Paint the flag green all over.
If something as innocuous as a temple for members of the Hindu faith invites so much controversy, then we might as well drop all pretence and remove the strip of white from the green cloth.
For a moment, there was hope. It was a brief, blink and you’ll miss it, kind of hope, but it was there. The Prime Minister approved a grant of Rs100 million, and construction began. What happened next is sadly familiar to anyone who has followed the history of religious minorities in this country. The Capital Development Authority (CDA) laid out its patented red tape, and the Prime Minister referred the issue of government funds to the Council of Islamic Ideology (CCI) — that paragon of religious tolerance.
But it is the backlash, the outrage, and the eventual glee with which the temple was opposed that should give us pause — not because, as some have suggested, where we are headed, but rather where we currently are as a nation.
Maulana Fazlur Rahman manoeuvred a fatwa against the construction of the temple, while the speaker of the Punjab Assembly, Mr Pervaiz Elahi, said: “Pakistan was created in the name of Islam. Construction of a new temple in its capital is not only against the spirit of Islam, but also an insult to Riyaset-e-Medina.” He followed this statement by patting himself on the back for respecting the rights of religious minorities.
In the eyes of people like Mr Elahi, members of the Hindu faith could at best ask for old temples to be repaired, but not, heaven forbid, ask for new ones. This is a great metaphor for what most people believe Article 20’s guarantee of religious freedom means in Pakistan. Minorities are given dilapidated old temples, often nowhere close to where they live, and told: “Here are your rights, don’t be greedy and ask for more.” Muslims are granted shiny new mosques on every street corner.
That is not freedom, that is discrimination.
Most people, our politicians included, seem to believe that Pakistan is a bastion for religious harmony. Members of the Hindu faith, whose temple is causing such unnecessary controversy, would beg to disagree. They have been the scapegoats for pent-up fury by Pakistanis at the actions of India in the past. When the Babri Masjid incident happened in 1992, the reaction in Pakistan was for mobs to destroy over a 100 Hindu temples in their best impression of our national hero Mahmud of Ghaznavi.
In Sindh, young Hindu girls are abducted and forced to marry their captors. According to the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP), more than 20 Hindu girls are kidnapped every month. When a bill against forced marriages was proposed in Sindh to curb this practice, religious leaders had it blocked.
The religious mob has a veto, a final say, over questions of fundamental rights it seems. Perhaps even dwarfing the final say of the Supreme Court. According to a landmark judgment in 2014, the Supreme Court pointed out that Article 20 gave no preference to the Islamic faith: “Article 20 makes no distinction between Muslims and non-Muslims; it gives all religions equal protection without forcing the Muslim faith on any sects.” Yet, that is not the interpretation of Article 20 that endures in Pakistan.
Through history textbooks that glorify the destruction of Hindu temples, to colonial narratives that pitted the Hindu as the destined enemy of the Muslim, we have embraced a version of religious tolerance so distant from fundamental rights and the very sources of Islam that it makes it incomprehensible to people that they should give rights to others. Children are taught in schools that the Hindus oppressed Muslims in the Subcontinent, the Hindus took away their freedoms, and the Hindus could never accept them as equal. When in fact, it was the coloniser that oppressed both faiths, the coloniser who took away their freedoms, and the coloniser that refused to accept the people of India as equals.
To counter this distortion of young minds we need to rethink how we educate people about our past in this country. But we also need to introduce concepts of religious harmony into our schools rather than tales of conquests. To achieve this, let me reiterate what I once wrote for this paper: We must engage with and integrate into our discourse Islam’s tolerant ideas and historical accounts of its views on religious plurality. For example, historically Islam was seen as a welcome antidote to the repressive papal laws that would often lead to the persecution of Jews; while the Abbasid Caliphs had many non-Muslims serving as senior government officials. Prophet Mohammad (peace be upon him), in Medina, aligned his community with the Jews and even set the day for Muslim congregational prayer to Friday afternoon. Reza Aslan writes that this was done because the Holy Prophet (peace be upon him) wanted it to coincide with, but not disrupt, Jewish preparations for the Sabbath, hence bringing the community together.
Nothing justifies the opposition towards the construction of the temple — neither our Constitution, nor the Islamic faith. The intolerance within our society means that we are hypocrites if we go before international forums and decry what is happening in India when we ourselves are unable to do better.
The lesson here is simple: Constitutional promises, national symbols of tolerance, and grand speeches mean nothing until we commit to educating and perpetuating tolerance within our massive population. The population whose votes Mr Pervaiz Elahi is soliciting when he opposes the construction of new temples in the country. The people of Pakistan have been taught to believe in a fragile version of Islam; an Islam constantly under threat that must be fiercely protected at all costs. Our national priorities must change to address this problem. Until that happens, no constitutional promises, no white strips on green, can save us.