The War on Minorities

July 12, 2010 § 1 Comment

APP has written repeatedly about the shameful, persistent persecution of Pakistan’s minorities. A society so mangled by the trafficking of reactionary ideology in a climate of perpetual insecurity is, it goes without saying, a truly sad and frightening spectacle. In the past few days, four ongoing cases were brought to our attention.

In Karachi, 60 Hindus were forced from their homes after a boy sought relief from the unrelenting heat by drinking from a water cooler outside a mosque. Monday’s story in The Hindu notes the leading role of “influential tribesmen of the area” in organizing the mob of 150 that launched the initial attack. As many as 400 families, the story notes, are currently fearing eviction.

In Mansehra, a local jirga has sentenced a woman to death by stoning, for the alleged crime of being seen walking in a field with another man. WAF reports that “the accused woman was captured by the Jirga members and reportedly is being held at a secret place in Manjakot, pending the Rajm punishment. As usual, it is the woman who is made to bear the brunt of such atrocious barbarism, injustice, and inhuman, unIslamic sentences.”

In Faisalabad, two brothers–Rashid and Sajid Emmanuel–are being held in the Civil Lines Police Station on blasphemy charges, after it was alleged that they authored a pamphlet that made untoward remarks about Muhammad. On Saturday, some 400 protesters stoned the Catholic Church in Waris Pura, demanding that they be sentenced to death.

And finally in Jhelum, the establishment refuses to press charges in the horrific murder of a Christian family. The incident itself took place on June 21, and makes for chilling reading:

Khan became furious and said, “Are we lying to you? You call us liars, how dare you insult us,” Murtaza said. “Someone from the crowd hit something hard on her head, and she started bleeding. The children started crying and shouted for help. Razia kept shouting for help, ‘Please have mercy on us, please let my husband come, then we can talk.’” Jamshed Masih said his daughter telephoned police as the mob attacked his wife and children. He said he later learned that “the people kept shouting, ‘This family has committed blasphemy, they should be killed.” Before police arrived, his family was murdered, he said.

Asked to file a murder case against Maulana Mafooz Khan, the man behind the mob, the SHO pleaded helplessness, saying “I am a poor man… and I was pressured by higher authorities not to file the FIR.”

It is truly disheartening to think how little can be done about all this–beyond the obligatory petitions, faxes and well-intentioned e-chatter, of course–until we succeed in the long-term task of cultivating a meaningful means of propagating an alternative common-sense.

It is no less sobering to ask after our shrill liberals, for whom this frightening pattern of minority persecution invariably finds itself contorted into a manic call for strong-fisted (military) action. On even cursory inspection, of course, this line of reasoning dissolves into farce–elite and establishment complicity in these and countless other cases is clear. The myopia and short-termism of the ongoing War for Civilization, for example, is illuminated by this Mansehra jirga’s stoning verdict. While the problem of Taliban barbarity is all-too-real, this episode shows the problem to be rooted in a set of factors (the mores of a underdeveloped rural society, decades of aggressively touted fundamentalist morality) that means such madness is (a) scarcely confined to the TTP groups on whom our State is ready to declare war, and (b) never amenable to resolution by F-16 (apologies due to Lord Curzon).

All told, it is a long road that lies ahead of us.

A climate of hate

June 21, 2010 § 2 Comments

By now we are all well aware of the marginalization of Pakistan’s religious minorities, as well as the level of violence that is directed against them. Black Friday may have been a particularly shocking display of hatred and venality, but it’s far from the only one. Not only have there been massacres of religious minorities before – the murder of Christians in Gojra by setting their houses on fire in July 2009 comes to mind – but communities have also been attacked while at prayer, such as the many incidents of attacks on Shia mosques.

The institutional support for such vile attacks is clear: it rests on the extensive legal discrimination that exists in Pakistan’s Constitution and in its other legislation, most notably the Blasphemy laws and the anti-Ahmadi laws. But perhaps an even more powerful source of support is the social and cultural stigmatization of non-Sunnis and non-Muslims in Pakistan.

The climate of hate that exists in Pakistan today demonizes anyone who does not fit a very, very narrow definition of Pakistani – which essentially has come to mean a devout Wahabi Sunni Muslim. Anyone outside that extremely narrow identity is immediately considered suspect, an alien of sorts, and that includes Ahmadis, Shias, Christians, Hindus, and the rest. And increasingly, there is a hateful ideology and rhetoric that is being directed towards non-Wahabi Sunnis. This hateful rhetoric exists in both public and in personal and intimate spheres, and although some might imagine that such ideas are exclusive to poorer and less formally educated people, in fact one can hear ugly bigoted sentiments being expressed in the most lavish of drawing rooms and by people with Harvard degrees.

This climate of hate begins with silence – silence about the discrimination faced by minorities, silence about the violence directed at them, and silence about the decreasing possibility of a life of dignity and satisfaction for religious minorities in Pakistan. C.M. Naim has an excellent piece in which he details how attacks on Ahmadis are covered in the Urdu-language press as compared to the English-language press. According to Naim, Urdu papers rarely reported on anti-Ahmadi attacks, and when they did, they failed to mention the religious identity of the victims and therefore to identify the attack as one motivated by hate and bigotry. It needs to be mentioned that Urdu newspapers have a much wider and broader readership than English-language newspapers.

The media has certainly played its role in fostering this climate of hate. The most notable example of this hate is the show Aalim Online, whose host Amir Liaquat Hussain exhorted his viewers in 2008 to kill Ahmadis as an act of piety (wajab-ul-qatl). This show aired on September 7, 2008, and on September 8, within hours of the show’s airing, an Ahmadi businessman had been shot dead by a gang of assailants who were never apprehended. (The lack of any criminal investigations and apprehending of perpetrators is a common pattern in violence against religious minorities.)

But perhaps most disturbing are the repeated statements by political leaders and those in government office that justify violence against Ahmadis and others. For example, Sanaullah Khan, a leader of the PML-N and a current minister in the Punjab provincial government, has repeatedly made statements that justify violence against Ahmadis. He also campaigned for a by-election and appeared prominently with the leaders of Sipah-e-Sahaba-Pakistan (SSP), a notorious, violent, and Sunni supremacist organization (and one that has incidentally been banned by the government).

Another chilling example of official sanction of anti-Ahmadi violence is the placement of anti-Ahmadi banners in Lahore that had the official seal of the Punjab government on them. Within the last few days, anti-Christian banners have also appeared in Lahore.

The response from the fundamentalist parties to the Ahmadi massacre on Black Friday has been not only to refuse to condemn the attack but in fact to blame the Ahmadi community for the attacks! A meeting of 13 fundamentalist organizations in Lahore on June 9 declared that Ahmadis were part of a conspiracy to try and overturn anti-Ahmadi laws and had orchestrated the attacks on the mosques themselves! And last Friday (June 18), Dawn notes that the leader of the Jamaat-i-Islami provided a fresh example of hate speech:

The latest example is that of the Jamaat-i-Islami chief, Syed Munawwar Hasan, who during a sermon in Lahore on Friday threatened a fresh movement against the Ahmadi community if it “did not accept their minority status” and the government kept silent about “their blasphemous and unconstitutional activities”.

Throughout this, those in political office have displayed a singular lack of sympathy and concern for the victims. Not a single political leader has visited the victims or offered them monetary compensation (as is commonplace for victims of terrorism). The Chief Minister of Punjab, Shahbaz Sharif, has thus far refused to visit the Ahmadi mosques, despite living just down the road from them. Nawaz Sharif, the leader of the PML-N, did make a statement declaring that Ahmadis were “our brothers” but even this milquetoast statement was met with outrage from the fundamentalists. In this atmosphere, we have to be grateful to the women legislators who forced the issue and were able to pass a motion condemning the attacks in the National Assembly. If it were not for Sherry Rehman (PPP), supported by Bushra Rehman (ANP), Khushbakht Shujaat (MQM), and Farah Naz Ispahani (PPP), even this symbolic measure would not have passed.

Progressives need to start going on the offensive against these purveyors of hate. We must hold these leaders, parties, TV personalities, and the rest accountable for their exhortations of violence against religious minorities. It’s time to take a stand.

P.S. Don’t forget to sign our petition, which has now been endorsed by the Women’s Action Forum (Karachi and Hyderabad).

Petition to End Religious Violence in Pakistan

June 16, 2010 § 5 Comments

Black Friday, the May 28th massacre of Ahmadi worshipers while at Friday prayers, has been a dark reminder of the terrible conditions that Pakistan’s non-Sunni and non-Muslim communities live in. At least part of the problem is the Pakistani state’s institutionalization of legalized discrimination against Ahmadis and various other groups. These horrible and inhuman laws must go.

ENOUGH IS ENOUGH. We call on the Pakistani government to repeal these terrible laws, bring perpetrators of violence to justice, and take steps to separate religion from government.

Please sign our petition calling on the government to take these steps! Signing the petition takes only a few seconds and none of your personal information is saved. Please do this now, and please spread the word widely and ask others to sign the petition as well.

Update: The petition has now been endorsed by Women’s Action Forum (Karachi and Hyderabad).

The Fight Against Discrimination

June 5, 2010 § Leave a comment

By Sofia Checa, Sahar Shafqat and Saadia Toor (for Action for a Progressive Pakistan)
June 06, 2010

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.

Published in the Express Tribune, June 6th, 2010 (link here).

Standing up for Ahmadis

June 1, 2010 § 1 Comment

The massacre of Ahmadis in Lahore last Friday is a terrible reminder of the awful conditions religious minorities live in in Pakistan. Due to the legal discrimination, social opprobrium, and repeated violence against their communities, Ahmadis – and Christians, and Hindus, and Shias, and everyone else who doesn’t fit the rightwing’s notions of “Pakistani” – are living in a state of fear and hopelessness.

There is plenty to be done, but there are some very small things that we can all start doing right now. Stop engaging in the casual slur-filled conversations that hurl deep venom against minorities. Call people out when they denigrate Ahmadis, or when the conspiracy theories about Ahmadis are trotted out. Refuse to dignify the euphemism “places of worship” instead of the mosques which Ahmadis worship in. Do not ever use the term “Qadiani” which is pejorative and only meant to demonize. And lastly, refuse to “otherize” Ahmadis. Do not fall into the trap of thinking that Ahmadis are some kind of exotic group that is totally distinct and separate from society. Remember that Ahmadis are Muslims, and Pakistanis – they are not just one of us, they ARE us.

Sometimes the task before us seems overwhelming, and we feel helpless. But all of us CAN make a change in how we speak and what we tolerate from our friends and family. So stand up today for Ahmadis – and for all other religious minorities.

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