By Fr Robert McCulloch
07 November 2014
Pakistan is often labelled a “fundamentalist” state – and criticism of it has returned after the burning alive of a poor Christian couple who allegedly destroyed pages of a Qur’an.
Norberto Gonzalez Gaitano, professor of communications at Holy Cross University in Rome and consultor on the Pontifical Council for Social Communications, speaks about “media framing”. “Media framing” is the use of certain words or phrases which automatically define the shape of a problem, offer an interpretation of the cause of the problem, give a moral opinion about the problem, and promise a solution to the problem. Say or write the word and the word itself projects into the public attention the agenda behind the framing: “weapons of mass destruction”, “devout Catholic”, “the religious right”, “war on terror”, “paedophile priests”, “fundamentalist”, “Burqa-clad woman”.
Although Pakistan has fundamentalist problems it is not a fundamentalist state. Discrimination against minorities is frequent but persecution is not endemic; and behind the clamour of Islamist voices remains an educated and concerned opinion to the contrary.
Popular perceptions in Pakistan about Christianity in “the West” are subject to intense “framing” which conditions and influences Muslim reactions to Christianity irrespective of the lived reality. The “framing” about Christianity, carried out in schools, media, and religious instruction, leads to an attitudinal Christianophobia by those Pakistani Muslims who have no other terms of reference or sources of information.
Bina Shah, a Pakistani author, observed that two wars are being fought in Pakistan: the military one, against the violence of religious extremists, and the psychological and emotional one against the growth of intolerance and the decline in room for cultural, religious, ethnic or social diversity. This shrinking of public space in Pakistan began in the late 1970s under the military dictator Zia ul Haq. It provides the environment for the negative framing of Christianity and leads to the presumed “therefores” of “decadence”, “pornography” and “immorality” about Christianity “in the West”.
Mullahs, imams and others bemoan moral failings of “the West” while failing to acknowledge those within their own society such as child abuse, drug addiction, domestic abuse, honour killings and ill-treatment of non-Muslims.
There is growing concern among academics and human rights organisations in Pakistan that the content of educational syllabi from primary to tertiary levels reinforces the stereotyped framing about Christianity, Hinduism and other non-Islamic religions. A disturbing level of misinformation and bigotry is found in media and television. Dialogue and religious respect for other believers are not characteristic of the ongoing religious instruction available to most Pakistani Muslims.
The ensuing stereotyped framing about Christianity is intensified by the framing associated with “Western”. In spite of its being condemned from the outset by Pope St John Paul II as immoral, Pakistani Muslims regard the military intervention in Iraq, which has now spiralled into an uncontrollable chaos, as a Christian-inspired intervention against Islam because it was carried out by “Western” countries. The “therefores” multiply.
Paradoxically, Christians in Pakistan are not viewed as being immoral like “in the West”, just “other”, the other side of a “them and us” divide.
Muslims, as well as Christians, have to be aware of the negative influence of framing on their understanding of the religious belief of others and be able to identify the sources of the framing. One way of gauging the intensity of the framing in Pakistan about Christianity is to observe the reactions of newly arrived Pakistani priests, religious and seminarians in Rome. They have been exposed in Pakistan through education, cinema, media and society to years of negative framing about Christianity “in the West” and they arrive not quite knowing what to expect.
Through pastoral work in Italian parishes, their studies, and participating with crowds of pilgrims in liturgy and worship, they are delighted to see and meet normal Christians who respect one another, who are happy in their families and work and who live good lives. Experience collapses the ideological framing.
Fr Robert McCulloch is an Australian Columban priest who served in Pakistan from 1978 to 2011 and was honoured by the Pakistani Government for services to health and education in 2012