What are the current challenges that are faced by Pakistan’s religious minorities? What can be done to promote a religious freedom that protects the rights of all Pakistani’s to freely believe as they wish, act on those beliefs, and participate in all of life?
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The creation of Pakistan in 1947 brought hopes not only to Muslims but also to religious minorities. The founding father, Quaid–e–Azam Mohammad Ali Jinnah, envisioned a state that represents all communities in policy making. For Jinnah the spirit of nationhood [National Identity] was to live in unity, that is, each individual ceasing their faiths whether Hindu, Christian, Sikh or Muslim. Not in a religious sense, because that is their personal faith [Religious Identity], but in a political sense as the citizen of the state [National identity]. Unfortunately, after his death, his predecessors deviated from the ideology he defined.
Pakistani society is an amalgamation of ethnic, religious, linguistic, regional and national identities. According to the Pakistan Bureau of Statistics, out of the total population, 85–90% are Sunni Muslims, 10–15% are Shia Muslims, and the remaining are religious minorities. At the time of independence, the number of religious minorities out of the total population was 25%. It has now dropped to just 3%. This is due to various factors, religious violence and discrimination are amongst many others.
Some scholars argue that since Pakistan’s inception, Islam has been the cementing force creating a National Identity in a state or that it was imposed to hold together an artificially constructed nation of different feuding communities. Some scholars focus on the contents of community identities (for example, Religious Identity is one among many others), therefore it is believed that violence is more likely to happen when a state has an official religion. For this purpose, we can assume that in case of Pakistan, Religious Identity is much stronger than National Identity as discussed in the subsequent paragraphs.
Pakistan was declared as an Islamic Republic in the 1949 Objective Resolution, which guarantees equal fundamental rights and protection against any discrimination. The three constitutions of Pakistan – 1956, 1962 and 1973 – reiterate this guarantee. Many argue that the inclusion of Islam in politics through the Objective Resolution was the main reason for the marginalization of religious minorities. It is also argued that the Constitutions 1956 and 1962 provided clear protection to minority rights as opposed to 1973 Constitution, under which, the Ahmadi group was declared as non–Muslims through an Amendment, on the insistence of religious political parties along with political parties from the Center-right. Moreover, a non-Muslim cannot become President or Prime Minister in Pakistan. Religious minorities have representation in the Provincial and National Assemblies. However, they do not have the legislation power as opposed to others.
It is generally believed that the process of Islamization of Pakistan during General Zia ul Haq’s era (1977 – 1988), led to religious intolerance among different faith communities by the inclusion of different articles into the Pakistan Penal Code (PPC). However, the fact is that secular political leaders like Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto also used the religious card to gain support of religious political parties. It is also argued that sectarian violence increased during Zia era.
There is a difference of opinion on the subject, as some quarters say that the problem is not constitutional, but societal. Presently, there is violent religious extremism and intolerance not only against religious minorities like, Hindu, Sikhs and Christians, but also against different sects of Islam. The most effected, because of social discrimination and religious intolerance, are religious minorities, particularly Hindus in Sindh, Christians and Ahmadis in Punjab. Furthermore, the misuse of blasphemy laws for vindictive purposes and the hate speech coming from registered and unregistered Madrasahs (religious schools) further intensifies their plight. No major incident of religious discrimination against minorities has been reported in the other two provinces – Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Baluchistan – however, Shia –Sunni clashes manifest in all provinces of Pakistan.
The religiously motivated extremism has also created a situation where the extremist elements of all shades play on the religious sentiments of the masses and incite mobs. Most of the religious and political leaders, including representatives of religious minorities and government officials during an interview with this author said that violence against religious minorities is not due to societal intolerance among religious communities but is organized and carried out by groups of religious extremists. A report of Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) links the rise of the Taliban and other extremist groups with the suppression and oppression of the minorities and of all those whose beliefs differed with those of the extremists who dared to expose hatred and violence in the name of religion.
The growing religious intolerance and discrimination toward minority faiths is a widely debated subject, however, it lacks a detailed scholarship on how the government in the presence of laws has responded to and addressed the problem. The general perception is that despite Constitutional guarantees, the government has failed to address the issue. It is also pertinent to mention that there is fair consensus among all political parties that religious minorities need to feel secure and protected, and they should be given due share in country’s resources.
Unfortunately, there is no dearth of commitment, but in reality this does not happen as religious and political leaders that include representatives of minorities in Parliament are hesitant on debating the laws due to fear of reaction from religious conservatives. As evidence, nearly no progress could be made to amend or reform the blasphemy law due to sensitivities of the issue.
Due to civil society movements in favour of protection of minorities and their rights and the international concerns about the issue, the government introduced various bills meant to counter religious extremism against religious minorities. Steps were also taken to introduce geo-tagging of Madrassah and their reforms as well as scrutinizing of religious material to prevent the spread of hate material. Moreover, many religious organizations spreading hate speech were banned. It is also important to mention that mosques are also a source of spreading hate speech and most of the times it is ignored by those at helm of religious affairs because it serves their own interests.
Dealing with religious extremism is a long-term process, which needs commitment, mutual consensus and collective efforts from all stakeholders at the policy level. However, there are gaps in policy making which need to be addressed to guarantee minorities rights and security as well as ensure a stable and peaceful Pakistan. It is important to take tangible measures to revise, modernize, and regulate Madrasah’s syllabus and advance public education on Pakistan’s diversity. Moreover, there should be a monitoring body to monitor the progress of Madrasahs on reforms to their syllabus and to keep a check on mosques and particularly the Friday sermons through local communities. The imam in a mosque should be a Madrasah qualified person and appointed by the government.
To create a harmonious, pluralistic society, we need to engage in dialogue with each other. It has to be done at both the individual and the policy-making levels, with the support of government, by bringing different faith communities to actively engag
e in cutting edge research, convene seminars and workshops for further capacity building, and create space for exerting influence on policy making from their expertise in respective fields to promote tolerance and peaceful coexistence.
The government’s decision and strategy of zero tolerance towards terrorism and violent extremism by introducing various bills and launching military operations are steps in the right direction, however, there is a need for innovative political, economic and educational strategies to prevent future threats.
It is only possible in a strong democratic society, which empowers people who are able to influence their governments on key issues and hence create a National Identity and not a Religious Identity that can become a source of discrimination.
Minhas Majeed Khan is an Assistant Professor at the Department of International Relations, University of Peshawar, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, Pakistan. She has a Ph.D. in International Relations and has completed postdoctoral research at the Institute of Strategic Studies, Islamabad and the Center for Women, Faith and Leadership at Institute for Global Engagement, Washington D.C.
**All views and opinions presented in this essay are solely those of the author and publication on Cornerstone does not represent an endorsement or agreement from the Religious Freedom Institute or its leadership.**