While growing up in Lala Musa (Gujrat, Punjab) and Islamabad in Pakistan, I have witnessed Christians as domestic workers in my home and neighborhood. This job is considered to be one of the lowest forms of work that include cleaning, washing and cooking. In my younger age, due to the lack of exposure, I had a feeling that all the Christian are economically disadvantaged. But similar to most of the kids of my age, I never bothered to think of the reasons behind their economic marginalization. This may be due to the fact that in public schools of Pakistan, students are not usually encouraged to think critically and question.
Unfortunately, this educational foundation stays with some of us for the lifetime, therefore, we become blind followers of almost anything, either good or bad, and as a consequence, the majority does not react to something until that really starts to bother them. Therefore, the plight of religious minorities does not bother many Muslims in Pakistan as they have learned to do not question the verdicts issued by clerics and teachers, and other influential figures.
The situation becomes worse in case of the typical followers if an issue is associated with religious sanctions, which has been the case with blasphemy laws in Pakistan. Sadly, not much debate has been encouraged regarding such laws, despite the fact that such blasphemy laws have often legitimized violence and judicial discrimination against the religious minorities in Pakistan.
In an environment of religious intolerance and mounting Islam-West conflict, in the backdrop of the war against terrorism in Afghanistan and Pakistan, blasphemy laws have increasingly been misused. Therefore, it is not surprising that the UK-based Minority Rights Group puts Pakistan seventh in the list of countries where minorities are highly under the threat.
According to official figures, Pakistan is home to over 96 percent Muslim population with 3.54 percent religious minorities, including Christians, Hindu, Ahmadiya, Parsi, Buddhist, Sikh and others. As Christianity is the second biggest religion in the country, with 1.59 percent (roughly 2.5 million) followers, therefore, Christians have been highly exposed to the injustices, under blasphemy laws, in comparison to other minority groups, therefore, the focus of my article is on Muslim-Christian relations. The article is also timely because considering the current circumstances, the country and perhaps the whole world needs to engage in dialogues on minority rights.
Recently, a Pakistani Christian woman, Aasia Bibi, was sentenced to death for insulting the Prophet Muhammad. Aasia is believed to be the first woman sentenced to death under Pakistan’s infamous laws, therefore this issue has become international and even the Pope Benedict XVI has demanded justice for the woman. The pressure from abroad has worked in Aasia’s case and as a consequence the President of Pakistan has initiated an inquiry over this matter.
Hereby, it is important to mention that though no-one has ever been executed under this law around ten accused previously, were found murdered even before the completion of their trials, this matter needs to be considered seriously.
Apart from the case of Aasia Bibi, there is a lot more to be discussed regarding the impacts blasphemy laws on majority vs. minority relations in Pakistan.
Shortly before the 62nd birthday of Pakistan in 2009, a tragic incident happened in Gojra of district Toba Tek Singh, in which a group of Muslims looted and burned houses and a Catholic church in the colony. As a result of this sad event, seven Christians were killed and 20 were injured. Similar to that, a group of extremists known as Sipah-e-Sahaba reacted over an incident that allegedly involved Christian children tearing pages of the Qur’an.
Such issues raised concerns over the protection of religious minorities in the country and personally affected me too since I am a person who identifies himself as a peace-maker. The Gojra episode influenced me in many ways, not only because Toba Tek Singh is my hometown but also because the country, already facing various problems, cannot afford to ignore the issue of inter-religious conflicts.
According to a report of Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, the Gojra incident was pre-planned and the police had the information that an attack was developing but did nothing to prevent it. The reaction of the local police did not surprise me because the majority belonging to the “followers” group tends to avoid any tension related to religious extremists. Thus, we need to brainstorm for the ways to protect the innocent and somewhat ignorant people, from the reach of extremism propagated in the name of religion.
Muslim-Christian relations in Pakistan have reached their lowest in the recent past mainly due to a number of international events, such as the so-called war against terrorism in Afghanistan, war in Iraq, the issue of blasphemous cartoons being published by a Danish newspaper and others. Such issues, abroad have added misery to the lives of Christians in Pakistan, therefore, often they have been called as “American jasoos” meaning American agents. This treatment is absolutely flawed but Muslims, who have just learned to be the followers, continue to be exploited by religious extremists in the country, and those groups often demand their followers to mistreat religious minorities as a sign of their solidarity with the Muslim brotherhood. It is reported that to-date there have been 500 people charged with blasphemy in Pakistan.
Now that we know the dismal state of inter-religious relations in Pakistan, it is important to recall when and where the nation got derailed from the path identified by the father of the nation, Muhammad Ali Jinnah. In his famous address to the Constituent Assembly on August 11, 1947, Jinnah wished for an inclusive and impartial government, religious freedom, rule of law and equality for all. Pakistan has been an Islamic republic since 1952 but at the national-level the values of secularism were practiced for many years after the independence in 1947.
Unfortunately, the country couldn’t inherit all the values advocated by Jinnah because he could not play his crucial role towards framing the state’s constitution, as he died in 1948. But, during his lifetime, Jinnah was able to appeal on the basis of Islam for religious pluralism in Pakistan.
Reactions from Islamic groups and some prominent scholars was not surprising, as they all demanded Pakistan to be declared as an Islamic state ; that is, a homeland for Muslims. Islamic parties lobbied for the Islamization of the state, but only two successive constitutions passed in 1956 and 1962 had avoided any pressure from such groups and followed Jinnah’s vision of secularism in Pakistan.
After the death of Jinnah, some governments out of their fight for survival relied on the support of Islamists and consequently “Islam” emerged as the raison d‘être of the state. However, the more the state became Islamic the more religious minorities suffered in Pakistan. The situation got worse with the implementation of the Blasphemy laws in the country by a dictator, General Zia ul Haq in the 1980s. Pakistan’s blasphemy laws are considered as the strictest among countries with a Muslim majority. The provisions of laws forbid, among others, defaming of the Qur’an and Prophet Muhammad. The first merits include the imprisonment for life and the other, death with or without fine.
Thus far religious minorities in Pakistan demand the implementation of Jinnah’s vision in letter and spirit. In 2007, to celebrate the 60th anniversary of Jinnah’s 11th August speech, religious minorities, including Christians, Hindus and Sikhs gathered at the Minar-e-Pakistan in Lahore to recall the secularism being promoted by Jinnah. It is important to mention that Jinnah was clear on separating religion from the affairs of the state, which is clear from what he believed in: “You are free to go to your temple; you are free to go to your mosques or to any other place of worship in this state of Pakistan. You may belong to any caste or creed – that has nothing to do with the business of the state”.
In response to national and international demands from the civil society and other groups, the Musharraf government in 2000 attempted to amend blasphemy laws but all the efforts went in vain, due to the opposition coming from the conservative clerics.
Presently, after the judgment on Aasia Bibi’s case, once again the civil society groups have joined hands for a collective effort to abolish blasphemy laws. Would that be enough? I have doubts, because the country needs sustainable solutions to curb the influence of religious extremism, and one way to deal with that is to provide quality education at all levels, and to everyone. Recently, there has been a scheme of providing free education to school going children but more effort is required to ensure that the contents taught at schools are promoting inter-religious harmony. In the meantime, a lot more is needed to protect minorities against the cruelties of blasphemy laws, but most of all, the country needs appropriate policies to ensure equal opportunities for all citizens irrespective of their religion.