Religion, Politics and Minorities in Pakistan

Religion and politics
Rubina SaigolMonday, September 21, 2009
The writer is an independent researcher specialising in social developmentIn the past few months, there has been a noticeable increase in religiously-motivated violence against minority communities, especially in Punjab. The most recent case is that of 20-year-old Robert Fanish Masih, whose mysterious death in the Sialkot district jail, where he was interned after accusations of defiling the Holy Quran, raises serious suspicions of foul play and murder. According to a press release by the Joint Action Committee, this incident is reminiscent of an earlier one in which Muhammad Yousaf, also accused of committing blasphemy, was found dead in jail and the authorities declared it to be a case of suicide.Cases of murderous attacks against Christians by frenzied mobs have risen at an alarming rate. In March, a Christian woman was killed in Gujranwala where a church was attacked. On June 30, a mob destroyed more than 50 Christian houses in Bahmaniwala in Kasur district and looted and plundered the village. And on July 30, seven people were brutally murdered in the Gojra carnage.

The typical pattern in many of these cases is an accusation (usually false) of the commission of blasphemy by a rival. This is normally followed by announcements from mosques loudspeakers inciting people who then congregate and turn upon their own neighbours and erstwhile friends. As pointed out by the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, the local administration and police often collude with the perpetrators or, at best, stand by and do nothing, themselves fearful of the mob. The state becomes an onlooker instead of intervening to protect its powerless citizens against the heinous crimes committed in broad daylight.

As the large number of blasphemy cases in the past have demonstrated, the real motive for instigating the crowd often has nothing to do with blasphemy. Frequently, disputes over money, property or other pecuniary matters lead to false accusations of blasphemy. An accusation of blasphemy is invariably deployed as a weapon to browbeat others into submission. In the famous case of Salamat Masih, a 14-year-old accused of writing blasphemous words on a wall, the quarrel among children started over pigeon fights. Had human rights activists like Asma Jahangir not saved his life, our state was about to send an innocent person – a child – to the gallows. The horrific implications of law cannot be overstated.

What has enabled religion to be used as a weapon to incite raw passions against fellow citizens to murder them with impunity? The immediate cause is the pernicious and widely abused blasphemy law as enunciated in Chapter XV of the Pakistan Penal Code. Sections 295 to 298 of the chapter refer to offences related to religion. Section 295 provides that, “Whoever destroys, damages or defiles any place of worship, or any object held sacred by any class of persons with the intention of thereby insulting the religion of any class of persons is likely to consider such destruction, damage or defilement as an insult to their religion, shall be punished with imprisonment of either description for a term which may extend to two years or with fine or with both.” In 1927, the British government added 295-A which reads that “whoever with deliberate and malicious intention of outraging the religious feelings of any class of His Majesty’s subjects, by words, either spoken or written, or by visible representation, insults or attempts to insult the religion or the religious beliefs of that class, shall be punished with imprisonment of either description for a term which may extend to two years, or with fine, or with both.” In 1991, the imprisonment term was extended from two to 10 years.

In 1982, at the peak of General Zia’s period, 295-B was added to include the desecration of the Holy Quran and to enhance punishment. This section reads as follows: “Whoever wilfully defiles, damages or desecrates a copy of the Holy Quran or of an extract therefrom, or uses it in any derogatory manner or for any unlawful purpose shall be punishable with imprisonment for life.” The Majlis-e-Shoora designed by Zia further added 295-C, which reads: “Whoever by word, either spoken or written, or by visible representation, or by any imputation, innuendo or insinuation, directly or indirectly, defiles the sacred name of the Holy Prophet Muhammad (Peace Be Upon Him) shall be punished with death or imprisonment for life, and shall also be liable to fine.” In 1990, the Federal Shariat Court constituted by Zia hammered the last nail in the coffin of sanity and justice by declaring that Islam provides punishment for hadd which is mandatory, therefore the words “imprisonment for life” should be removed from Section 295-C. Now, the only punishment for blasphemy was death. Section 298 relates to the Ahmadiyya community and institutionalises systemic prejudice against their right to practice their faith.

Before the Federal Shariat Court provided for the mandatory death penalty, no case of blasphemy was registered under Section 295-B or 295-C. This judgment paved the way for murder and created the environment in which vigilantism was encouraged and promoted. Manzoor Masih lost his life in a wanton act of murder outside the Lahore High Court. One of the court’s judges, Justice Arif Bhatti, who overturned the conviction of Salamat and Rehmat Masih by a lower court, was murdered by the purveyors of a grotesquely distorted religion. Niamat Ahmar, a poet and teacher, was butchered in Faisalabad by activists of the Sipah-e-Sahab-e-Pakistan; Bantu Masih and Mukhtar Masih were killed in police custody by fundamentalists while the authorities looked on. In 2008, two Ahmadis were murdered when a television anchor declared their community wajib-ul-qatl (deserving to be killed).

How has the state enabled this travesty of justice, this steady descent into inhumanity? The blasphemy law is only a part of the story; the issue of religious inequality and discrimination is much deeper. The entire problem began with the Objectives Resolution of 1949 when the state began to move in the direction of a theocracy. Its passage, despite the objections of the non-Muslim members of the Constituent Assembly, became possible because Jinnah’s vision, as outlined on August 11, 1947, was overlooked. Subsequently, every Constitution of Pakistan (1956, 1962 and 1973) carried a section on Islamic provisions which mandated that all laws would be enacted in line with religion.

Religious discrimination and inequality are institutionalised within the state structure. Article 2 of the Constitution declares that Islam is the state religion and Article 2-A makes the Objectives Resolution a substantive part of the Constitution. Non-Muslim citizens cannot hold two of the highest offices of the land and Islamic provisions of the Constitution (Articles 227-230) are designed to ensure that all laws conform to the Holy Quran and Sunnah. Citizens belonging to other faiths are systemically excluded and relegated to a secondary position. The increasingly religious character of the Constitution, with General Zia’s Eighth Amendment protecting his draconian vision and measures, violates the principle of equal citizenship on which the entire edifice of democracy rests.

Every provision that reduces the citizenship status of groups of people contradicts Article 25 (1) of the fundamental rights chapter which pronounces that all citizens are equal before the law. Similarly, Article 8 (1) avers that any law, custom or usage that is inconsistent with the rights conferred by this chapter shall be null and void. It follows that all the provisions that create discrimination and inequality among citizens should be removed. As Pakistanis focus on the task of reformulating their basic law and re-imagining their state, it seems prudent to separate religion from politics, as their mixture debases both religion and politics – the former by associating it purely with the attainment of political power and militant activity, the latter by making some more equal than others. Merely repealing the blasphemy law is not sufficient; we need to transform the basic framework from which such laws flow.

Email: (The News)

Looking for justice —Syed Mansoor Hussain

The ultimate conundrum is that if a Christian is asked the question, do you believe that the Prophet of Islam (pbuh) was a Prophet and the Quran is the word of God, the believing Christians must say no, and if they say that, under the law are they not guilty of blasphemy and have committed a capital offence

Last week I had hinted that I might write about how Muslim Americans have become discriminated pariahs in the US after 9/11. But then something at home forced me to concentrate on what is happening to minorities in Pakistan. Indeed in comparison it almost made me feel better about how we as Muslims are being treated in the US.

The Gojra carnage that has mysteriously disappeared from public perception and our news channels and newspapers is just one thing. More recently, a young Christian boy arrested for blasphemy died in jail, the ‘authorities’ insisting that it was a suicide. Sure!

And then the story broke about the case of a ‘mentally retarded’ woman who has languished in custody for thirteen years after being accused of blasphemy but was never presented in court. This woman has been officially declared as somebody probably incapable of even understanding the meaning of blasphemy and yet remained incarcerated for all this time without judicial review.

“You are free; you are free to go to your temples, you are free to go to your mosques or to any other place of worship in this State of Pakistan.” That is what Jinnah said sixty-two years ago to the people of Pakistan but today the very same people who shout the loudest about Jinnah and his legacy are the ones that ignore his words.

Almost two decades ago when democracy had just returned to Pakistan after a rather egregious military dictatorship, Pakistani Americans had a series of seminars in New York City to discuss what needed to be done in Pakistan to strengthen democracy. Platitudes galore! However, one almost offhand remark about the state of minorities in Pakistan during one such ‘seminar’ remains stuck in my mind.

Somebody brought up the fact that the Pakistani flag has a white part representing minorities and therefore minorities are an important and protected part of our national heritage. But then an obviously ‘liberal’ cynic pointed out that after all Pakistanis needed some part of the flag to drive the pole through. Of course what he said sounds a lot more ‘descriptive’ in Punjabi.

As I sit here today thinking about how our minorities, especially the Christians are being treated in ‘modern’ Pakistan, that remark reverberates ever so much in my mind. However, historically the Pakistani establishment has never been kind to minorities.

The Ahmadiyya community was targeted during the agitation in 1953 and Zulfikar Ali Bhutto the secularist declared them non-Muslims twenty years later under religious pressure. Even the Shia have been, and still are, under threat. Fortunately for the Shia they are much too large a community and too integrated to be easily separated and targeted except in discrete areas of the country.

Perhaps some of my readers might even remember a time not too long ago when Shia doctors were being killed just because they were Shia. Interestingly, some of them were killed just because they had Shia-sounding names, so much so that Shia doctors and even some with Shia-sounding names began to leave Pakistan.

Of the minorities, most of the Sikhs left Pakistan at the time of partition as did most Hindus with a few staying behind, mostly in Sindh. During the first few decades of Pakistan, the Christian community was an important and fully integrated part of the national fabric. There was a thriving ‘Anglo’ community in Lahore that I remember well and many Christians held important positions as educators, civil servants and members of the armed forces.

But everything started to change after the “enlightened” days of Islamisation. Most, if not all, of those that could afford it among the Christians, the Ahmadis and even the Parsees left Pakistan for western countries. Sadly, of the Christians left behind the majority now belongs to the poorer classes and therefore is most vulnerable.

The recent spate of violence against the Christian community is not entirely about religious extremism and an excess of ‘Islamist’ zeal. I personally believe that after the Taliban and their supporters became isolated and unpopular due to attacks on other Muslims, they have changed tactics. Any radical organisation needs to keep its base involved and fired up and since attacks that killed other Muslims became undesirable, the Christian community has become an easy and obvious target.

Considering the political and bureaucratic indifference to these attacks, this strategy of attacking Christians seems to be paying off. It provides the Taliban types with enough ‘face time’ on TV and in newspapers and keeps their radical base involved and active. Unfortunately many in our bureaucracy, among the politicians as well as in our lower judiciary are either entirely intimidated by, or else agree with, the Islamist types and therefore do not pursue cases against them to bring them to justice.

The ‘apologists’ for the Taliban types keep repeating the mantra that Islam is a tolerant religion and as such the violence aimed at Christians or even against Muslims could not possibly be the work of real Muslims. Who then were the people that burned houses and residents in Gojra or recently blew up a hotel in Kohat? Are they not Muslims and are they not doing whatever they are doing in the name of Islam?

The ultimate conundrum is that if a Christian is asked the question, do you believe that the Prophet of Islam (pbuh) was a Prophet and the Quran is the word of God, the believing Christians must say no, and if they say that, under the law are they not guilty of blasphemy and have committed a capital offence?

And that is my question to the powers that be. What is more important when it comes to the survival of the federation, the price of sugar or the legally sanctioned killing of non-Muslims just because they believe in their faith as we do in ours?

Syed Mansoor Hussain has practised and taught medicine in the US. He can be reached at (Daily Times)



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