By Hassan Niazi
March 21, 2018
Ours is a state that was carved out for the protection of a religious minority. To show our devotion to religious plurality we created a symbol: a dab of white on a green flag. Somewhere along the way a culture of hatred for religious minorities was bred in this new state.
It became commonplace to hear about Christians burnt alive in kilns and Hindu children being murdered. We watched with almost criminal apathy as ridiculous laws were promulgated and given the official stamp of approval. Now we watch with the same apathy as our law mandates that every person must make a compulsory declaration of their faith to obtain vital documents or to attain employment with the government. While this means nothing for the dominant religious group in Pakistan, it can mean life and death for all the others.
It is not surprising that the first images that cross the mind when hearing of this are those related to apartheid South Africa and the Third Reich. Mandating by law that a declaration of religious belief is necessary and then adding a requirement that each such declaration be investigated for falsehood would make the Nazis smile. That is hardly a goal that a democratic, constitutional state should strive for.
A person’s religious belief is linked with certain important constitutional rights, one of them being privacy. As long as I do not harm others, my belief and how I choose to practise it are my private affair and should be protected by my right of privacy. A citizen’s faith in Pakistan bears enormous consequences for how he will be treated; therefore, if the state wishes to force them to disclose it, it better be doing its part to protect them from all forms of discrimination. Our state is nowhere close to doing so, so it should let religion remain a private affair.
Second, forcing individuals to disclose their religion — when it is a fact that they will be persecuted against because of it — is also a violation of a person’s right to religious freedom. This is not some hypothesis; it is a fact in our country. Deviations from the majority theology are enough for persecution. If that is the attitude towards people who are believers of Islam what chance is there for those with completely different belief systems? How many people of the Ahmadi faith will be able to secure government jobs — or any for that matter — when their faith is laid bare on all their documents? The recent Islamabad High Court ruling says that a failure to declare your faith is a ‘betrayal of the state’ even though it is the state itself which has betrayed and let down Pakistan’s religious minorities time and again by doing nothing to correct this state of affairs.
At present, it is pointless to argue that we should discard our Constitution’s express predilection for the Muslim faith. That provision is not changing anytime soon, nor is discarding it going to miraculously make everyone tolerant. We must then engage with and integrate into our discourse Islam’s tolerant ideas and historical accounts of its views on religious plurality. For example, historically Islam was seen as a welcome antidote to the repressive papal laws that would often lead to the persecution of Jews; while the Abbasid Caliphs had many non-Muslims serving as senior government officials.
The Prophet (PBUH), in Madinah, aligned his community with the Jews and even set the day for Muslim congregational prayer on Friday afternoon. Reza Aslan writes that this was done because the Prophet (PBUH) wanted it to coincide with, but not disrupt, Jewish preparations for the Sabbath, hence bringing the community together.
We can dream of a time when a person’s faith in Pakistan will not open them up to prejudice, but that dream is still illusive. The removal of our state’s repressive laws and judgments is only a small part of the solution to this problem. To cure the complex jigsaw of deterring violent mobs from attacking people with different faiths it is vital, on a grander scale, for social reform that both educates and perpetuates tolerance. Liberty after all lies in the heart of the people. And it is only when the popular mindset of our society changes its views in accordance with the true spirit of Islam will we start moving away from repressive laws. Without an internalisation of religious freedom as a vital element of our society, no number of constitutional guarantees can help us.