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Pakistan’s minority-rights challenge

In theory, Pakistan’s constitution upholds equality of all its citizens, regardless of religion. In theory.

Farooq Yousaf
16 December 2014
taseer.jpg

Commemorating a silenced critic—Salman Taseer. Demotix / Janali Iaghari. All rights reserved.

Before the horror of the Peshawar school attack by the Taliban, in recent days Pakistan had witnessed chaotic scenes, with angry protesters from Imran Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) staging rallies in major parts of the country against electoral fraud and the killing of party members. Yet neither the PTI nor activists or other any political party staged similar protests when a Christian couple was burned alive on false charges of ‘blasphemy’ in November. This is a true reflection of the state of minority rights and the narrative surrounding persecution of religious minorities in Pakistan, where it has reached a critical level.

Pakistan boasts a whopping 95% Muslim majority, leaving a meagre 5% minority population. With such an overwhelming preponderance and a constitution based on Islamic laws, one could expect—and can witness—minimal minority influence and progress.

Article 25 of the constitution emphasises equality of rights: “All citizens are equal before law and are entitled to equal protection of law.” But unfortunately religious minorities seldom enjoy equal protection with the majority Muslim sects.

A new report by the Minority Rights Group in London and the Islamabad -based SDPI notes that, even with some signs of progress, religious discrimination is still at a peak in Pakistan. This spike is linked to the incompetence of Pakistani government and law-enforcement agencies.

According to a survey conducted by the Pakistan Institute of Parliamentary Studies (PIPS), the primary tool of persecution of minorities, and even Muslims, is the infamous blasphemy law, comprising various articles of the Pakistan Penal Code. Article 295-C states: “Use of derogatory remarks etc, in respect of the Holy Prophet: Whoever by words, either spoken or written or by visible representation, or by any imputation, innuendo, or insinuation, directly or indirectly, defiles the sacred name of the Holy Prophet Mohammed (peace be upon him) shall be punished with death.”

The law is primarily seen as offering protection to Muslims and Islam, and thus Christians, Hindus, Ahmadis and other religious minorities are frequent the targets of persecutions by right-wing Islamist groups and banned outfits. According to the National Commission for justice and Peace, more than 1,400 people have been accused of blasphemy since the 1980s—that includes 633 Muslims, 494 Ahmadis, 187 Christians and 21 Hindus. Among non-Muslims, most of the allegations are related to desecration or insulting the Holy Quran.

General Zia

The roots of Pakistan’s blasphemy law lie in the 18th century, when the British Raj imposed it to protect religious sentiments. There were a number of amendments during General Zia’s military rule in the 1980s, to strengthen support for the dictator among religious conservatives.

Despite these chequered origins, the law has now attained such a sacred status that even those speaking out against its negative connotations, such as the slain governor of Punjab, Salman Taseer, are accused, arrested and even killed. A month after Taseer’s murder in 2011, Shahbaz Bhatti, the then minister for minorities and a staunch critic of the law, was also killed for his pains.

Adding to the plight of the victims, most such incidents do not draw strong reactions from state authorities. For instance, the killing of two Ahmadi girls and a pregnant woman on 27 July in Gujranwala evoked little attention from the normally hyperactive chief minister of Punjab, Shahbaz Sharif.

The European Organisation of Pakistani Minorities, an independent human-rights organisation, reported this year a catalogue of incidents of violence against minorities in the preceding six months—including rape, murder, forced conversions, abductions and the torching of holy books and temples. These had affected up to 150 Shias, 23 Hazaras, 45 Hindus, 21 Sikhs, 66 Christians, 22 Ahmadis and 13 others, with besides banned militant organisations private citizens also to blame.

These developments have resulted in a massive exodus of members of Pakistani minorities to other countries, such as the United States, Germany, Sweden, Denmark, the United Kingdom, Sri Lanka, India and Israel. The government needs to tackle this as a priority or it will continue to face global embarrassment.

It needs to start turning article 25 into reality. 

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