Religious freedom in 21st century Pakistan
Starting with the Lahore Resolution, every major landmark constitutional document, including the Objectives Resolution, has promised religious freedom and equal rights for minorities in Pakistan. Despite this, the situation of religious freedom has deteriorated steadily in the 67 years of the country’s existence and has decidedly become so bad that Pakistan is now teetering on the brink and may well join the list of known offenders like Saudi Arabia in coming years. Much of this has to do with laws such as Ordinance XX of 1984 that targets the religious freedom of the Ahmedi community and the blasphemy laws. By the mid-2000s, Pakistan had an extremely radicalised population and that has added to the dilemma of Pakistan’s minorities.
Pakistan’s current political reality makes the scope of constitutional action very limited, if internally initiated. Religious freedom is just not on the priority list. It is not that they are bigots — in most cases they are not — but the political elite is deathly afraid of the mullahs and too self-serving to take up this issue. Same is the case with our friends in the US, European Union (EU) and other western nations, normally the champions of liberty and religious freedom. When Pakistan was granted the GSP Plus status by the EU, many notable human rights activists expressed optimism that this would mean that Pakistan would be forced to improve the situation for religious minorities in the country. Pakistan is too important strategically for these western powers to bother about religious freedom. After all, General Ziaul Haq, who pretty much read out the freedom of religion clause from the Constitution through his ordinances, was the blue-eyed boy of these nations. A US legislator from the Democratic Party even called him the “Winston Churchill of our time” for his role in the war against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan. Similarly, the main culprit behind the radicalisation of the Muslim world, Saudi Arabia, is hardly ever criticised by any of these major powers for its tremendous failings.
Yet it is time the world took a long-term view of Pakistan. Pakistan can go either way. It can be allowed to become radicalised or it can be salvaged as a large Muslim majority, democratic nation state. For it to be salvaged as the latter, all efforts of reform must be encouraged. Part of this would be to drive home to Pakistanis that the world will do business with them only if they put an immediate end to the persecution of religious minorities in Pakistan. Give Pakistan the choice: economic prosperity or pariah status. Ultimately, Pakistanis have a keen business sense. The ruling elite will get the message. However, for this to happen, the world powers, especially the big three — US, EU and China — will have to sacrifice their short-term interests in the region. This means that things like the Economic Corridor, GSP Plus and development aid have to be linked with concrete progress on the issue of religious freedom. Similarly, if Pakistanis are turned away at international airports, they will will begin to reconsider their shortsightedness. There is precedent for this in South Africa. Unlike South Africa, Pakistani rulers will quickly throw in the towel.
What I have written here means that Pakistanis like me will get affected as well. I for one would willingly make that sacrifice, if for nothing else but as a patriotic duty. A patriot’s foremost duty is to fix the wrongs in one’s country. This is not what we were supposed to be. The founder of this country, Mr Jinnah, was a foremost champion of religious freedom, not just on August 11, 1947 but consistently for 40 years prior to that, often stepping on the toes of Muslim orthodoxy with his radically liberal proposals (like legalising inter-faith marriage). There is nothing more tragic than the fact that the country he founded is now one of the most foremost oppressors of religious freedom. Any patriot’s conscience must be moved by this simple fact. In an increasingly interconnected world, a patriot can choose from amongst many weapons and allies. The weapon of economic diplomacy is by far the most effective.
A Pakistan that is at peace with itself, which respects human rights and gives all its citizens equal rights and does not have laws that discriminate on the basis of faith, is good not just for Pakistan but for the entire world. Such a Pakistan will be a bulwark against extremist ideologies of groups like the Islamic State (IS). A Pakistan that is cannibalising itself is going to fall to precisely to those ideologies. This monster of intolerance is going to gobble us up. What is now needed is to convince Pakistanis that if we do not act now, we will be a ruin just like the ruins of past civilisations and peoples who inhabited this region. Our very existence will become an aberration and we will be dismissed as a failed experiment in history. Stop the rot now when we still have time. As Iqbal would say: “Dastan bhee nahin rahe gi daastanon mein” (Even the story will disappear from stories).
The writer is a lawyer based in Lahore and the author of the book Mr Jinnah: Myth and Reality. He can be contacted via twitter @therealylh and through his email address firstname.lastname@example.org