Pakistan’s Land of the Pure Limits Religious Liberty

Aug 8th, 2015 | By | Category: Weekly Washington Updates
Pakistan’s Land of the Pure Limits Religious Liberty

Pakistan’s Land of the Pure Limits Religious Liberty

by Andrew Harrod PhD.

Pakistan became “increasingly Islamized…since independence from British India in 1947,” stated former Pakistani parliamentarian Farahnaz Ispahani at a July 28 Heritage Foundation panel before about 30 listeners in Washington, DC.  This development of what fellow panelist and United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) commissioner Katrina Lantos-Swett called “one of the world’s worst violators of freedom of religion” bodes ill for Islamic religious tolerance.

The 1977-1988 dictatorship of General Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq, who “imposed a policy of state-led Islamization,” often takes the blame for Pakistan’s current religiously repressive nature, Ispahani noted, but historically the “rot set in very early.”  “What ISIS [the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria] is doing now was something that the conservative, sectarian clergy in Pakistan have been thinking about much earlier,” she stated.   Pakistan, whose name “literally translates as ‘land of the pure,’” has undergone a longstanding “purification of actually everyone who doesn’t subscribe to one very particular Deobandi…Arabized version of Islam.”

Ispahani described the various elements of this “purification” occurring in stages beginning with India’s bloody 1947 partition that birthed Pakistan as a country “created to protect the subcontinent’s Muslims.”  While a 1941 census of the territory that is Pakistan today listed 20.5% of the population as non-Muslim, “Pakistan witnessed a massive decline in Hindu, Sikh, and Christian population” during partition’s sectarian violence.  Only a few percentage points of non-Muslims remained in a 1951 census while continuing immigration and asylum-seeking in the decades since means that the “process of purifying the population did not end there.”

Ispahani additionally noted that the “Pakistani state tried to create a national identity” on the basis that “Islam alone represented Pakistani identity.”  The 1946 election slogan “Islam in danger” already “defined Pakistani nationhood immediately after independence.”   Political Islam references appeared in a 1949 Constituent Assembly Objectives Resolution concerning the character of the Pakistani state as well as its first constitution in 1956 that declared an “Islamic Republic.”  Contemporary warnings of religious repression from Muslim and non-Muslim politicians alike were unavailing.

A subsequent 1974 constitutional amendment defined the Ahmadiyya, a small Muslim sect viewed as heretical by many orthodox Muslims and currently comprising .22% of Pakistan’s 180 million people, as non-Muslims.  Pakistan, Ispahani noted, “was the first instance of any modern country’s constitution defining who was or was not part of a religious community.”  “It was extremely painful” for her to observe fellow Ahmadi parliamentarians forced “to live a lie about their religion” under a pretense of belonging to Pakistan’s Sunni Muslim majority.  The 1974 amendment “opened the door for similar demands” concerning other groups like Pakistan’s Shiite minority, about 20% of the population.

Pakistan’s Islamization set “limits to the rights of minorities in an Islamic state…based on medieval concepts,” Ispahani observed.  Under Zia, “Pakistan was first on the map with the new, improved blasphemy law” including a death penalty that was the “harshest blasphemy law on the books in any country,” a measure since emulated by other Muslim-majority countries.  Since this Islamization of a British colonial law against insults to religions in general, fourteen blasphemy prosecutions before the 1986 amendments have mushroomed to 1,274 cases in the years 1986-2010.

“Even mainstream and relatively social liberal parties” have “almost zero political will now in Pakistan,” Ispahani noted, to oppose the internationally notorious blasphemy law.  This “shows the fear in Pakistan now over even discussing blasphemy,” something well-founded given the 2011 assassinations of Punjabi governor Salman Taseer and Minister for Minority Affairs Shahbaz Bhatti, a Christian.  Both men had called for the law’s abolition, but for “extremist clerics” even “opposing laws against blasphemy construed promotion of blasphemy rendering the two politicians liable to punishment by death.”  Death threats also made Pakistan unsafe for Ispahani and her like-minded husband in the Heritage audience, former Pakistani ambassador to the United States Hassan Haqqani.  “We were almost killed there, because the police will not give us protection” and are now “sitting in exile in the United States,” she noted.

“Pakistan’s zealous enforcement” of blasphemy laws, Lantos-Swett observed, “is in stark and embarrassing contrast to the pronounced lack of zeal in bringing to justice” those who kill in Islam’s name.  Terroristic attacks targeting Pakistan’s religious minorities since the 1980s formed another element in the Islamization analyzed by Ispahani, including anti-Shia militias that “roam with impunity” with the connivance of Pakistani officials.  Lantos-Swett decried a “surreal inversion of justice in which some are punished for words and beliefs while others are allowed with impunity to commit acts of violence.”

Citing a USCIRF study, Lantos-Swett stated the common view of the panelists that “Pakistani’s educational system has been part of the problem.”  Pakistani textbooks presented non-Muslims as “second-class citizens, and sometimes even second-class human beings.”  Accordingly, the “next generations of Pakistanis which are coming up are full of hate,” a South Asian questioner said to Senator James Lankford following his description of American religious freedom efforts in Pakistan.

“Pakistan’s beginnings were very different” under its founding father Muhammad Ali Jinnah, Ispahani argued.  Like other leading figures in Pakistan’s independence, the Shiite Jinnah came from one of Pakistan’s Muslim minorities and headed Pakistan’s first cabinet in which members from diverse faith backgrounds served.  Citing an oft-quoted  August 11, 1947, Jinnah speech, Ispahani described his “ideal of a Muslim-majority country with a large, non-Muslim population that protects minorities and did not allow religion to be a factor in politics.”  Jinnah died a year after independence, otherwise “Pakistan might have been a radically different country.”

Even had Jinnah lived longer, Lankford and the other panelists seem to exaggerate in saying that for Pakistanis religious freedom “is in their founding, it is in the core of who they are as a nation.”  The long term trends described by Ispahani outweigh the momentary influence of any group of individuals who attempt to stand against deep currents of intolerance in Islamic doctrine.  As experience in Muslim-majority countries like Malaysia corroborates, bending Islam’s trajectory in a benign manner is often difficult. (Conference video below)

About Andrew Harrod
Andrew E. Harrod is a researcher and writer who holds a PhD from the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy and a JD from George Washington University Law School.  He is a fellow with the Lawfare Project, an organization combating the misuse of human rights law against Western societies.  He can be followed on twitter at @AEHarrod.


Tags: , , , , ,

Comments are closed.