An exclusive post by Aamenah Yusafzai for PTH
The recent attacks on two Ahmadi mosques in Lahore demonstrate the urgent need to strengthen the rights of Pakistani minorities. Pakistan is not a country inhabited by Muslims only, or even Sunni Muslims. This is represented by the green and white of the Pakistani flag, a fact often taken for granted. The three quarter green represents the majority Muslim population, while the one quarter white represents non-Muslim minorities.
The preamble to the Constitution provides that provisions be made for “minorities freely to profess and practice their religion and develop their cultures.” Furthermore, it provides for guarantees to “fundamental rights, including equality of status, of opportunity and before law, social, economic and political justice, and freedom of thought, expression, belief, faith, worship and association, subject to law and public morality.” Article 36 further reiterates the security of minorities by the state by stating that “the State shall safeguard the legitimate rights and interests of minorities.”
The state is required to protect sectarian and religious minorities. Yet it is doing the complete opposite. Section 295B of the Pakistan Penal Code (PPC) calls for life imprisonment for anyone who “willfully defiles, damages or desecrates a copy of the holy Quran”. Section 295C imposes the death penalty or life imprisonment on anyone who defiles the Prophet Muhammad. Although not enacted to undermine the rights of minorities, unfortunately, that is what Section 295 is often used for.
The blasphemy laws, as provisions of Section 295 have been dubbed, are often exploited to target sectarian and religious minorities, and even moderate Sunni Muslims, by groups who are out to fulfill their personal agendas, mostly radical Sunnis. Even if convictions are overturned, victims face the risk of violence from private citizens who may be fulfilling their “religious duty”. There have been numerous incidents of violence against minorities as well as the majority Sunni Muslims in retaliation for alleged blasphemy against Islam, on the basis of the blasphemy laws. Victims have been killed for accidentally burning pages of the Quran; littering near a mosque; or simply for being followers of a sect declared non-Muslim by the state.
Worse still, members of the Ahmadi sect are often persecuted for their beliefs. This is facilitated by legal sanction granted in section 298 of the Pakistan Penal Code (PPC), introduced by General Zia-ul-Haq. Ahmadis are practically not allowed to practice their religion. They have also been declared non-Muslim by the Constitution (Second Amendment of 1974). So much for the “fundamental right” of “freedom of thought, expression, belief, faith, worship and association” guaranteed by the Constitution. The one and only Pakistani Nobel laureate, Dr.Abdus Salam, who should be the pride of every Pakistani, was ostracized by extremist groups just because he was Ahmadi.
International human rights norms are being disrespected as well. Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states that “everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; and freedom…to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.” Article 18 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights similarly provides for the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion. Ahmadis are clearly not free to practice their religion. By having these laws in place, the message that is being conveyed by the state to the people is that it is not willing to protect a small percentage of the population. Are they not Pakistanis who are equally deserving of protection by the state? Although the laws do not explicitly target minorities, unfortunately, it is they who have to suffer the consequences. It is not only members of religious minorities who are victimized. Muslims too have found themselves being hunted down for alleged blasphemy as well.
There is a need now, more than ever before, to repeal the offending laws. The recent attacks on two Ahmadi mosques in Lahore that killed more than eighty people illustrate this urgent need. Repealing the blasphemy laws may not make extremist groups think differently about Ahmadis and other minority sects and religions. It will, however, go some way in changing the national mindset, i.e. a mindset of intolerance, even if it takes generations. The state must stop coming under pressure and succumbing to the demands of the extremists. Pressure from hard line Sunni parties led to the enactment of these laws in the first place. The Constitutional amendment was introduced by Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto after the anti-Ahmadi riots in the early 1950s, and the PPC amendment by Zia-ul-Haq to appease the radicals. When the Musharaf government attempted to amend the law by requiring senior district officials to register cases, it couldn’t do so due to pressure from the so-called religious lobby. The recent Facebook ban is another example of a state institution succumbing to intimidation. One might ask what kind of Muslims are these, who on the one hand condemn, a little too vehemently, drawings of the Prophet Muhammad on Facebook, and on the other, support laws that encourage violence and injustice, something that the Prophet disapproved of all his life.
The state, by not making independent, balanced decisions, is sending out wrong signals. The Army operations in the North West of the country are appreciated, but there is another kind of war that the country needs to fight– a war against intolerance, ignorance and misunderstanding of the “other”. This too is a war against extremism, but one that an Army might not be able to win. One way it may be fought is by changing the school curriculum so that children are taught to accept people who are different from them. The media too can be helpful, as it has the potential to affect the way people think. We cannot have conspiracy theory spouting pop icons professing intolerance to young people. Finally, the civil society and moderate citizens should be given a louder voice. Happily, they are speaking out. After all, “the only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing” (Edmund Burke).