Shrinking space for religious freedoms

Over the years, both the will and capacity of the state to prevent persecution of minorities has diminished, writes Farhatullah Babar

Shrinking space for religious freedoms
August 11 in Pakistan is marked as Minorities Day to reiterate our commitment to ensuring rights of the minorities and to commemorate Muhammad Ali Jinnah’s speech in the Constituent Assembly on August 11, 1947 where he outlined the founding principles of the new state. “You may belong to any religion or caste or creed. That has nothing to do with business of the state,” the Quaid had said.

The Preamble of the Constitution of Pakistan also guarantees their right to “freely profess and practice their religions.” Pakistan is also a signatory of several human rights conventions that guarantee rights to minority communities.

Regardless of the Constitution, religious injunctions and international covenants signed by Pakistan, their rights have been shrinking. At one time the state even tried to commit fraud on the Constitution! During a certain dictatorship, the word ‘freely’ in the Preamble was surreptitiously deleted from text, only to be restored in the 18th Amendment.

Intolerance towards minorities by the state and the society has been increasing. During the war against the Soviet Union in the 1980s, the Pakistan Army formally adopted its battle cry ‘Iman, Taqwa, Jihad fi Sabillillah’ (faith, piety and jihad in the name of Allah). ‘Jihad,’ the holy war, was privatised as militant organisations mushroomed and violence in the name of religion justified.

In 2002, the separate electorate system was abolished and the original joint electorate restored. It was hailed as a great step forward for minorities’ rights. But was it?

The order restoring the joint electorate said that while members of the National Assembly and the Provincial Assemblies shall continue to be elected on the basis of a joint electorate the “status of Ahmadis will remain unchanged.” All citizens were thus placed in a single electoral list, except one minority community. The new Election Act 2017 has also retained this provision.

Early this year the Islamabad High Court ruled that Pakistan’s citizens must now declare their religion when applying for identity documents, for government jobs or for voting. Applicants who disguised their true religion would be defying the Constitution and betraying the state, it said, adding that their true religion must now also be visible on birth certificates, ID cards, voters’ lists and passports.

The court said that a declaration of faith in the finality of Prophethood was compulsory for joining the judiciary, the armed forces and the civil services. Human rights activists worried that the judgment was not only invasive, discriminatory and contrary to fundamental human rights but would also incite violence.

The ability to faithfully discharge duties of public office was thus predicated more on personal beliefs rather than on qualifications and experience. It is straying far from the constitutional ideal of equality before the law. A highly respected and qualified member of Economic Advisory Council was chased off within days for professing a faith different from that of the majority.

Clearly we are hurtling down a steep slope.

During the last general election, a number of radical religious and sectarian groups resurrected under new names and fielded candidates. These parties promised to enforce religion-based laws more vigorously.

Mobs have been taking the law in their hands, resorting to killing at the mere accusation of blasphemy. Even security guards and policemen have killed blasphemy suspects, as was the case of former Punjab governor Salman Taseer.

On September 19, an amendment on prevention of electronic crimes was moved. Any remarks considered derogatory about religious leaders and shrines would be punishable with a three-year jail term, according to the draft amendment which has now been sent to the relevant committee for evaluation. In addition, a particular minority group calling themselves Muslims or propagating their beliefs on social media will be punishable with three years in jail.

One aspect of persecution of minorities is the grabbing of their lands and properties. Behind many accusations of violations of religious sensibilities it has been found that the accusers had an eye on the victims’ lands and properties. The government itself has been seizing properties of non-Muslims near and around churches, temples and shrines. A radicalised society is prone to do the same.

The virus of intolerance infesting the state and society’s minds is indeed deeper than is realized. There are reasons for it. One, political parties have failed to distance themselves from extremists. Indeed, many parties have wooed them particularly at the time of elections.

Two, public representatives of minorities also have not been able to stem the tide. Not only are they amenable to inducements and intimidation, they are also largely disconnected from a vast majority of their communities because of the peculiar manner of their election. Minority members of parliament on reserved seats are chosen by political parties and not by members of their communities.

Three, sections of society also view minorities as sympathisers of the west and promoting a western agenda perceived against Muslims and Islam. As a result, over the years, both the will and capacity of the state to prevent persecution of minorities has diminished.

The formula for ending violence against minorities and for lasting peace between people of different religious traditions must necessarily be a spiritual one.

It calls for the recognition that no one has sole monopoly over truth, a realization of the unity of all living entities as children of God and an appreciation of the bond that connects all humans with one another at a deep, spiritual level, despite religious and cultural differences. It is a long drawn process and there are no short cuts.

Voices must be raised against shrinking space for minorities. Sane voices, like that of I.A Rehman of HRCP, are heard from time to time. But Pakistan needs not just a few but thousands of sane and brave voices to speak up and reaffirm the words of the Quaid uttered on August 11, 1947.

The writer is a former member of Human Rights Committee of the Senate of Pakistan