Fragility Of Faith In Pakistan

Fragility Of Faith In Pakistan
Pakistan’s growing religious extremism is manifested in many ways, some more gruesome than others. The country consistently ranks near the bottom in rankings issued by organizations such as Human Rights Watch which, among other things, monitor a country’s performance in minority rights and religious freedom. The fact that its eastern neighbor is now equally culpable is irrelevant, expect for those who relish schadenfreude. For the shrinking minority which still holds on to Mohammad Ali Jinnah’s vision of a pluralistic and inclusive Pakistan, the exponentially rising bigotry and extremism is deeply concern.

The country that Quaid-e-Azam founded included a Hindu in its founding cabinet. Jogendranath Mandal was Pakistan’s first Minister of Law and Labor, and also oversaw Commonwealth and Kashmir affairs.

It was a bright start but Jinnah’s vision was struck a blow on March 12, 1949 with the passing of the Objectives Resolution which subjugated non-Muslims to a secondary position in society. Pakistan’s constitution is clear: non-Muslims cannot become head of state. Article 41 (2) states, “A person shall not be qualified for election as president unless he is a Muslim of not less than 45 years of age and is qualified to be elected as a member of the National Assembly.” Similarly, Article 91 (3) stipulates, “After the election of the speaker and the deputy speaker, the National Assembly shall, to the exclusion of any other business, proceed to elect without debate one of its Muslim members to be the prime minister.”

Pakistani Muslims would cheer if British politicians Sajid Javid became Prime Minister of England and were ecstatic when Salim Khan became Mayor of London, but are less encouraging of minority victories at home.

Still, Pakistan in its early days was a much more tolerant society than today. The official holidays in 1953 included Easter, Holi, Baisakhi, Dusehra, Diwali and a whole week off for Christmas. But the discrimination laid out in laws soon permeated society and the official workings of the state. The onslaught of populism could not be resisted by Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto who talked about “Islamic socialism” and bent in front of extremists to save his political career and maintain his power. As it so happened, his political expediency did not achieve either.

General Zia-ul-Haq went several steps ahead with his overt Islamization of Pakistani society. The funding for propagation of orthodox Salafist ideology, returning workers from the Middle East who adopted extremist ideas, the 1980s Afghan war, and mass evangelism by celebrity preachers continued the slide which has resulted in Pakistan becoming one of the worst countries for non-Muslims.

Non-Muslims constitute the most vulnerable section of society, discriminated against and terrorized. Among these is the Christian community that has made so many contributions to the country in different fields. Among these are Chief Justice of Pakistan Supreme Court A. R. Cornelius, air force aces Cecil Chaudhry, Peter O'Reilly and Mervyn L Middlecoat, and educationist Bishop Anthony Lobo. Brilliant teachers, doctors, lawyers and businessmen, Pakistan’s Christians provide their unique color to the cultural tapestry of the country and are an integral continuation of the vision of Pakistan’s founder. And yet, they have been discriminated and attacked for decades. In just the past 20 years they have suffered from acts of terrorism carried out by religious extremists. Recent attacks include:

  • Attack on a Quetta church in December 2017 that killed nine people and injured 57

  • Suicide attack targeting Christians celebrating Easter at a Lahore playground in March 2016 causing 70 deaths and leaving more than 340 wounded

  • Two bomb blasts at churches in Lahore in March 2015 that killed 14 and injured more than 70 persons

  • Suicide bomb attack at a church in Peshawar in 2013 that caused 80 deaths

  • Nearly 40 houses and a church were burnt by a mob in Gojra in 2009 with eight persons burnt alive

  • Hundreds left their homes in Faisalabad in 2005 and missionary schools were set on fire by extremists

Small wonder that there has been a mass exodus of Christians from Pakistan.

But it’s not just the major acts of terrorism that have hurt the community. The rampant discrimination they face on a daily basis is both symptomatic of Pakistan’s slide to an extremist state and an affront to common morals and decency.

One recent example is the refusal of an employee of Delizia bakery in Karachi refusing to write “Merry Christmas” on a cake. Once the news went out on social media, reports started coming about other bakeries who do the same. The sad part was not that a commercial outfit did not follow basic customer service but that many people were actually defending the act in the name of religion.

It seems people’s faith has become so fragile and they are so insecure that a mere greeting will make them non-Muslim. The notion that Islam is in danger and needs to be constantly defended in a country that is 98 per cent Muslim is also followed on a micro-level by bigots who are the first to rise in arms when Muslims are discriminated against in Western countries. Let a Muslim be discriminated against in Israel or India and we will have hordes protesting on the roads in Pakistan.

However, none of this is surprising considering that the rot starts from the top. The state has continuously slid down the extremist slope and works hand in glove with sectarian outfits. The mainstreaming of Ahle Sunnat Wal Jamaat (ASWJ) and Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP), the compromises with Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) and tolerance and active support of “strategic assets” only further fractures Pakistani society which leads to both attacks against minorities and also the kind of societal discrimination shown for Christmas greetings.

The confusion is rampant. Pakistanis will celebrate birthdays, New Years’, Valentine’s Day, use products made by non-Muslims and even atheists, and happily emigrate to non-Muslim countries but a simple greeting is enough to condemn them to hellfire. All sorts of rhetorical jugglery are employed to justify their discrimination. The really worrying aspect is that the people discriminating are often not at the margins of society, in fact they are part of the English speaking elite who have graduated from top universities and follow successful careers. An employee of an elite university refused to greet a fellow colleague “Merry Christmas” as he thought its un-Islamic. Other Christian friends have revealed that their close associates who once attended their Christmas parties now refuse to even acknowledge the occasion.

These people forget that the Quran mentions Jesus Christ more than 90 times in 15 Surahs and counts him as one of the most important figures in Islam. They also forget that the Holy Prophet (PBUH) instructed Muslims to treat non-Muslims well or that Hazrat Ali (AS) labored for a Jew. Never mind that the Quaid-e-Azam promised complete freedom of religion to Pakistanis. Wishing someone a simple greeting is simple etiquette and refusal to do so shows how far we have sunk on morals, let alone religion. It is telling that one will find that it is often the people wishing “Happy new Year” on 1st Muharram who are against wishing Merry Christmas. The mendacity is odious and striking.

Merry Christmas!

Sibtain Naqvi is a researcher and writer who focuses on cultural and institutional history. His latest book is "Unravelling Gordian Knots."