Pakistan and its minorities

Jul 9, 2011 | Uncategorized

Pakistan and its minorities
In 1947, Muhammad Ali Jinnah gave a speech to the New Delhi Press Club, setting out the foundation principles of the fledgling State of Pakistan. Forcefully, he defended the right of minorities and the duty of the State to protect them:
“Minorities, to whichever community they may belong, will be safeguarded. Their religion, faith or belief will be secure. There will be no interference of any kind with their freedom of worship. They will have their protection with regard to their religion, faith, their life and their culture. They will be, in all respects, the citizens of Pakistan without any distinction of caste and creed.”
These forgotten aspirations are a rebuke to today’s Pakistan – where minorities, ranging from Ahmadis to Sikhs, from Christians to Hindus, Buddhists and Zoroastrians, face relentless violence and profound discrimination. The murder, in March, of the courageous Catholic Minister for Pakistan’s minorities, Shahbaz Bhatti, poignantly underlined the relentless nature of the ferocious violence. The failure to track down or prosecute his killers – or to bring to justice those who murdered Salman Taseer, the Governor of the Punjab – was an issue which I recently raised in Parliament with Government Ministers ( ).
Like Taseer, Shahbaz Bhatti was a brave advocate of reform of the country’s Blasphemy Law – the cause of many bogus prosecutions against non Muslims. Gunned down by self described Taliban assassins as he left his Islamabad home he had predicted his own death – knowing that the cause he had embraced – Jinnah’s cause – would ultimately cost him his life. His murderers scattered pamphlets describing him as a “Christian infidel”. The leaflets were signed Taliban al-Qaida Punjab.” Shahbaz Bhatti laid down his life for justice, a martyr for the common good. He stands in a long tradition – from Beckett to More, to Romero – men willing to sacrifice their lives as the price for upholding their beliefs.
The Foreign Secretary, William Hague, said that Bhatti’s death “is a tragic loss for Pakistan and for all people who believe in human rights and freedom of speech.” Alistair Burt, Minister for South Asia, added that he had supported Mr.Bhatti’s “in his difficult role and in his attempts to revise his country’s Blasphemy Laws. Those laws have been used to target minorities.”
William Hague’s predecessor, David Miliband also reminds us that : “It is when the international community has taken its eye off the ball in Pakistan that instability has increased…Internally, Pakistan has a duty to protect minority groups and needs the support of its allies to do so.”
Minister Bhatti’s death was not an isolated incident.
Terrorism and instability have led to over 35,000 deaths since 2003; 2,522 fatalities in the first six months of 2011 alone.
Meanwhile, forced conversions to Islam, rape, and forced marriage are increasingly commonplace. This denial of civil rights and the failure to protect minorities are all directly linked to the rise of the Taliban.
The case of Samina Ayub illustrates the human costs. Aged 17, and a Christian, she lives with her family near Lahore. Kidnapped, forcibly converted to Islam, renamed Fatima Bibi, she was coerced into marrying in the Muslim rite. Her family reported the abduction but police have not prosecuted those responsible.
This and many cases like it point to the crucial importance of returning to the original vision of Muhammad Ali Jinnah. He knew that how a country treats its minorities is a perfect gauge of its attitude – this is as true for us as it is for Pakistan.
Pakistan’s minorities include an estimated to 3 million Christians and almost 7 million Hindus. Pakistan’s Ahmadiyya community is 4 million strong. All of these minorities have suffered grievously, along with those caught up in the hailstorm of sectarian violence between Sunni and Shi’a Muslims.
Since 1984 the Ahmadis have been barred by the State from describing themselves as Muslims and, unless they renounce their faith (an eerily familiar experience which will not be lost on English Catholics), they lose their voting rights and will not be issued with a passport. They are also ruthlessly targeted in a campaign of violence.
A year ago in Lahore, 98 Ahmadis were murdered and many more injured while they were at Friday prayers. The vicious brutality of these attacks is magnified when measured against the Ahmadis’ belief: “love for all and hatred for none.” It’s not a belief which is reciprocated by radical extremists.
Ali Dayan Hassan of Human Rights Watch believes that Ahmadis have become “easy targets” and on June 11th, The Asian Human Rights Commission issued a statement that “extremists openly plan to kill hundreds of Ahmadis while the government turns a blind eye.”
Last year Terrorism Monitor warned that:
“As the Pakistani Taliban are trying to spread their war on the Pakistani State, they are likely to continue to target minorities like the Ahmadis in their efforts to create instability.”
Attacks have also been made on places and books sacred to those with minority beliefs.
The radical Islamist party, Jamiat ulema-e-Islam recently filed – and in a positive move has subsequently withdrawn – an application to the Supreme Court to ban the circulation of the Bible, describing it as “blasphemous” and “pornographic”
This sort of intolerance and these horrendous attacks pose a grave threat to Pakistan, to the region, and, also, to the UK, where around 1.2 million British citizens of Pakistani descent now reside. Underlining the bonds which tie us together, there are 1.4 million visits between our two countries each year.
Pakistan’s own citizens clearly understand from where the threat to their security originates. In an independent survey 90% cited religious extremism as the greatest threat to the country. Pakistan’s Government, civic and judicial authorities have a duty to reflect those attitudes – attitudes which are in complete accord with Jinnah’s 1947 Declaration – and promoted by faith-based groups such as Radical Middle Way, who recently organised a London seminar which I attended.
Jinnah’s belief in tolerance, respect and security for the new country’s minorities should once again be placed firmly at the heart of Pakistan’s political and judicial objectives. It should also be a central objective of our massive bilateral aid programme to Pakistan – resources which rarely reach the beleaguered minorities.
You could argue that a principle reason for any government to exist is to protect its minorities – well understood from the history of Jews, disabled people, Roma and homosexuals in Nazi Germany or from a rereading of William Golding’s fictitious “Lord of the Flies”. Societies, nations, cultures and the great Faiths will always be judged by how they treat minorities. On that test modern Pakistan remains deeply deficient.

Lord David Alton

For 18 years David Alton was a Member of the House of Commons and today he is an Independent Crossbench Life Peer in the UK House of Lords.

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