By Haroon Nasir
On 11 August 1947, a newly-formed Pakistan had its first session of the Constituent Assembly, which was formed to write Pakistan's constitution and serve as its first parliament. Joginder Nath Mandal, a Hindu from a caste that traditionally had been socially marginalised, was nominated as its chairman. Quaid-e-Azam Muhammad Ali Jinnah, the founder of Pakistan, declared, "You are free; you are free to go to your temples; you are free to go to your mosques or any other place of worship in the state of Pakistan. You may belong to any religion or caste or creed – that has nothing to do with the business of the state."
Thus, Jinnah set a pluralistic model for Pakistan to grow as a modern Muslim state. After his death in 1948, however, this model was largely ignored and incumbent leaders in Pakistan, which is 96.5 percent Muslim, have often used religion as a tool to divide rather unite.
In 1949, the Objectives Resolution was passed as a preamble to the constitution, declaring Pakistan an Islamic state governed by Islamic principles. The Ahmadiyya, a Muslim community that believes the second advent of Jesus has been fulfilled, were declared non-Muslims by the National Assembly in 1954. And Christian missionary educational and health institutions were nationalised in 1972 resulting in the degradation of standards and performance, and the marginalisation of the Christian missionary community that was running these institutions quite effectively before.
In the late 1970s and early 1980s, in an attempt to gain legitimacy for his military rule, President General Zia-ul-Haq started an "Islamisation" process. His government began to implement shari'a (a legal system based on Islamic principles), by enforcing the Hudud Ordinance. This law allowed punishments such as stoning, amputations and lashings for extramarital relations, theft and consuming alcohol, based on the rulings of certain Islamic jurists who believed there was a historical precedent.
During those years, the public school curriculum was revised to incorporate an overwhelmingly religious component to build "Islamic character" in the nation's youth and glorify Muslim heroes. The new curriculum overlooked non-Muslim Pakistanis and their role in national development, polarising society along religious lines.
Despite these policies, however, ordinary Pakistanis never lost hope for the model envisaged by its founders: a pluralistic society within a Muslim-majority country.
Finding in religious extremism a common threat, Pakistanis of all faiths, ethnicities and cultures have begun working together for a more tolerant Pakistan. Support for victims of the 2005 earthquake and internally displaced people as a result of conflict between the Taliban and the government transcends religious boundaries.
A growing presence by civil society organisations, campaigning for human and women's rights, civil liberties and civic responsibility, demonstrates a will for equality. And a number of volunteer grassroots initiatives, such as the Critical Mass Movement, the Lawyers' Movement and Hum (We) Pakistani, are reviving a collective sense of hope by providing aid and support to displaced people and organising youth to help clean cities and run awareness campaigns that rise above religious, cultural and ethnic loyalties.
The country needs to build upon these movements and act immediately to correct the mistakes of the past and transform this challenge into an opportunity. The following steps can help put the country back on track:
1) Reform the public school curriculum so that it accommodates all Pakistanis and inculcates students with a mindset that is respectful of differences and emphasises the benefits of pluralism in a modern nation.
2) Revise madrasa (Islamic religious school) curricula to include subjects like social and natural sciences, math, foreign languages and literature, social and civic studies and world religions, all of which expose students to a broader understanding of domestic and international affairs.
3) Highlight the constructive contributions of non-Muslim Pakistanis in the media. Through proper training, media can play a role by covering positive stories and refraining from defaming minority groups.
4) Remove and change discriminatory laws that are making the mutual coexistence of Muslims and non-Muslims difficult, such as the blasphemy law (Sections 295-B and 295-C of the Pakistani Penal Code), which has often been used to try non-Muslims accused of defiling the Qur'an or making derogatory remarks about the Prophet Muhammad, and the law of witness, which claims that a woman's testimony is not equal to a man's and that a non-Muslim is unable to testify against a Muslim.
From the time of Pakistan's founding, non-Muslims have been an integral part of the state. The flag of Pakistan reflects this diversity: the white portion of the flag on the left representing the non-Muslim population and the dark green portion on the right its Muslim constituency.
It will be no easy feat but Pakistanis need to revive the spirit of unity in diversity that shaped its founding principles.
* Haroon Nasir is a research associate at the Christian Study Centre in Rawalpindi, Pakistan. This article is part of a series on pluralism in Muslim-majority countries written for the Common Ground News Service (CGNews).
Source: Common Ground News Service