Muslims in America, Christians in Pakistan
I don’t know much of the specific background of the anti-Christian rampage last week in Lahore. But is there anything I don’t know that would mitigate or excuse it?
A major theme of my writing and public speaking is an insistence on distinguishing between what I call the Pakistan I know and love – a rich, diverse, fascinating smorgasbord of humanity – and the distorted, two-dimensional Pakistan that most Americans see on TV. But when what they see on TV is Muslim Pakistanis burning crosses in a Christian neighbourhood, it makes it even harder than usual for me and other friends of Pakistan to make a case.
It’s all too true that Pakistanis and other Muslims are unfairly stigmatised and victimised in America. But anyone who would point that out in this particular context, as any kind of excuse would be playing a shameful politics of distraction. As an American, I feel shamed by the ways that my society mistreats Muslims here. By exactly the same token, Pakistan and all Pakistanis are shamed by mistreatment of Christians in Pakistan.
What happened in Lahore is not political or religious terrorism, although surely it has the effect of terrorising Pakistani Christians, but simple bigotry and bullying. Pakistani Christians are not Americans or Westerners, and to mistreat them as if they were somehow responsible for America’s sins is the crudest and ugliest kind of scapegoating.
As every Pakistani knows darn well, Christians are among the most downtrodden and vulnerable people in Pakistan, especially since the passage of the despicable blasphemy law during the Ziaul Haq dictatorship. Furthermore, most Pakistani Christians are descendants of low caste or “untouchable” Hindus who, quite understandably, saw the Christian message of universal brotherhood and equality before God as more appealing than a social-religious system that defined them as subhuman.
Islam had, and has, a very similar humanist and egalitarian appeal, which is why the persistence of essentially Hindu hierarchy and snobbishness is so jarring and distasteful when one encounters it in ostensibly Islamic Pakistan. I’m not a Muslim or any kind of expert on Islam, but I do know that if there’s anything Islam is supposed to be all about, it’s human dignity and equality.
The moral and political health of any society is expressed in how it treats its most vulnerable citizens. Muslims, as members of a group against whom many Americans blithely and wrongly consider it excusable, or even admirable, to be bigoted, are among the most vulnerable people in America today.
Shame on my country for the way it treats Muslims.
I’ve written versions of this many times over the past several years, in contexts ranging from one disturbed young man’s failed attempt to bomb Times Square, to the loutish, disgusting celebrations (in Times Square) at the death of Osama bin Laden, to the cowardly and sinister use of drones. Some of my own friends and family have felt I’ve gone too far at times, particularly when I published articles titled “The Colorado Killer Is Not a Muslim” and “Newtown Is a Village in Pakistan”. I stand by those articles, against my own relatives, because I want to stand up for anyone who is mistreated or misunderstood.
In exactly the same spirit, I stand up for Pakistani Christians. Whenever I speak to Pakistani audiences in the US, someone invariably asks me some version of the question “Why Pakistan?” The question is on my mind these days, because it’s nearly ten years now since the publication of “Alive and Well” in Pakistan, my book-length attempt to answer it. What’s ironic is that the most specific answer to the question of why I went to Pakistan in the first place in 1995 is that a 14-year-old Christian boy, Salamat Masih, and his uncle were enduring a trumped-up blasphemy trial that was making headlines internationally, and the South China Morning Post of Hong Kong wanted me to make some of those headlines. So I crossed the border at Wagah, showed up in Lahore and wrote about the trial, then proceeded to fall in love with Pakistan anyway.
I still love Pakistan, despite everything. That should not be surprising; I also love my own country, and my friends and family, despite their faults, as I trust them to love me despite mine. But sometimes it’s not easy to do.
This post originally appeared here.
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