Religious minorities under constant threat in Pakistan

 Nasir Khan, April 23, 2017

The Pakistani state, its educational and judicial institutions that are deeply influenced by a flimsy religiosity and phoney piety present some ghoulish contradictions for any modern democratic state. How can we combine theocracy with democracy and call it the Islamic Republic of Pakistan? This spectacle continues to defy any clear understanding of the underlying assumptions for a modern democratic state.

The way the new ruling elites of Pakistan brought in Islam arbitrarily as a sectarian force in a multi-religious country has bedevilled the social fabric of Pakistan. It all happened after the death of its strong secularist leader Mr. Jinnah in 1948 in the newly-established state of Pakistan that had come into existence as a result of the partition of India in 1947. When he was no longer there to guide the policies or the future direction the country was to take, some rigid orthodox Muslim leaders and manipulators of Islam came to the fore for political power and became major political actors. Had Mr. Jinnah lived a few years more, then he would have laid the foundations of a modern democratic state, where every religious community was free to practise its faith without the intervention of state or any coercive policies to advance the interests of any one section of Muslims.

After Mr. Jinnah’s death, the gradual process of exploitation of Islam became a standard practice. Political and religious leaders played with the sensitivities of a gullible and largely illiterate population in the name of Islam. The big drive to misuse Islam was helped by indoctrination in religious schools, called madrassas, and mosques as well as in ordinary schools and institutions of education where the teaching of Islamic dogmas has been part of official policy. The syllabuses for the younger generation starting from the elementary schools to the universities are made with a view to bringing in religion in every possible way. We see that happening even in books on physics, biology and botany, etc. that start with some quotation from the Qur’an or a saying of the Prophet.

As a result, such formal instilling of dogmas became quite common and the country became a centre of religious intolerance, sectarianism and vicious victimisation of religious minorities and sects. For the militant Islamists and fanatic fundamentalists the field was open to resort to violence, coercion and intimidation on socially and politically marginalsed religious minorities.

The lynching of Mashal Khan, a 23-year-old journalism student in Pakistan on 13 April 2017 shows the problem ordinary people of Pakistan face at the hands of Islamists, who are willing do anything to stop any voice they consider goes against their ideologies and sectarian theologies. In Pakistan, Muslim extremists have killed innocent people, both Muslims and non-Muslims, over the years. The murders of innocent people on concocted charges of blasphemy and sectarian violence continue to cause much insecurity and fear among all sections of the population.

The misguided killers of innocent people also think that what they do is to safeguard the sanctity of God and the honour of the Prophet. However, it is a total prevarication because in Pakistan where there are 97% people Muslims, God and the Prophet have never been under any threat. They are safe, secure and beyond any threat to their power or status. Any false accusations against innocent people and then killing them or targeting them cannot be justified merely because some ignorant and muddle-headed people thought what they were doing was some good work on behalf of God or the Prophet. In fact, such people are not operating in a vacuum. The blasphemy laws of Pakistan are a fertile ground for such killers and other violent criminals to use as tools to advance their reign of terror. Consequently, both the State and Islamists are upholders of the blasphemy stick for destructive purposes. Religious minorities have to bear the brunt of the violence and terror because of such unjust and primitive laws that are fully exploited by the Islamists and other sections of the Muslim population whimsically, very often to settle some private conflicts or petty quarrels.

There are numerous cases when ordinary people from the Muslim community have falsely accused the members of a religious minority for blasphemy. A few years ago, two Christian labourers, a married couple, were thrown in a burning brick kiln after they were falsely accused to have insulted the Holy Qur’an. A local mullah and his congregation appeared on the scene and helped the kiln workers to break the bones of the man before throwing him and his wife in the kiln, where they died in the most frightening way. Similarly, there is he case of Asia Bibi, a married Christian woman who was falsely accused of blasphemy and sentenced to death. She is still languishing in jail. When the governor of Punjab Salman Taseer spoke against the unjust imprisonment of Asia Bibi and opposed the blasphemy laws, he was gunned down in 2011 by his bodyguard, an fanatic Islamist. Another person, who spoke on behalf of Asia Bibi was Shahbaz Bhatti, a Christian, who was minorities minister in the central government. He was killed in 2010.

Religious minorities in Pakistan are at the mercy of the majority and extremely vulnerable because of the Muslim extremists. In an atmosphere of rampant religious discrimination and bigotry, it is quite common for ordinary Muslims to view non-Muslims as infidels (kafirs). The mullahs, preachers and Islamists have instilled such beliefs in the people. The next step in this innate assertion of the superiority of Islam as the only true religion is to bring non-Muslims to Islam. As a result every ignorant Muslim feels qualified to assert the uniqueness of Islam and its fundamentals. What sort of Islam the people indoctrinated in religious schools (madrassas) and other educational insitution can preach is not difficult to imagine for an impartial, educated person.

In Pakistan it is so easy for anyone to accuse another person of having insulted God, the Prophet or Islam and thus entangle any innocent person in the blasphemy laws where the punishments is death. These situations of framing the innocent people in cases that lead to the most cruel penalties brings to mind the tortures inflicted on the witches in the Middle Ages in Europe. For the outside world, the so-called blasphemy laws of Pakistan may appear ridiculous, absurd and insane for the present age, but those who are at the receiving end of such barbaric laws are not some imaginary creatures but ordinary human beings who become victims of institutionalised injustice in the name of Islam. No wonder, Pakistan has jailed more people on spurious allegations for blasphemy than any other country in this century.

We should pay attention to the fact that most brainwashed and indoctrinated people genuinely believe that the true voice of Islam comes from the mullahs and that the blasphemy laws of Pakistan are to protect Islam. During the countrywide demonstrations that followed the assassination of governor Salman Taseer, most people supported the blasphemy laws. Among these people were thousands of lawyers and university teachers!

In reality, Pakistani rulers had used the Islam card for their political objectives and in doing so had given a free-hand to the clerics to unleash their toxic sectarian and anti-democratic propaganda against all democratic forces and rational ideas. What this leads to is before our eyes. Any Muslim can take the law into his hands and accuse anyone of insulting God or the Prophet and feel free to kill any such falsely accused person. This is what happened in the recent case of Mashal Khan at the hands of a large crowd of Pakistani university students and others. Such misguided Pakistanis feel they are doing something worthy and noble when they kill anyone in the name of Islam. Thus Islam was transformed into a caricature by the mullahs, fanatic Islamic parties and organizations, and by the Pakistani rulers. Now, ordinary people are falling victims to the barbarity in the name of a religion.

Pakistani law is not able to defend the legal and civil rights of its citizens because it vitiates the basic norms of the freedom of conscience where people are allowed to follow and practise any religion or cult as long as any such religion or sect does not violate the laws of the land or violate the rights of other citizens. Moreover, there is no restraint upon anyone in a democratic country to convert to some other religion voluntarily or reject all religions and follow some alternative world outlooks such as atheism, agnosticism, scepticism or humanism, etc. These things happen in all democratic and civilised countries where the respect for people’s freedom of conscience is a norm.

Modern states do not force people to follow any religion or reject any religion. That’s a matter left to the individual’s choice, in which the state or public authorities do not interfere. Such ideas may seem strange to the vast majority of Pakistani Muslims, because they have experienced only discriminatory laws against some sects like the Ahmadis, who were classified as non-Muslim community in 1974. Since then, the Ahmadis have been subject to all sorts of atrocities and oppression. From the state authorities to the common man in the street, and from the from the Muslim theologians to the village mullahs, the Ahmadis are kafirs (non-believers) and they can be reviled, abused and molested with impunity by any Muslim! It was in such a milieu of intolerance, hostility and vile oppression that some right-wing Islamist students spread the false rumours about Mashal Khan to be an Ahmadi and then gathered a large crowd to lynch him in the most barbaric way.

If a solution is to be found to the uncontrolled disease that is afflicting Pakistan, then the solution lies in diagnosing the cause of the disease. It is no secret that the people of Pakistan have widespread institutions throughout the country where young people are drilled into religious fanaticism that has a big social impact on all sections of the population. Even the so-called ‘educated’ people who have gone or go to universities or professional institutions are not immune to the pervasive indoctrination and religious fanaticism. What the students of Mardan University did with a fellow student Mashal Khan is the latest instance of the bitter fruit that an unrestrained exploitation of Islam is producing.

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