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Home Media Reports 2000 Intolerable intolerance
Intolerable intolerance

DAWN - the Internet Edition

21 October 2000
22 Rajab 1421


Intolerable intolerance
By Irfan Husain

WHILE the government and its spokesmen have been untiring in their efforts to convince us that we are better off than we were a year ago when the army took over, the minorities at least can be excused for any scepticism they may feel.

Many of us were taken in by the liberal outlook displayed by General Pervez Musharraf, and expected a rollback of earlier policies that had steadily eroded the rights of non-Muslims. Indeed, in its early, heady days (how quickly a year can pass!), the military government even spoke of ending the evil and divisive system of separate electorate. For me, at least, this was justification enough for a military coup as neither Nawaz Sharif nor Benazir Bhutto had shown any inclination of even trying to stem the fundamentalist tide of repressive and retrogressive laws. I though that the army was the only institution strong enough to stand up to the might of the religious parties.

Wrong again! It turns out that the army has neither the will nor the inclination to confront the zealots who have occupied the political high ground despite being hammered in every election. Politicians and generals tread warily when dealing with jihadi parties who now virtually dictate the political agenda. But the real brunt of Pakistan's steady slide into religious fanaticism has been borne by its non-Muslim population. From being equal citizens in Jinnah's vision of Pakistan, they have become virtually disenfranchized and besieged through separate electorates and the blasphemy law.

But the stage for this growing intolerance had been set earlier when Ahmadis were declared non-Muslims in the mid-seventies under Bhutto's supposedly progressive government. So much so that today it is a crime for an Ahmadi to publicly utter or write the common Muslim prayer of "Bismillah ur Rahman al Rahim". Some Ahmadis are rotting in jail for committing this "crime." One case study should open the eyes of the Muslim majority to just how bad things are:

In 1989, Mirza Mubarak Ahmad was arrested in Tando Adam for distributing pamphlets. While in police custody, he offered ritual Muslim prayers, and was accused of "posing himself as Muslim and injuring religious feelings of Muslims." The trial lasted 11 years, and in his judgment delivered last May, Fida Hussain Mighal, judicial magistrate, Hyderabad, found the accused guilty of committing an offence under section 289C, imprisoned him for two months and 21 days and imposed a fine of 3,000 rupees. Apart from this punishment, the accused has had to undergo mental torture for 11 years for the "crime" of praying according to Islamic ritual.

In his defence, he admitted to having indeed offered his prayers as accused, but claimed that in terms of Article 20 of the Constitution, every citizen had the right to practise his faith in accordance with the tenets of his religion. Although Ahmadis have been declared non-Muslims, this does not alter the fact that they still consider themselves to be believers, and therefore enjoined by their faith to pray as other Muslims do. This judgment was sent to me by a reader from Rabwah. It says something for the intolerant and violent times we in Pakistan are living in. For his safety, I will not name him here.

But if it is any consolation, he and his fellow Ahmadis are not alone in being persecuted. The blasphemy law has been misused blatantly and viciously to imprison and even execute non-Muslims. Usually, this law is invoked to target hapless Christians and Hindus for personal reasons far removed from any real or imagined blasphemy. In the most recent case in a remote town of Balochistan called Dalbandin, the temple and several houses belonging to Hindus were burned down by a mob.

The reason for this barbaric act was that an illiterate Hindu housewife had allegedly distributed sweets wrapped in pages from a textbook that contained religious verses. Even if this true, the fact that she was illiterate did not prevent the local religious worthies from setting a gang of bigoted thugs on her family and their neighbours. And to compound this crime, the police, instead of locking up the leaders of the mob, have instead arrested some of the victims.

We in Pakistan never tire of criticizing what we perceive as religious persecution in India. Indeed, that country has a poor record of safeguarding the rights of its minorities, specially in certain pockets in Gujrat and Orissa. But the fact is that in the eyes of the law, non-Hindus have the right to appeal to the courts for justice if their rights are infringed. In Pakistan, certain specific laws are aimed at non-Muslims, depriving them of some of their fundamental rights, and relegating them to the status of second class citizens. In an imperfect world, the first stage in obtaining rights is their legal recognition by the state and its functionaries.

This de facto legalization and institutionalization of religious persecution has earned us richly deserved criticism from around the world. Human rights organizations (including our own Human Rights Commission)have catalogued the depressingly long list of abuses under the blasphemy law, and named the unfortunate non-Muslims who are languishing in jails across the country for alleged blasphemy. Not surprisingly, the intolerant environment generated by such legislation has emboldened fanatics to take the law into their own hands; opportunists have used it to settle scores or take over property; and the police see in it an excuse for inaction when non-Muslims have been attacked.

Unfortunately, the military government of General Musharraf has chosen to back away when confronted by the religious parties on any issue. Thus, there is no more talk of ending the system of separate electorates introduced by Zia two decades ago, just as the proposal to eliminate some of the more iniquitous elements of the blasphemy law has been conveniently dropped.

At a time when we are so isolated on many counts ranging from our nuclear policy to our active support for fundamentalist forces in Afghanistan and Kashmir, we need to step back and see how the rest of the world perceives us. Religious persecution is a hangover from medieval times and is no longer tolerated. Granted that differences in faith still trigger atavistic conflicts, but these are generally aberrations without legal sanction.

In Pakistan, some laws have marginalized non-Muslims, and these need urgent review and change. If the military regime can tinker with articles of the Constitution and other laws, surely it can and must pay attention to unjust legislation that has been so catastrophic to millions of Ahmadis, Hindus and Christians.

© The DAWN Group of Newspapers, 2000
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