which defined the struggle of Muslims of the Indian sub-continent as a struggle for the protection of their economic, cultural and political rights irrespective of their sect or any specific rituals. Those Pakistani liberals who rue the disappearance of the country that the Great Leader had envisioned in fact gloss over the fact that the dividing line between the idea of a country for Muslims and the idea of an Islamic state exclusively for Muslims was extremely thin. This line was crossed without pain.
If the country was created for Islam, the ensuing logic was that the law had to define what was meant by an Islamic state as no two sects agreed on one definition. This opened the way towards exclusion by the majority sect, the Sunnis, of all the rest. This was also the beginning of the empowerment of all types of mediocre elements, parading as Islamic experts, to increase their clout and dominate the social and political scene.
The process of exclusion was started with the campaign against the Ahmadis in 1953, a sect created at the end of the 19th century in Punjab, which considers and declares itself to be Muslim like any other sect of Islam. It was singled out and ostracized as apostates. It is indeed a rare, if not the only instance in modern history, where the state was asked to declare a sect as apostate by law, to prohibit it to identify itself by the religion it professes and to relegate its members to the status of second-class citizens. This made deep sense for the people who engineered the movement against the Ahmadis. It was certainly not the Ahmadis as such who presented a problem for them, but it was for kick-starting a long and gradual process for differentiating between the citizens of the country and pre-empting a social and political dynamics which could take Pakistan towards a modern statehood.
These attempts did not go without resistance in the society. But the rising fundamentalist ideologies had become a useful tool for the Pakistani state to counter the centrifugal and pluralistic ideologies which demanded equal rights for different national groups inhabiting Pakistan and stood for defining citizenship on the basis of rights rather than religion.
The watershed came with the campaign for the first-ever general elections in 1970. It was then that the battle for the soul and the mind of the Pakistani people was first won by the democratic forces and then lost. It was during this election campaign that the term Islam-pasand was coined by the Islamist parties. Literally meaning Those who like Islam, it meant the people who were not merely Muslims, but who were also ready to go to any extent to enforce a particular brand of Islam in the society. Being merely Muslim did not suffice; one had to be a militant Muslim in political, social and cultural terms to be considered on the right side. Secularism was translated as Ladiniat, meaning No religion. The idea of separating religion and state was equated to eradicating religion itself. This is not the only example of intellectual dishonesty on the part of the obscene mechanics of Pakistan’s ideology who excel in the art of deceit as no other in this world.
But for all the intimidation and official support from the military regime, the Islamist parties made a dismal show in the elections. However, what the partisans of a hate-based society lost in the ballots, they more than recovered it by other means. It was during this period that the de-facto alliance between Islamist parties and the military was forged. While the military high-command moved in to deny by force the right of the victorious Bengali nationalists to form the government, Islamist parties, official press and media created a hype to present the Bengali movement as Hindu inspired and fomented by the enemies of Islam. Hindus were singled out for extermination in what was then East Pakistan (now Bangladesh). Pakistani soldiers used to look into the “Lungi” – the loin-cloth – of randomly-selected men to check whether they were circumcised or not. Uncircumcised meant being Hindu and therefore, naturally, suspect. These humiliating methods show the baseness of the ideology which permeates the state institutions of Pakistan.
The pretention that Islam formed the basis of the Pakistani nationhood received a severe blow after the genocide of Bengali Muslims by the Muslim Pakistani army. The damage control was therefore necessary. The break-up of Pakistan was, then, presented as a conspiracy against the fortress of Islam which was Pakistan. It was at the same time a ploy to deflect the attention from the role of the army in the break-up of country and to cover-up the humiliating defeat it suffered at the hands of the Indian army and Bengali nationalists. From that moment on, the Pakistani state and its ideologues adopted denial as the sole means of not only deceiving the public but also of self-delusion. The more they slid down this path, the greater the need they felt to project Pakistan before the public as a state under siege which had to be protected from internal and external enemies. The Pakistan we know today was not created with the partition of India but it was formed afterwards and in a gradual process which can be described as a creeping coup.The country became a laboratory for transforming the simple religious beliefs of simple people into an insidious ideology of self-righteousness and the hate of the others.
Right from the beginning, the religious minorities, due to the proclaimed objectives of the new state and the inhospitable ideological environment, felt uncomfortable and lost their social initiative. The small Jewish community of Karachi of a few hundred persons steeped in local culture, speaking local languages and living here for centuries first abandoned the only synagogue of the city and then quietly slipped out of the country leaving behind only a cemetery as a relic of its past. The vibrant Parsee community, to which Karachi owes many of its oldest and the most remarkable educational institutions as well as some of its iconic landmarks, withdrew into reclusive oblivion. This community which gave Karachi many of its pre-independence mayors, the most eminent public figures and philanthropists is reduced to less than two thousand persons, due, apart from others factors, to emigration. Likewise, the Goanese Christians, who gave Karachi its musical bands, have been leaving the country for greener pastures.
The military regime of General Zia-ul-Haq canonized the intimidation of the religious minorities and discrimination against them. Text-books were re-written to cultivate hatred against other religions. The identification of the citizens by religion and sect was was made official and compulsory. The highest point of this campaign was reached when a law dating from 1860 for conserving communal harmony, preventing desecration of the places of worship and cemeteries, injurious remarks against the religious beliefs of any community, was transformed through a series of amendments into a Muslim-specific law, rendering any derogatory remarks against holy personalities of Islam a penal offence. Desecrating the Koran was made punishable by life and rendering any outrage against the prophet of Islam was made punishable by death. However, one of the clauses of the original law which is still part of the penal code and which gives protection to all religious communities against hate-campaigns and vilification is never invoked either by the judiciary or by public figures. The clause reads: Anyone who incites by the word of mouth or by visual representation, hostility against a religion or creates discord between religions, races, linguistic communities etc. will be liable to be fined or sentenced up to five years in prison. If this clause was to be applied impartially, nearly the entire school curriculum, many of the contents of newspapers, media programs, speeches of religious figures, sermons in most mosques will have to be penalized.
The promulgation of desecration and blasphemy laws was not merely a legal exercise. This was just one aspect of an overall social engineering plan designed to put an end to the cultural diversity and religious syncretism, which despite the vicissitudes of times and events, have always characterized the societies in the Indian sub-continent. The other aspect was the injection of universal hatred against all other cultures and beliefs and developing a paranoid mentality through school text-books. As an extension of confrontation with India, Hindus are special targets of the falsification of the history of the region. The history of the region, as taught to students, naturally begins with the Muslim conquest of India. They are told that, Before the Arab conquest, people were fed up with the teachings of Buddhists & Hindus …. Before Islam, people lived in untold misery. The account of the partition of India is always biased and holds only Hindus and Sikhs responsible for the inter-communal killings which occurred at the time of partition. One text-book says that the Muslims of Pakistan provided all facilities to the Hindus and the Sikhs who left for India. But the Hindus and the Sikhs looted the Muslims in India with both hands and they attacked their caravans, buses and railway trains. Therefore, about one million Muslims were martyred on their way to Pakistan. The birth of Bangladesh and the break-up of Pakistan in 1971 are explained in text-books in the following manner: After the war of 1965, India with the help of Hindus living in East Pakistan incited the people of East Pakistan against West Pakistanis. In December 1971, the Indians themselves also attacked East Pakistan. As a result … East Pakistan separated from us. This is followed by following exhortation: We should all receive military training so that we can foil the designs of the enemy in the future. In fact, the enemies of Pakistan are all around: European nations have been working during the past three centuries, through conspiracies or naked aggression, to subjugate countries of the Muslim world.
All this constitutes the back-drop for the extremist religious and sectarian groups to proliferate and spread their hate-based message, bringing down the entire social debate to the question of saving the Faith supposedly threatened by its enemies. Taking advantage of this atmosphere, criminal elements, impunity guaranteed, target religious minorities. The desecration of the Koran and blasphemy have become the major pretexts and tools for whipping up sentiments against religious minorities. Most of the blasphemy cases cannot even stand the test of judicial investigation. The trial is carried out by mobs, their passions whipped up by shady elements, on the basis of forged and cooked-up evidence. The verdict is delivered by the mobs and executed before or in the course of judicial process. Many of the accused end up lynched by crowds or killed in terrorist acts even before the courts have their word to say. Since 1990, 18 Christians, 16 Muslims, two Ahmadis and one Hindu have been killed on suspicion of blasphemy through extra-judicial murders incited by extremist Muslim clerics.
In the majority of Koran desecration cases, the lower courts, under the pressure of local religious and other pressure groups, sentence the accused before the higher courts acquit them for lack of evidence. Local rivalries, disputes between neighbors, pure malice against a person, criminal intent to lay hands on the properties of minorities under blackmail are the main reasons behind most of the desecration and blasphemy accusations. Religious extremists and sectarian groups join in to blow up these cases out of proportion for drawing political mileage out of them.
The Christian community of Punjab is bearing the brunt of blasphemy and desecration allegations. Christians there are the poorest of the poor. They are at the lowest rung of the society in the rural areas where most of them live. They do the jobs which nobody else does. They are sweepers, scavengers, farm labors, etc. Their ancestors converted to Christianity for acquiring self-respect in a society where human beings are defined by their social status, the extent of their lands and by their family background. One important part of the Islamist rhetoric, propagated through the text-books in Pakistan, is that the Muslim society is devoid of the caste system as opposed to the Hindu society. According to the Pakistan Studies text-book prescribed for the 10th grade students, Islam gives a message of peace and brotherhood …. There is no such concept in Hinduism. Moreover Islam preaches brotherhood, equality and justice …. On the other hand, the Hindu society is based on caste system which downgrades the entire mankind. The reality, however, is that the caste system exists in rural Punjab in its most hideous form. The generic term for all socially despised castes is “Cummi” – meaning those who work. Not only Christians, who are insultingly called “Chooras”, but “Mirasis” and “Musalis” who are Muslims are also treated as untouchables. Eating with them, socializing with them is prohibited. Invariably, in all blasphemy and desecration cases against the Christians, the social and caste prejudices are at the root of the allegations. Blasphemy and desecration are only pretexts which are invented afterwards. The most glaring example of this is the case of Aasia Bibi, a poor Christian woman and a mother of five who was sentenced to death for blasphemy and is awaiting the presidential grace. Aasia Bibi had gone to the village well to drink water. She was told by Muslim women not to drink in the pot which was reserved for Muslims. An altercation ensued which was later turned by the local Muslim clerics into a blasphemy case. Even the cleric who initially reported the matter to the police was struck with remorse when he saw the proportions the affair had taken, but it was too late. Religious parties seized upon it as an opportunity to whip up a nation-wide campaign against blasphemy.
In the Gojra mob attack against Christians in August 2009, crowd sentiments were whipped up by clerics on the reports of an altercation between Muslims and Christians in a nearby village. Koran desecration allegations were invented to flare up public opinion, in what was an ordinary quarrel between neighbors over the noise created during marriage celebrations. The cleric exhorted the crowd to teach the Christians a lesson. In the ensuing attack on Christian homes, six persons including four women and a child were burnt alive. It is clear that under the prevailing ideological atmosphere, community rivalries and petty disputes rooted in caste prejudices are turned into blasphemy and Koran desecration cases. In the recent case of Rimsha Masih, the fourteen year old Christian girl accused of desecration of the Koran, it was found that the Imam of the local mosque had added pages of Koran to a heap of ashes in order to target the Christian community. He himself later confessed that it was for scaring the Christians and driving them away from the village.
In Punjab, caste considerations are also closely linked with electoral politics. Christians are particularly victimized in those areas where their numbers confer them some electoral weight. Naturally, they do not vote for those parties which are unfavorable to the religious minorities. In a few constituencies, they have enough votes to get elected their own candidates. Violence against them is also a means of politically blackmailing them.
As compared to the frenzy created on supposed blasphemy and desecration cases even before they are proved, the false allegations never lead to public outcry. No public figure, not to speak of religious leaders, has ever expressed outrage against the false allegations against religious minorities and the consequences that they entail. All this and the unwillingness of the authorities to act on the warnings of imminent arson attacks on Christians, such as the one that occurred in Gojra, the cowering of the judiciary under the pressure from Islamist parties and general complaisance of the media, especially the Urdu press, towards the extremist elements point to the fact that over the time the intimidation and victimization of the minorities have become permissible and accepted practices in the Pakistani society.
As far as the Ahmadis (whose number may be around 3 million in the country)are concerned, harassment, lynching and other attacks against them are met with public indifference, apathy of the political class and inaction if not complicity on the part of the authorities. There is a conspiracy of silence against them. This is because they were declared apostates by an act of law which was incorporated into the constitution of Pakistan in 1974. Like Hindus, they are denied the status of Ahl-e-kitab – people with book – which is, nevertheless, accorded to the Christians. When two prominent members of the Ahmadi community were murdered in 2008 after a program aired on a prominent Pakistani television channel by the infamous charlatan Amir Liaquat Hussain provoking people to kill Ahmadis, no government official, the media control authority and indeed no political or religious leader moved an inch. After the public stoning of two members of Ahmadi community in 1995 in a town in the Pakhtunkhawa province, Amnesty International reported that the police stood and watched, and later pleaded that it could not have intervened in a situation like that. No one was detained or criminally charged for the killing. Following the worst attack on Ahmadis in recent memory in 2010 when two of their mosques in Lahore were targeted, claiming 95 lives, Punjab’s Chief Minister who lives down the same street where one of the mosques was located, did not deem it to fit to visit it as a sign of sympathy.
The hate campaign against religious minorities, as was inherent in the very logic of defining citizens by their religion, gradually and very naturally extended to the minority sects who are officially recognized to be within the fold of Islam. Shias, who are more than 20% of Pakistan’s population, have in the last twenty years lost more followers through targeted terrorist killings, bomb attacks on their mosques and through summary executions than any other minority community. The hate campaign against Shias started from the city of Jhang in central Punjab. The Shia-Sunni rivalry there is rooted in the local socio-political context. Much of the local landed aristocracy is Shiite, while the traders and petty middle-classes are Sunnite who migrated there from Eastern Punjab (Indian Punjab) after partition. Their social, economic and political rivalry gave birth to militant Sunni groups. Under the favorable ideological environment created during the Zia-Ul-Haq period, as well as under active official patronage, the hate campaign emanating from Sunni madrassas in Jhang spread to other parts of Punjab and even to cities like Karachi. The main Sunni group based in Jhang is Sipah Sihaba which subsequently evolved into an armed group, allying itself with other Jihadi groups as well as with Taliban and Al-Qaida. After it being banned, its off-shoot Lashkar Jhangvi has become the main perpetrator of anti-Shia terrorist acts. The execution of Hazara Shiites in Quetta (around 700 Hazaras have been killed since 2002 and more than 80 this year alone) is attributable to the convergence of interests between Taliban (under whose rule in Afghanistan, Hazaras were one of the most victimized communities) and Lashkar Jhangvi. But what is intriguing is that Quetta is in Baluchistan where and has never been a stronghold of militant Sunni organizations. The killings of Hazaras have gained momentum since the increased deployment of the military and paramilitary forces in Baluchistan and the intensification of their war against Baluch nationalists. While hundreds of nationalists are picked up by the notorious Frontier Constabulary – a paramilitary force led by army officers – and murdered, no action has been conducted to find and arrest the killers who target the Hazaras. In fact, the Hazara community leaders pointed out, after the execution last September of 26 Hazara pilgrims proceeding in group by bus to Iran from Quetta, that two check-posts of the Constabulary were situated less than five kilometers on each side of the spot where the bus was stopped by armed extremists, passengers taken out and shot dead one by one. According to them, the traffic was stopped from each side while the killers accomplished their mission and made good their escape. Over and above that, the commander of Constabulary later incriminated that Hazaras were playing in the hands of Iran. If this unarmed community, who has only its dead to weep, is playing someone else’s game, then who is holding the reinsof the killers at large who have killed hundreds of them without being apprehended? Another occurrence since the military action in Baluchistan is the systematic harassment of the small Hindu community in the areas of the province adjoining Sind. Dozens of Hindu traders have been kidnapped and released only after paying heavy ransoms. A large number of their families have left the province either for Sind or for India. This harassment then spilled over to the upper Sind, where the Hindu community is both well-off and socially well integrated. After dozens of cases of kidnapping for ransom, forced conversions and murder of three young Hindu doctors, an exodus of the community to India started. Nearly seventy families crossed over the border to India in a single week last August. As is the general official culture in Pakistan, the fact was first denied, then a mission was sent to the affected areas, and then an appeal was made to the community not to listen to the propaganda of the enemies of the country.
After exclusion and then intimidation and victimization, the march is on in Pakistan towards the total extermination of religious minorities. The ideological justification is there, the terminators are there, a complaisant and a conniving state apparatus is also there. But this process has no end. A message has already been sent out, through the bombing of many Sufi shrines, that all who do not follow a particular brand of Islam are apostates.
According to the Muslim faith no other prophet will come after the prophet of Islam, but the scriptures also say that plenty of false prophets will come. Pakistan is awash with them: prophets of hate, death and destruction, in the most fantasist head-gears and every possible beard-style. They are on the TV screens, in the newspaper columns, on public forums, and occupy mosques for perverting the faith, polluting the minds and empoisoning the society.
Jahanzeb Hussain is the editor of the magazine. He is a 22 year old student based in Vancouver, Canada, where he goes to Simon Fraser Univeristy. He also represents the Vancouver chapter of Afghans for Peace.
Photo credit: Wikipedia.
The photo is of the Lal Masjid operation of July 2007 in Islamabad. Lal Masjid became to symbolize religious militancy in Pakistan and their strenght to not only challange the society but also the state.