The fight against discrimination



Friday’s slaughter of Ahmadis in Lahore is a sharp reminder of the state of siege that Pakistan’s religious minorities constantly live in. Given the institutionalised discrimination and hateful rhetoric against religious minorities, this latest attack should not surprise us, even if it still — thankfully — has the capacity to horrify us. After all, this venomous bigotry and its prevalence at all levels of our society is precisely the reason why violence against minorities has been so exponentially on the rise in Pakistan over the past few years.

From organised pogroms such as the one in Gojra to the more ‘private’, individualised forms of violence such as that visited on the 13-year-old maid Shazia, this violence is now becoming commonplace — not just in terms of frequency, but in terms of acceptability. The more heinous incidents, such as Gojra, even engender some action from civil society groups such as the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan. But the general lack of concerted mobilisation against this spreading cancer is a clear indication that even progressives are either becoming desensitised to it, or are rendered immobile by the sheer speed and intensity with which it is growing.

But immobilisation and desensitisation in the face of violent injustice are privileges; they can only be indulged in by people who have a choice. As progressive members of the majority community, and as people of conscience, it is incumbent on us that we not just refuse to abandon the fight against this extreme and widespread violent chauvinism that becomes more brazen by the day, but that we lead it. If we do not do this, we have no right to call ourselves progressives.

Every day as we read the news and watch it unfold on our television sets, we know that the monster is becoming stronger and stronger. We can feel it flex its muscles, ever more brazenly. Let us take the targeted killing of three members of an Ahmadi family near Abdullahpur on April 1 as just one recent example. The Ahmadi community in the area has been under attack for the past few months in particular, facing abductions and receiving death threats. When the police were informed about these threats, they allegedly told the victims to limit their movements and hire bodyguards.

More recently, the strengthening of militant religious groups in the border regions has also forced many minorities (mostly Sikhs and Hindus) to move to other areas, abandoning their homes, businesses, and livelihoods. Far from being isolated incidents, these are in fact part of a pattern of organised violence against religious minorities in Pakistan that has intensified in the last few years. In addition to death threats, damage to homes, businesses, places of worship, the settling of scores through the use of blasphemy laws, we are seeing increasingly organised and targeted killings of minority communities. In September 2008, at least two Ahmadis were killed in cold blood after a popular televangelist declared that Islam sanctioned the killing of Ahmadis. In July 2009, eight Christians were killed and over 50 homes burned in the town of Gojra. This violence against minorities is also expanding — unsurprisingly — to include sexual violence.

In Rawalpindi in March of this year, a Christian woman was allegedly raped and her husband burned for refusing to convert to Islam. In January of this year, a 17-year-old girl belonging to a Christian family near Nagar Park was raped; jirga members told her to convert to Islam and marry the alleged rapist. And of course there is the horrific case of young Shazia – subjected to extreme violence by her employers which probably resulted in her death.

Where, we must ask ourselves, is this coming from? It is in part the result of discriminatory legislation such as the infamous Blasphemy Law and Article 26 (3) of the Constitution of Pakistan which declares Ahmadis non-Muslims, the state’s refusal to go after the perpetrators of such violence, the carte blanche given to religious groups which openly target minorities, the media platform given to hate-mongers such as Aamir Liaquat (Aalam Online) and the silent complicity of the Muslim majority.

Politicians are increasingly involved in such incidents of organised violence against minorities — in the case of Gojra, the HRCP’s fact-finding mission established that members of the PML(N) were involved in the rally which preceded the violence. Needless to say, no action was brought against them.

The government of Pakistan must take responsibility for extending the rights and protections of citizenship equally to all Pakistanis — regardless of religious affiliation. Pakistan must be a state grounded in principles of justice and fairness which includes respect for the rights of minorities as equal citizens. All legal, administrative and social discrimination on the basis of religion or sect must end, including the repeal of the anti-Ahmadi laws and Blasphemy laws. Elected officials implicated in religious violence must resign immediately and legal action must be taken against them.

The judiciary, which has played an admirable role in Pakistan’s recent history, must step forward to ensure that religious minorities are protected. The offices of the president and prime minister should be open to all citizens, not just Muslims. And ultimately, there must be a separation of religion and state in Pakistan, so that all people are free to practice their faith without fear of persecution. That is the Pakistan that the Quaid envisioned.

Without such changes, Pakistan has no hope of reversing the current trend of violence against minorities, and certainly no claim to being a representative state. These are ambitious demands, but our survival as a state and a society hangs in the balance. It is up to each of us to rise up and demand equality for all Pakistanis. This is not going to be easy, and there is no reason it should be — after all, the reactionaries are well-organised, they are armed, they are ruthless and they have the power of the state behind them. But we have repeatedly stood up for what is right, against the power of our state.

The only way to fight the forces of hate is to mobilise. Make no mistake, dear fellow Pakistanis — we are in the desert of the real, and this is the hour of our reckoning. The world is watching us and judging us; but our biggest judge will be our individual and collective conscience.

Saadia Toor: All three of us are part of a group of progressive Pakistanis called Action for a Progressive Pakistan and we would love to hear from people who are interested in joining us in a campaign to address the issues addressed here. Our email address is [email protected] and our blog is progpak.wordpress.com

Published in the Express Tribune, June 6th, 2010.

COMMENTS (7)

ZAHEER Sufi | 11 years ago | Reply This is one out of few legislations Brilliant Z.A.Bhutto had to push thru the assembly when right wing zealots forced him or they threatend to walk out of his coalition govt.and wage war.Religion is ones own private matter,nobody or any group should be labelled as non muslim because only Allah only knows the reality.I am so proud of one of Pakistans brilliant minds Dr.Abdussalam the only Pakistani to be awarded Nobel Prize.It is so unfortunate that a group of people who worked so hard for betterment of education, promoted social work and stood side by side with Mr Jinnah to create Pakistan.For this I refuse to admit Ahmadis as non Muslims and will continue to consider them as my brothers and sisters ,,As for the religious zealots I say to them to leave my Pakistan alone and stop spreading hatred and poisoning young minds.
Uzma | 11 years ago | Reply Very well written. Minorities have long been targeted in Pakistan and everyday is a struggle for them to survive in a country which is their own. Despite all these ferocious acts they have no other place to go because this is their home. Praying alone is not enough to fix what is going on in the name of religion, we must get ourselves heard to bring a change. I am so proud of you girls voicing your opinion and representing a lot of people like myself. Keep up the good work!
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