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Religious Minorities in Pakistan: A Faith In Shared Humanity Required

By Sherry Rehman 


The nexus between state identity and religion is always a dangerous link. When citizens are massacred and abused on the status of their religious identity, then the slide into bestiality is no longer a heartbeat away. It is firmly among us. At this point only unmitigated public outrage and a matching state response put us back in the league of the civilised and, therefore, human.


Massacre of Ahmadis in Lahore is not the first event to have exposed faultlines in the crafting of a national identity in Pakistan. The Christian pogrom at Gojra in 2009 where the police provided impunity to the attackers, instead of protection to the victims, did just the same.

Equally disturbing is the level and scale of ambiguity from several political parties on the action that governments need to take to protect their citizens.


Of course, many voices were raised at the brutal attack on May 28, but a religious party actually had the audacity to exhort minorities to live within their implicitly secondary status in Pakistan. The parliament rallied eventually to voice condemnation but, even among the heartland of nondenominational parties from Punjab, the reluctance exposed the rot at the heart of the promise. One public official from Punjab actually said that he could not even remove the banners inciting hate against the Ahmadis. We cannot handle the repercussions of that, he openlyconfessed.


This admission of state inability to punish minority-haters is no small event. It reinforces the belief that, like the murderers at Gojra, the Ahmadi-killers too will remain unpunished. It tears the mask from the conceit that in Pakistan, despite its contested identity, the government will at least strive to adhere to some of the fundamental rights of equal citizenship enshrined in the Constitution to all minorities.


Of course, these notional equalities too were brought into challenge by the 18th constitutional amendment which, despite its welcome thrust at restoring many entitlements - including the right for minorities to worship "freely" - reversed some critical ones, by creating an obligation to be Muslim to be president or prime minister. This clearly states that, according to the Constitution now, the right to represent Pakistan in its top elected offices can only go to Muslims. Will we one day only allow a particular sect of Muslims to represent Pakistan?


Because if we continue on these lines, that is the next logical step on a slippery slope of concessions. No one should be surprised that Shia doctors are the target of another grisly round of planned exterminations in Karachi.


Violence gains velocity in an atmosphere of impunity. Quite simply, in the absence of state action, there is little opposition to the narrative that always shifts the debate off-centre from the rights of Pakistani citizens. On all the television channels, religious leaders pop up to cite the primacy of religious law, undeterred by the fact that there is no one single codified Islamic law, to subvert the polar axis of the discourse to a privatised view of justice.


The rights of citizens as guaranteed under the Constitution get left far behind, while the counternarrative from civil society and isolated political voices based on recourse in the Constitution remains unbuttressed by support from the state.


Inertia at a time when moral and political choices have to be made amounts to complicity with turpitude. The government has a unique opportunity to begin reversals of this embrace of insanity. The Constitution protects minorities very explicitly. While it can certainly do more, even a token adherence to a slew of clauses - particularly Article 20 which allows "each citizen to have the right to profess, practise and propagate his religion" - can go a long way in shutting down vitriol against citizens who peacefully worship according to their faith.


The courts too can and should use these provisions to take suo motu notice of such outrages in the name of religiosity. So far the superior courts have remained silent on the flagrant violation of the Constitution.


Pakistan's government can start by following up on the review of the 'blasphemy laws' promised last year. We wilfully embrace insanity if we provide impunity for persecution of our minorities, if we pamper militancy on the one hand, and denounce it on the other. If the provincial budget of the Punjab government grants money to banned terrorist outfits, even if it is to their charitable wings, then we are

truly embracing insanity. Because this is no political leader using extremist votes to buy power. This is institutionalised support to the same outfits we have banned.


Such actions empower the very forces the Pakistan government and army is engaged in fighting at a very heavy cost. It is a negation of the tremendous sacrifice we as a nation are making, of 3,000 people killed by terrorists since last year, of the children still living in refugee camps, of the fear that stalks our streets after thousands of bombs detonate in reprisals to state operations against militants. It is a negation of the democratic, humane part of Pakistan.


Our post-colonial state identity may be ambiguous, but it is precisely this space that can be used as an opportunity to steer our fragile nationhood in another direction.


The writer is a member of Pakistan's parliament, and former federal minister for information

Source: Times of India