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BY IRFAN HUSAIN
7 June 2007
FOR years, Pakistan’s non-Muslims have lived under the lengthening shadow of intolerance and persecution. Liberal critics of the Hudood Laws and the Blasphemy Law, both pieces of legislation being used to target women and the minorities, are told not to embarrass Pakistan by publicly attacking these laws.
But love for one’s country comes in different forms. At one extreme is the American patriot who pronounced: “My country, right or wrong!” At the other is the saying: “Patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel.”
I personally tend towards the latter view. When those ruling the country say or do something I disagree with, I do not feel I am being unpatriotic by pointing it out. Indeed, I agree completely with the sentiment expressed in this wise observation: “A patriot is somebody who will defend the state against the government of the day.”
Occasionally, I am proud to be a Pakistani. Far more frequently, the words and actions of our rulers and our public figures are a source of shame. But while the impact of most official decisions and actions is fleeting, the continuing disgrace of our nation’s treatment of its minorities is a permanent blot on our collective reputation and conscience. While I understand why our religious extremists behave the way they do, the failure of civil society to force a change in laws and attitudes is far more deplorable.
The event that aroused my sense of indignation was the recent visit by a European Union joint commission to Islamabad where they were, in effect, told by the Pakistani team that all was well with our minorities. Those representing us must be totally shameless, for they said without an iota of remorse that our Blasphemy Laws had been around for a hundred years. This is a blatant lie, as they were inflicted on us by Zia ul Haq just over 20 years ago.
Our team went on to ask the EU not to ask the Pakistan government to repeal this infamous piece of legislation as this might make the public think we were being forced into changing the law under Western pressure. Since the government often does the right thing only under foreign pressure, there is every reason for the EU to continue pushing.
For those who think I am over-stating my case, here are some random examples of the horrors inflicted on our non-Muslim and Ahmadi citizens over the last year. These are mostly drawn from the 14 th issue of a newsletter called Pakistan Concern that focused on our minorities.
On April 1, the police in Toba Tek Singh arrested Salamat Masih and 11-year old Daniel Masih, while warrants under the Blasphemy Laws were issued for the arrest of three other members of the Christian family. The charge? That they forcibly removed the ‘Islamic sticker’ from the pocket of Faisal Gulzar, a Muslim boy, and trampled on it. A mob later attacked the Christian Colony where Ratan, a disabled boy, was badly injured. But according to Father Bonnie Mendes, the whole incident started with a fight among the boys in which their parents got involved.
On March 23, Amanat Masih, a 50-year old Christian from Sheikhupura, was tortured by a mob for allegedly burning some pages from the Holy Quran. He was later arrested by the police under the Blasphemy Laws, and remains in jail. His wife, Zohera Bibi, had saved fifty thousand rupees for their daughter’s wedding. This sum was looted by the mob.
On April 8, Shaheen Masih, a 12-year old Christian girl was kidnapped by four Muslim men and gang-raped over two days after which she was finally rescued by the police. But although she was medically examined, the police refused to give the report to her parents. The four men were arrested and a case was registered against them, but they were later released. One of them was reported as saying to the others: “Don’t hesitate to rape a Christian girl. Even if she dies, no one will get us. Her poor parents cannot pursue us.” In Charsadda, a small town in the Frontier province with an old, established Christian community, letters have recently been slipped under the doors of Christian homes, warning the inhabitants to convert to Islam or face death. So clearly, the Talibanisation of the Frontier does not countenance any non-Muslims in the areas it seeks to control.
Ahmadis, too, bear the brunt of Pakistan’s rising tide of Islamic extremism. According to the latest Ahmadiya community report, 79 Ahmadis have been killed between 1984 and 2005 simply for their belief. The report goes on to say: “Religious extremists remained free to congregate in numbers in Rabwah and indulge in abusive rhetoric, but Ahmadis were not allowed to hold a single open-air community event in their own town.”
According to the Pakistan Hindu Council, Hindus in Sindh are insecure because of the rising number of kidnappings and murders. An estimated 1.5 million Hindus live in Pakistan, and according to Nisar Khurro of the Pakistan People’s Party, more and more of them are being kidnapped for ransom. On 2 March, the BBC reported the disappearance of Garish Kumar from Umerkot. His dismembered body was found near a madressah, and the police suspected an extreme Islamic group of the crime. His father, a local trader, says nobody in authority is interested in taking up the case because the victim was a Hindu.
The Minority Rights Group’s annual report informs us that Pakistan has risen by eight places to occupy eighth position on the MRG’s ranking of countries where minorities are at risk. In fact, this view is widely reflected in the international media where the plight of Pakistan’s hapless minorities gets hugely adverse coverage. But apart from stout denial, this government has done little to confront the issue, and give our minorities a sense of security. All these random incidents I have cited here have been reported in the media, and to the police. The fact that little or no action has been taken is a reflection of the apathy in our society towards our minorities. And clearly, it is further proof that Musharraf’s boast about his agenda of ‘enlightened moderation’ is just hot air.
Only when a particularly gruesome story hits the foreign media is there any pretence of official action. But as soon as the furore has died down, it is open season on non-Muslims again.
While Islam directs its followers to protect non-Muslims, in Pakistan these injunctions are largely ignored by the clergy and their fanatical followers. The state looks the other way when minorities are persecuted because they are seen as powerless. Until those at the top show a sense of outrage, non-Muslims will continue to be treated as second-class citizens, and worse.
Irfan Husain is an eminent Pakistani writer based in London. He can be reached at irfan.husain @ gmail.com