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Vein hope for Pakistan's minorities

Irfan Yusuf |  20 January 2013

Veins diagramNations can be likened to human bodies. Injury or pain to one part can affect the rest. Key arteries and veins often lay hidden among more visible skin and bones and are only visible in our most vulnerable locations; when cut, the blood flow is almost always fatal.

The most vulnerable and largely hidden parts of Pakistan are its minorities. Pakistan's founder Mohammed Ali Jinnah, himself from the Shia Muslim minority and Pakistan's first governor-general, guaranteed the rights of minorities. In his speech of 11 August 1947, Jinnah declared: 'You are free ... to go to your temples ... to go to your mosques or to any other place of worship ... You may belong to any religion or caste or creed — that has nothing to do with the business of the State.'

If Pakistan is to remain a nation with something resembling a soul and true to the vision of its founding fathers, it must protect its ethnic and religious minorities. But as with its neighbour India, it continues self-harming by bleeding its minorities. It isn't just extremists engaging in the self-harm. It happens at all levels of society.

In theory, Pakistan is a democracy with free elections, functioning political parties and a free and diverse press. Minorities are represented in public life. The recently retired Chief Justice of Pakistan's Supreme Court, the highest court in the land, was a Hindu. Hindus and Christians have allotted seats in the Federal Parliament.

But Pakistan was a nation carved out of British India at the beginning of the Cold War, a time when any enemy of communism was seen as a good friend. Muslim fanatics in Pakistan intolerant of non-Muslims were courted and funded because of their intolerance of the Kremlin.

The phenomenon became acute when Soviet forces entered Afghanistan. The US, its Arab allies and Pakistan's military dictator General Zia-ul-Huq encouraged fervour for anti-Communist jihad and introduced a process of 'Islamisation' that saw the partial introduction of sharia criminal law and major changes to the education system.

The position of minorities has worsened as the letter of Sunni Islam (but not its spirit) has transformed Pakistan. Key institutions and personalities allied with the sufi-inspired South Asian Sunni traditions deobandi and barelwi have used domestic and overseas provocation to attack Pakistan's Christian, Hindu, Ahmadi and other minorities.

An amateurish YouTube video produced by a Californian in 2012 somehow led a crazed crowd to attack a Hindu temple on the outskirts of Pakistan's southern port city of Karachi.

Pakistan's Dawn newspaper reported that the attack 'took place in late September on the Day of Love for the Prophet, a national holiday declared by the government in response to an anti-Islam film made in the US ... Pakistan's Hindu community says it faces forced conversions of Hindu girls to Islam, a lack of legal recognition for their marriages, discrimination in services and physical abuse when they venture into the streets.'

And where do we start on Pakistan's Christian minorities? A demented version of religious law, in the form of an amendment to the Pakistan Penal Code designed to punish blasphemy, has now encouraged the collective punishment of Pakistan's tiny Christian communities.

The case of Asia Bibi, an illiterate farmhand from Punjab, illustrates this phenomenon. Charged with blasphemy and facing the death sentence, her most powerful supporter was the Muslim Governor of Punjab, Salmaan Taseer. His support led to Taseer's own bodyguard pulling the trigger.

As if to underscore just how far the bodyguard's fanaticism had reached, supporters at his hearing included lawyers who only recently had marched in favour of the Rule of Law and the reinstatement of the Chief Justice of Pakistan's Supreme Court. Religious leaders and even respected mainstream journalists and commentators accused Taseer himself of blasphemy.

But non-Muslim minorities are not exempt from this kind of murderous hysteria. Sectarian and ethnic minorities such as the Hazara, an Afghan Shia community settled largely in the north western city of Quetta, have been the subject of an organised campaign of killings.

Given the scale of the attacks and the fact that they target a single community, one wonders how, as Pakistani journalist Kiran Nazish explains, 'the media, particularly television media in Pakistan had been ignoring the issue' when smaller-scale loss of life, cricket scores and Bollywood starlets are readily reported.

The Lashkar-i-Jhangwi, a Sunni militant group outlawed in Pakistan, has been carrying out these attacks for months with complete impunity. Little has been done by the provincial government to protect the victims. In the most recent attack, over 100 Hazara citizens were gunned down in Quetta.

Hazara community members are conducting a constant vigil with the coffins of the dead. For these devout Muslims, whose faith requires almost immediate internment of the dead, refusal to immediately bury their martyrs is a powerful symbol of protest.

The Hazaras, like their Christian, Hindu and other Pakistani brethren, are bleeding thanks to the intolerance (or at least the silence) of the majority. The nation is dying as a result. Perhaps this is why the Hazara of Quetta chose to brave sub-zero temperatures and sit with coffins they have draped in Pakistani flags.

It was only after nationwide protests that the federal government in Islamabad agreed to Hazara demands for the provincial government to be sacked. Only time will tell whether such steps will stem Pakistan's bleeding. 

Irfan YusufIrfan Yusuf is a Sydney based lawyer and blogger



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Submitted comments

Pakistan is clearly still unready for any form of democracy as conceived in the West this nation staggers from one debacle to another, always with the army and corruption in the lead, not to mention religious fanatics. An embarrassment to have as a so-called 'ally', it is on a par with North Korea and the Burmese generals when it comes to its national character and behaviour. A nation that needs to find itself a purpose in the world beyond violence and cruelty and the export of both.

janice wallace 21 January 2013

If Pakistan is to remain a nation with something resembling a soul and true to the vision of its founding fathers, it must protect its ethnic and religious minorities. I could wish the same for Australia.

glen avard 21 January 2013

@Irfan Yusuf. You wrote, "The position of minorities has worsened as the letter of Sunni Islam (but not its spirit) has transformed Pakistan."

I would appreiate it if you would name some of the texts that are being interpreted literally. In addition, which texts or writers put forward the moderating spirit that you say should be followed?

MJ 21 January 2013

Pakistan certainly seems to be going through a sad and terrible time at the moment. Having heard from educated and extremely intelligent Pakistanis studying here; reading of some of the positive steps taken by some politicians and reading material by such as yourself and Ziauddin Sardar from the diaspora I don't think the game is quite over. It is a different country with an extremely different culture. Much of the solution lies with better education (including that for women) and greater opportunities all round. It may take longer than many would hope. A lot depends on the bravery of individuals and groups such as the Hazaras you refer to. I would be sad if Pakistan descended into obscurantism. It and its people deserve better.

Edward F 22 January 2013

Thank you for writing this article , it truly represents the sorry state of affairs for the minorities in Pakistan. The persecuted minorities still take pride in being called Pakistanis in a country that has deprived them the basic right of security and freedom of religion. We still pray for Pakistan and hope that the nation will rise against injustice to minorities .

Fauziak 23 January 2013

Irfan. Thanks for your insightful article. As a member of one of the minority groups, (Christian) I feel we are forever apologising for our existence and that will probably continue as long as Pakistan's self-definition includes the word "Islamic" as in "Islamic Republic of Pakistan." As the young, gifted and intelligent Pakistanis abandon their homeland and move abroad to make a life for themselves, I fear Pakistan will continue to move downhill. Pity, as such a scenario benefits nobody.

Ken P. 25 January 2013

Main reason of all these massacre, fights is obviously Muslims forgot about the true teachings of Islam. They shouldn't forget the pact that was made by the Holy Prophet SA) when he migrated to Medina. That pact is the solution to all these feud, fights etc, anyone can read this pact in the Holy Prophet's life book.

Charose 25 January 2013

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