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Azadi: The Fight for  Religious Freedom in  Pakistan

Azadi: The Fight for Religious Freedom in Pakistan

“You are free; you are free to go to your temples, you are free to go to your mosques or to any other place or worship in this State of Pakistan. You may belong to any religion or caste or creed -- that has nothing to do with the business of the State.” - Muhammad Ali Jinnah  

These are the seminal words that rung out out in Muhammad Ali Jinnah’s first Presidential Address to the Constituent Assembly of Pakistan on August 11 1947, days before Partition was to formally take place. After years of fighting for a home for India’s battered religious minorities, Pakistan – meaning landing of the pure in Persian – was to finally come to fruition. Rather than a state run under Muslim law, Jinnah and his colleagues at the Muslim League envisioned a secular state, hospitable to all South Asian Muslims. In this new state, the founders of Pakistan imagined members of all creeds and religions could come together as equal citizens. 

As Pakistan marks the 70th anniversary of Partition, we are forced to ask whether Jinnah’s vision of a sanctuary for India’s marginalised religious minorities will ever be realized in a country still marred by sectarian violence against what little is left of its religious minorities. 

At the time of Partition, non-Muslim citizens had made up almost 23% of the population in 1947.  Since then minority communities in Pakistan have faced constant persecution and migration due to wars such as the Bangladesh War of Independence in 1971, which have completely changed the makeup of minority populations in Pakistan. Today only approximately 5% of the population of Pakistan is made up of religious minorities  with around 1.8% Christians, 1.6% Hindus and 2.2% Ahmadis, a Muslim community often persecuted  due to a series of diverging  beliefs with mainstream Islam including their belief in founder Mirza Ghulam Ahmad . 

This quasi-quest for purification in Pakistan goes hand in hand with the rapid Islamisation of the country in the Post-Partition political climate. Despite, the original intentions of Pakistan’s founding fathers, Islamism took a hold in the the newly formed state of Pakistan. The  Jamaat-e-Islami movement, the Pakistani equivalent of the Muslim Brotherhood, was founded by Abul Ala Maududi in 1941 and was the driving force behind Islamisation in Pakistan. Most importantly, the movement changed the foundations for the Pakistani state through the Objectives Resolution in 1949, which underlined Islam and Islamic law as the heart of the federal republic. Quickly, Pakistan adopted Islam at its raison d’être and measures were taken in 1974 to proclaim Ahmadis as non-Muslims as well as forcing Shias to adopt to Sunni norms. 

In 1977, with the advent of the military dictatorship of General Zia Ul Haq, Islamisation became the order of day. Haq led a top down policy of Islamisation that transformed Pakistan into an Islamic Republic not just in name but in practice. Through the introduction of the Hudood Ordinances, which reformed large swathes of Pakistan’s colonial era Penal code, Haq introduced a number of strict new laws for zina (extra-marital sex), theft, consumption of alcohol and most infamously, Pakistan’s blasphemy laws. State-mandated Islamisation has thus opened the door for increasing attacks on members of minority communities ranging from mob violence in blasphemy cases to large scale terror attacks by Islamist militant groups.

In the last five years, 3 major terror attacks targeting religious minorities have take place in Pakistan. In September 2013, more than 100 were killed and injured in a twin suicide bombing at the All Saints Church in Peshawar. In March 2015, two churches in Lahore were attacked by Taliban suicide bombers, killing 15 people. As recently as March 2016, Jamaat-Ul-Ahrar, a splinter group Tehreek-e Taliban (TTP) bombed Gulshan-i-Iqbal Park in Lahore on Easter Sunday killing more than 70 people. Whilst reports show that the victims of the attack were mainly Muslims, with only 14 of the victims identified as being Christian, the attack was clearly targeted towards low-income Christian families who usually celebrated Easter in the park.  

  Peyton Ayers

Peyton Ayers

In addition to terror attacks, extra-judicial killings of religious minorities have become commonplace in Pakistan with attacks on homes and individuals on the basis of rumours. One such example is the treatment of Christian couple Shama and Shezad Masih. On November 2014, a mob of 400 people in the town of Kot Radha Kishan in Punjab beat and tortured the Misahs, alleging that the couple had desecrated the Quran by burning it in the brick kiln where they worked as bonded labourers. The mob held the five policemen that tried to rescue the couple and dragged the couple of the kiln where they were then burnt alive. Two years later, five men were sentenced to death and a further eight men were sentenced with two years in prison by the Anti Terrorism Court for their involvement in the death of the couple.   

A number of Pakistani laws that enshrine the mistreatment of religious minorities still remain in place; however, nothing quite runs the gamut like the quota system of minority political representation at the national and provincial level. Under provisions made by the Constitution of 1973 (Article 51), 10 seats in the National Assembly (the lower house of the federal bicameral legislature in Pakistan) are reserved for representatives of non-Muslim communities. This quota system is mirrored on the Provincial level with 3 reserved seats in Balochistan and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KPK), 8 seats in Punjab and 9 seats in Sindh. 

Initially, minorities were able to vote directly for these seats, but under the military dictatorship of General Pervez Musharraf, a joint electorate system was reintroduced in 2002  such that that seats for Non-Muslims were now allocated on the basis of proportional representation according to the total number of general seats won by a party in the Assembly. Whilst in theory, the reserved seating system is the best model to ensure minority representation, the system has today become a charade that serves as superficial indicator of representation on a national and  provincial level. Moreover, the re-introduction of the joint electorate system alongside the existing system has made the struggle for basic political representation for religious minorities in Pakistan infinitely harder and the problem of minority disenfranchisement infinitely greater. 

Firstly, reserved seats are not allocated geographically, based on constituencies or population statistics. Since the seats reserved for minorities are not region specific, minority communities cannot contact their representatives directly or voice complaints specific to their region.. Moreover, the meager number of seats– 10– compared to the 342 general seats in the Assembly only stands to minimise the political voice of religious minorities in Pakistan. As a result of the quota system, very few non-Muslim candidates stand for election in their local elections to contest general seats, particularly as these candidates are often not backed by party tickets and run as independents. For example, in the 2008 election only 8 non-Muslims contested 6 general seats. 

The lack of transparency and accountability of the joint electoral system have spurred voter apathy and disinterest. Too often, non-Muslims are banned by local clerics and gang members from actually voting. In the case of the Ahmadi community, the Election Commission of Pakistan keeps separate lists of registered Ahmadi voters which are then published to the public. Thus many Ahmadis avoid registering to vote, in fear of persecution and sectarian violence. 

In a country with an already low voter turnout of 54% , such mistreatment of religious prevents effective representation of minority voters on a national level. Therefore it is essential for the electoral process to be amended to bring minority communities into the political mainstream.

The question of the treatment of religious minorities in Pakistan, ultimately comes down to the role of secularism in South Asia. Secularism is the liberation of state from the organised domination of a religion from its function. Secularisation is an evolutionary process and not anti-religious movement or an identifier. However, the South Asian context, secularism has become conflated with westernisation and another brutal reminder of Western imperialism. As a result, resistance to any such propagation of secular values in Pakistan is viewed with deep mistrust and fear. In recent years, secular voices such Benazir Bhutto, Salman Taseer among others, who dared to speak out against the Islamisation of Pakistan have slowly but surely disappeared from the public domain. 

Part of this mistrust lies with the failure of the Western framework of secularism to translate to the South Asian context. Firstly, Urdu lacks an sufficient translation of the word secular, using the term ‘la deeni’ for secularism, meaning ‘irreligious’ which fails to accurately reflect the full scope of the term in English. The term instead fosters suspicion as an anti-religion movement, which is difficult to stomach for Pakistan’s 96% Muslim population, instead of simply a separation of Mosque and State. Moreover, the lack of non-Western, contemporary examples of secularism fail to provide an adequate model, especially for countries such as Pakistan where religiosity is the unifying force of national identity. Where traditional European examples of the nation are rooted to ideas of soil, culture and language, Islam was propelled to be a unifying force to bring together Muslims from all over the Indian subcontinent that previously had had nothing in common that has unfortunately been turned into a demising force. Religion and the State are now two facets of the same coin. 

Pakistan’s draconian treatment of its religious minorities goes above and beyond the Constitution of 1973 and to its position in the international community. In 2010, Pakistan signed and ratified the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights which enshrined freedom of religion as well as the right of all citizens to be equal in the eyes of the law, the right to take part in public affairs and freedom from religious hatred  and yet it continues to violate the covenant with its institutional biases against religious minorities. Similarly, in January the U.S froze security aid to Pakistan and placed Pakistan on a watchlist for ‘severe violations of religious freedom’ under the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998.  Therefore, it is crucial that Pakistan takes steps sooner rather than later to protect its most marginalised and persecuted communities, whilst also rebuilding its reputation on the international stage.

The picture is not all that bleak – in March of 2017, the Parliament finally passed the Hindu Marriage Act , recognising and regulating marriages of Hindus by allowing Hindu marriages to be registered for the first time. However,  without a general shift in the attitude of the public towards not just minorities but other sects of Islam coupled with easing of the country’s penal code, the fight for survival of Pakistan’s religious minorities is still a losing battle. Instead of using blasphemy law as a method of eliminating discourse surrounding the treatment of the religious minorities, it is essential that Pakistani elite society breaks its silent pact with religious clerics to initiate long overdue discussions about secularism, religious freedom and simply just tolerance. Before it’s too late, Pakistan should ask itself,  how far will the Land of the Pure go with its quest for purification?

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