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Religious minorities in Pakistan and a door slammed shut – Kamila Hayat

All of us who have attended school in the Islamic Republic of Pakistan were taught at one point or the other that the white strip that runs down the flag stood for non-Muslims who make up an estimated three per cent or so of the population.

Now it seems this white is to be washed over with a shade of green that denies the existence of diversity in the country and closes the door of opportunity for citizens who practise a different faith. We may as well change our flag and give up the pretence that there is any space for minorities in our state.

One of the more insidious doings of the 18th Amendment has been to seal off the office of prime minister to non-Muslims by declaring that the post will be held by a Muslim. The presidency has, since 1956, already been reserved for Muslims alone. The original justification given for this was that the post was a symbolic one. While in the kind of state we live in today, there was little practical possibility of someone from a minority religious community moving into the office of prime minister, the existence of the theoretical possibility was important. Indeed it is ironic that this opening has been closed just as real authority has been shifted to the prime minister. It is also ironic that a measure aimed at strengthening democracy should reserve the most important political office in the land for a specific community. The exclusion of all other citizens is, after all, most blatantly undemocratic.

While insiders say the proposal came from the PML-N, the fact is that parties like the ‘secular’ ANP and the ‘liberal’ PPP are both guilty of going along with it. One of the legacies of the Zia age has been that, once a ‘religious’ tint has been placed over any item – no matter how rotten it may in reality be – no one dares speak out. It is true the ANP tabled a suggestion that the presidency be opened to all citizens; but, perhaps caught up in the Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa issue, it appears not to have noticed the still more damaging change in rules for the holding of the prime minister’s office. It is also a fact that once change of this kind has been made, it is extremely hard to roll it back. Any attempt to do so would bring an outcry from the religious parties and other groups that back them. No political party has in recent years displayed the moral courage necessary to take on such groups. Indeed, already, on internet discussion forums, while an encouraging number of voices have spoken out against the measure, others have argued that it is justified for an ‘Islamic’ state to have only a Muslim at its head. A long time ago, Mohammad Ali Jinnah, a man who has for any meaningful purpose been virtually forgotten in the country he founded, had warned against states that discriminated or drew distinctions between one community and the other. Jinnah would be mortified to discover that this is precisely the kind of distorted state that Pakistan has become over the 63 years since it appeared on the map. Like Dorian Grey, it has become increasingly warped and twisted, even if these mutations are not always visible on the outside.

The message that the latest change sends out is a dangerous one. It comes at a time when we see at periodic intervals orgies of violence that involve the burning of houses belonging to non-Muslims or the torture of members of minority groups, often after charges of blasphemy have been brought. We have seen lynching carried out in public on these grounds. All around us we see in fact a kind of ‘cleansing’ on the basis of religion that should leave us ashamed. Hindus from Sindh – sometimes even from communities where they had lived in peaceful harmony with their Muslim neighbours for years – have been forced to flee to escape forced conversions or the kidnapping of their daughters. The few Sikh families who still lived in the tribal areas have been driven out of their homes by the Taliban following the imposition of ‘jaziya’ taxation on them. Christians have, since the 1980s, begun disappearing to escape discrimination; the names on school registers even at missionary-run institutions in Lahore reflect the change and the monolithic nature of the society we live in.

The attitudes that have created this are for a large part the product of state policies. The laws against Ahmadis, the separate electorate for minorities and the ‘Islamisation’ policies have all encouraged social and economic discrimination. Opportunities available to non-Muslims have closed down. Employers are less likely to grant them jobs or offer promotions; schools deny them admission. The Basant festival has been labelled as being ‘Hindu’ and, therefore, undesirable. Even the simple act of flying a kite has been given a religious overture. There can be little doubt this has been a factor in the ban on Basant and the sport of kite-flying that has led to the fluttering paper shapes vanishing from the skies over Lahore, a city that once observed the only secular festival on our calendar with unrivalled passion.

There is evidence too that the unpleasant process of creating a kind of sterile uniformity by rooting out diversity is growing. Muslim sects have confronted the wrath of those who hold they are non-Muslim. The mass killing of Shias in Karachi on two separate occasions as they marked Muharrum is just one example of this. Other groups have faced threats of many kinds. Some indeed, to protect themselves and their children, have chosen to disguise identity. Other groups, such as the small number of Jews who once lived in Karachi, have simply left the country.

The process is an immensely dangerous one. It has already created divisions that in the past simply did not exist. The result has been growing social unease. To create the harmony we so badly need it is vital to alter this, to create a state that treats all its citizens as equal and accepts that this is the true spirit of the democracy that is so often spoken of but rarely put into practice. The question is where we will find the leaders committed to such a vision for their nation.

The writer is a freelance columnist and former newspaper editor

Email: kamilahyat@hotmail.com

Source: The News, 15 April 2010

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