By Akbar Ahmed
If ever there was a target for the Pakistan Taliban, I thought to myself, this would be it.
Besides the 750 graduating students and more than 2,000 guests gathered on the campus of Forman Christian College on Nov. 30 were the university’s American rector and two of Pakistan’s five provincial governors. Senior officials in Lahore had already warned the public to be vigilant. The police had information that the Taliban had dispatched suicide bombers to the city to take revenge for the recent killing of their leader, Hakimullah Mehsud, in a United States drone strike. Their targets would be senior government officials and foreigners, especially Americans.
Forman is Pakistan’s leading Christian educational institution, now celebrating its 150th anniversary. Only 600 of its 6,000 students are Christian; what’s remarkable is how fully integrated into campus life they are.
Like many non-Christian Pakistanis, I owed my education to Christian teachers, both at Forman and at my previous school, Burn Hall in Abbottabad, which was run by Roman Catholic priests. We loved and respected our Christian teachers, and they us. We never doubted that harmony and cooperation between faith groups were not only possible, but also completely normal. It was the reality of our lives.
I had returned after half a century to my old college (now a chartered university) to receive an honorary doctorate. Once there, I found myself transported back to one of the happiest periods of my life. It was a different Pakistan and it was a time of hope. Christians were very much part of the fabric of the nation.
Times have changed. Today, Forman is an island of tranquillity for Christians in a troubled sea. With increasing frequency, Christians have been attacked and their churches vandalized.
No one was taking lightly the seriousness of the threat at the commencement. I was told there were snipers on all the vantage points and security officers in plain clothes all over the campus. Yet, as if to insist on the normalcy of university life, the rector announced a new center with the express purpose of bridge building between different cultures and faiths.
Many Pakistanis are unaware of the role Christians have played in the nation’s history. Although the Christian population is barely three million, or 1.6 percent of the population — as compared with 180 million Muslims (more than 95 percent) — Christians have had a considerable impact, especially in education. Many of Pakistan’s most prominent leaders — including the current prime minister, Nawaz Sharif, the assassinated prime minister, Benazir Bhutto, and former President Pervez Musharraf — went to Christian schools. Christians also educated Muhammad Ali Jinnah, who founded Pakistan in 1947. Under Pakistan’s Constitution, Christians were guaranteed equal rights.
The targeting of Christians comes amid a widespread breakdown of public order. The ordinary citizen — hearing stories of gangs breaking into homes and kidnapping people — thinks only of survival. Groups like the Pakistani Taliban have challenged government authority to the point where the rule of law barely exists in parts of the country like the tribal areas of the Northwest.
While militant groups are frequently the culprits in attacks on Christians, a general anger against the United States has caused large numbers of people to target Christians, whom they associate with America, as scapegoats.
Christians have been especially vulnerable in cases concerning the blasphemy laws, which easily convert into a tool of oppression against them. Cases like that of the 11-year-old Christian girl arrested last year after being accused of burning pages of the Quran in Islamabad gain nationwide publicity — easy causes célèbres for those who are opposed to United States foreign policy in Pakistan or who believe that Islam is under siege from the West.
This, in turn, makes it very difficult for public officials to intervene, even if they are inclined to do so. Government promises to reconstruct the homes of Christians destroyed by mobs and distribute aid are rarely carried out.
Those Pakistanis who do speak up for Christians have themselves become targets of violence. In 2011, a governor of Punjab Province who criticized the blasphemy laws was killed by his own bodyguard, who was then hailed as a hero. Senior politicians and the Pakistani elite have been complicit in the sectarian hostility because they fear that any of them could meet the same fate.
Perhaps the worst blow to date was the deadly assault on a historic church in Peshawar earlier this year, in which 78 people were killed and 130 wounded. Little wonder, then, that there is widespread fear and uncertainty among Christians. There are rumors of entire families fleeing the country, many stranded in halfway stations like Thailand, awaiting official papers to emigrate.
The situation of the Christians will improve only if the causes of Pakistan’s instability are addressed. These include the breakdown of law and order, the dangerous gap between rich and poor, the ever rising prices of wheat and sugar, the lack of jobs, and the conduct of the American war on terror in the region.
Pakistanis also need to be reminded of their own history of religious tolerance. What they perhaps do not realize is that the protection and rights of the Christian community are more than a constitutional obligation: The situation of Pakistani Christians is a barometer of the health of the nation. Today, the signs are not good.
Akbar Ahmed, the Islamic Studies chairman at the American University in Washington, is the author of “The Thistle and the Drone: How America’s War on Terror Became a Global War on Tribal Islam.”