By Gulmina Bilal Ahmad
30 Sep, 2011
The hate speech and rhetoric against religious minorities has done irreparable damage to our society. The so-called religious clerics have been responsible for such rhetoric and always manage to herd the poor and ignorant populace in the name of religion, while silencing any opposition by threatening retribution and dire consequences
The small, sleepy and largely unknown town of Havelian has made its way into the news these days due to the alleged incident of blasphemy that has stirred the town’s social fabric and created a rift between the Muslims and Christians settled in the area. From what has surfaced in news reports, it has been ascertained that a 13-year-old Christian girl belonging to the eighth grade erroneously misspelled the word ‘naat’, which means praise for holy Prophet Muhammad (PBUH). This was reported to the school administration and, eventually, the news spread like wildfire, involving the local clerics and community. The end result of the matter, despite an apology from the girl and her family over the mistake, was that the girl was expelled from school and her mother, a nurse in the local hospital, was transferred to another area. Apparently, the local clerics and prayer leaders utilised this opportunity to the best of their abilities by creating an environment of tension through their sermons, demanding strict action not only against the girl but also against her family for the alleged sacrilege. In short, the administration was held hostage and forced to take a decision to defuse the growing tensions. At least, for the time being, tensions have been defused, but at the cost of trauma and guilt inflicted on the girl and her family in particular, and on the Christian community in general.
This is not the first, and certainly not an isolated, incident of its kind in Pakistan. Everyone can recall from events in the recent past that non-Muslim Pakistanis and others fighting for their rights have been targeted with impunity. Unlike the hate speech spread by radical elements, Islam is a religion of peace that preaches tolerance and coexistence not only within Muslim communities but also with other beliefs. What can better explain the rights of minorities in Islam than this saying of the Holy Prophet (PBUH): “Beware, if anyone wrongs a contracting man (a non-Muslim protected by the state or an agreement), or diminishes his right, or forces him to work beyond his capacity, or takes from him anything without his consent, I shall plead for him on the Day of Judgment” (narrated by Abu-Dawud, Al-Kharaj, tribute 3052). I might have mentioned it before but would like to stress once again Muhammad Ali Jinnah’s quote, “You may belong to any religion or caste or creed that has nothing to do with the business of the state.” Surprisingly, even after inheriting such values of tolerance and coexistence, Pakistan’s track record is otherwise.
According to Human Rights Watch’s (HRW) 21st Annual World Report 2011, discriminatory laws and violence against minorities in Pakistan are a major concern. Recently, there has been a spike in the hatred that is being spread across the country against religious minorities. This has not only surfaced as discrimination but also as violence. The victims of this onslaught by radical elements also included Punjab Governor Salmaan Taseer and Federal Minister Shahbaz Bhatti, both icons of the federation and both brutally murdered for their stand on the blasphemy laws and human rights. The hate speech and rhetoric against religious minorities, especially Christians, has done irreparable damage to our society. Minorities have been alienated; they consider themselves vulnerable and not viewed as equal citizens. The so-called religious clerics have been responsible for such rhetoric and, not surprisingly, always manage to herd the poor and ignorant populace in the name of religion, while silencing any opposition by threatening retribution and dire consequences. Our administration and centres of power are also held hostage by the situations created by these elements and are unable to take any measures. The immediate priority is to defuse the tension but, in the long run, these tensions always boil over at some point. Riots and incidents of terrorism targeting minorities throughout the history of Pakistan are evident examples of how the situation has been allowed to simmer, eventually reaching boiling point.
What happened to the unfortunate eighth grade student had nothing to do with blasphemy. It was sheer discrimination against a non-Muslim. The administration, while spelling out her punishment, played into the hands of the radicals. The teacher and the administration personnel in question could have diffused the matter by counseling her and accepting her apology. However, given all the hue and cry, the situation was allowed to spin out of control. The girl had also apologised to the khatib (cleric) of the local mosque, who perhaps comprises the religious clergy of the small town, but to no avail. The poor girl perhaps did not even realise what she was writing, given the standard and system of education in our country. Attaining good grades is a priority, achieved through memorising each and every word without understanding the meaning or reason. Here, the girl, teacher, administration, community and cleric are not the guilty parties. It is the entire country that bears the guilt. We as citizens have hung back like spectators, while the discrimination against, and alienation of, the minorities takes place every other day at the expense of the future of Pakistan. Instead of putting our foot down to stop the rift being created, we fear retribution and prefer silence.
We need to realise that the religious minorities are as Pakistani as we are and they are proud to be so. They have their rights and their responsibilities like every other Pakistani citizen. The minority groups have actively contributed to the progress and development of the country. There are numerous success stories from these communities and they have always stood shoulder to shoulder with the entire country in its hour of need. These are testing times for them and now they require our support more than ever before. Our civil society, religious scholars, community representatives, politicians and the administration will have to play their part in breaking the silence. Radical elements have to be made to realise that their dirty politics will not bear fruit for them.
The writer is an Islamabad-based consultant.
Source: The Daily Times, Lahore