Attacks on places of worship, on places of residence, targeted killings, forced conversions and blasphemy allegations are the different forms of persecution that minorities in Pakistan have incrementally faced over the past few years.
Given this reality, it is understandable if the international community criticises us for failing to adequately protect the rights of minorities. Besides the international press and human rights groups continuing to highlight the shrinking space for minorities in Pakistan, the US Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) has also taken note of this alarming situation.
In its latest report, the USCIRF has suggested that the US government designate Pakistan and eight other countries as a ‘country of particular concern’, where sanctions are advised if there is continued failure to protect minorities.
It is easy to become defensive and begin accusing the US for its blunders, such as its dealing with the Muslim world, especially since 9/11. However, it is more instructive to take a closer look at what is evoking this evident concern about our country’s inadequacy to protect minorities and which other countries are we being compared with.
Countries already included on the USCIRF list include not only the US nemesis, Iran, for its mistreatment of anyone who is not Shia, but also Saudi Arabia, with which the US government maintains close relations, due to its dismal treatment of Shias and Ismailis. Even China is on the list due to the serious repression of Uighur Muslims and Tibetan Buddhists.
Besides Pakistan, the USCIRF has recommended that Vietnam also be placed on this list of countries, evoking most urgent concern due to the persecution of Christian sects, as is Egypt for the growing threat to Coptics.
In the specific case of Pakistan, the USCIRF findings describe our country as being plagued by chronic sectarian violence, which has escalated recently given the targeting of Hazara refugees, who also happen to be Shia. Moreover, we are being blamed for the failure to protect Christians, Ahmadis and Hindus. The USCIRF also points out how Pakistani authorities have not brought perpetrators to justice or taken action against those who incite violence.
To counter charges of an anti-Muslim bias, the current USCIRF report has dedicated a chapter to Western Europe, which during the past few years, has seen increasing restrictions on various forms of religious expression despite the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights allowing individuals not only the right to believe, but to manifest their beliefs. The USCIRF rightly expresses particular questions about the ban in secular France and Belgium on Muslim women wearing veils in public, which restricts their social integration and educational and employment opportunities.
Further, the USCIRF reports contain a section of thematic concerns which discusses issues like ‘religious violations by non-state actors’ and the ‘legal retreat from religious freedom in post-Communist countries’ like Russia and Central Asian states. Yet, there is no mention of the US itself in the USCIRF analysis. The report, for instance, does not take note of the US complicity in promoting militancy in a country like Pakistan to combat the Soviets in the 1980s. It also does not acknowledge the adverse role of the US in aggravating religious tensions due to its ‘war against terror’.
Unless the USCIRF becomes more self-reflexive, the countries it has highlighted will have a ready excuse to continue dismissing its findings as being biased.
Published in The Express Tribune, May 13th, 2013.