By Usman Ahmad
September 20, 2017
It was a grotesque juxtaposition.
On one side was a post by a BBC journalist drawing focus to the mournful details that had emerged from the murder of a teenage boy in Vehari District, Pakistan. Sharoon Masih, the only Christian student in his year, was beaten to death by his classmates. It was a brutal reminder of the struggles faced by Christians in the country. As horrific as the killing was, the intimate outlines of his personal story, the type that are often lost to the surface need of dazzling headlines, were what gave the tragedy its insurmountable weight. Sharoon’s parents had spent years saving for him to go to school; even then they were not able to muster enough money to buy him a uniform. On his first day the boy was slapped by his teacher and made to stand outside the classroom as punishment for turning up in his own clothes. His family had looked to him to support them once his education was finished; instead, now it was his life and their dreams that were over.
Next to this ran a video from Pakistan’s premier televangelist, Aamir Liaquat Hussain. In it, Hussain, who was joined by another Pakistani celebrity Waqar Zaka, claimed to be speaking from a Myanmar airport while on a mission to help the victims of the unfolding genocide of Rohingya Muslims. Among their aims was a rescue attempt of a Rohingya family whom they hoped to bring back to Pakistan. The Myanmar authorities, however, were having none of it and soon after the video was posted the pair were arrested before being deported out of the county. Rumours later swirled that Hussain and Zaka had only reached as far as Thailand from where they were unceremoniously turned away. Whatever the truth, this screwball misadventure became a curious footnote to one of the greatest humanitarian crises of modern times.
Hussain’s aborted crusade is a metaphor for a “Pakistani exceptionalism” which is born out of the preciously held idea that Pakistan follows a different path of history, one which is defined solely in terms of the country’s commitment to Islam. As one of the early slogans of the young nation bears: “What is the meaning of Pakistan? That God is one and Muhammad is his messenger.” Consequently, the struggles of Muslim communities throughout the world, like the Rohingya, are seen as the struggles of Pakistan itself.
Unfortunately, this form of self-realization does not harmonize well with the predicament of Pakistan’s own minority population whose persecution is the candle that fades into insignificance, at once overwhelming and invisible; part of the national fabric but barely acknowledged.
In creating a homeland for Muslims, Pakistan’s founders sought a safe haven against what they considered to be a hostile Hindu majority. The two-nation theory as postulated by the leaders of the Muslim League sought to recast centuries of Muslim-Hindu history in India. At once a new beginning and an erasure of the deep and complex multiplicity of the region, the nascent Pakistani state was a ripe battleground for an ideological conflict over how the national imagination of the country would be crafted. Whereas the rallying cry of religion may have proved useful for the mobilization of disparate Muslim communities of different ethnicities, language and culture in the period before partition, it gave rise to the central existential conflict of Pakistan after its birth: If Pakistan was a homeland for Muslims what role was Islam to play in its future?
It did not take long for the question to be answered. In 1949 Pakistan’s Constituent Assembly approved the Objectives Resolution of Pakistan – a document which set out the guiding principles of the future national constitution – and effectively attached Islam to the very heart of Pakistan’s identity. The resolution declared that “sovereignty belongs to Allah” and holds the state responsible to “to order their (Muslims) lives in both the individual and collective spheres in accordance with the teachings of Islam.” The 68 years since have been a chronicle of this peculiar and exclusionary form of national imagination. And that is where Aamir Liaquat Hussain comes in again.
Given the opportunism that has defined his career — Hussain once gave away babies as a prize on one of his annual Ramadan transmissions in order to boost the show’s ratings — it is likely he will seek to exploit his “mission to Burma” to increase his already overbearing public profile. He may have been thwarted in his efforts, but the purity of his intentions should be enough to help him cash in on his hero status. Less likely, however, is the chance that Hussain might use his celebrity to show solidarity with the family of Sharoon Masih, or express concern at the abrupt closure of a private school in Peshawar which educates children mainly from the Sikh community, or even speak out against the targeted killings of at least four family members of an ethnic Hazara Shia family; few have paid heed to their plight before why would anyone start now?
All the tragic events above have taken place against a backdrop of fierce protests by the government and everyday Pakistanis over the continued military campaign in Myanmar. The emotional response between the two though has been very different: one bellicose and furious, the other oblivious and indifferent. The same gaze that is anguished when cast so far abroad, is blind to the suffering of minorities back home.
There Is Another Hypocrisy At Play
The crises in Myanmar, has focused attention on the deplorable plight of Pakistan’s own Rohingya population. Estimated to number 500,000, Rohingya families first settled in the port city of Karachi in 1962 after the coup d’etat which marked the beginning of authoritarian rule in the country. Numbers increased during the 1980s as the military regime of General Zia ul Haq brought them over to study in madrasas and participate in the Afghan jihad. Their presence has not translated into acceptance. Most Rohingyas in Pakistan have been unable to obtain citizenship and many do not even have a national identity card, preventing them from access to public schools, government run healthcare and such everyday things as opening a bank account. The visceral effects of this can be seen in the slummy neighbourhoods of Karachi which the Rohingya mainly inhabit and which are deprived of the most basic facilities forcing the community to live in squalor. There are other frequent hostilities: one of the chief complaints of Karachi’s Rohingya is the routine harassment they face from the city’s policy for their lack of valid documents and local crime.
What tolerance can Pakistan expect from Myanmar for its Muslim minorities when it is unwilling to apply similar concepts itself? In truth, this question possesses little value as few if any in Pakistan will be able to recognize its legitimacy. The vast majority of Pakistanis have given over to an entrenched and self-perpetuating narrative that mirrors the same notions of identity which the Burmese use to justify their oppression of the Rohingya. Driven by the idea that Pakistan is a bastion of Islam, the rights and needs of Muslims trump all others as any potential sympathy for minorities is removed lest it undermine the wider Muslim cause. The real danger though lies in this way of thinking and Pakistan would do well to remember the extremism bred from its own culture when it champions the rights of oppressed people elsewhere.
Usman Ahmad is a British freelance writer and photographer currently based in Pakistan.