Pakistan’s minorities: the bigger issue — Farahnaz Ispahani

Pakistan’s minorities: the bigger issue — Farahnaz Ispahani

For a little unlettered girl to be investigated under any law at all for the crime of allegedly unwittingly burning the pages of the Holy Quran is intolerable

As international and domestic outrage increases against the constant harassment of religious minorities in Pakistan, those who do not want to fundamentally change Pakistan away from intolerance appear to have developed their own strategy. They seem willing to resolve individual cases that get negative international attention or generate domestic outrage, without wanting to tackle any of the fundamental issues.

The fundamental issue today is that Pakistan is continuing to become an intolerant society. When Rimsha Masih, an 11-year old poor Christian child reportedly suffering from Down’s syndrome was charged with blasphemy, it was part of a pattern of abuse of religious minorities. To treat it as an individual case or to make it into a child’s rights and mental illness issue is to take the heat away from the real problem.

The real problem continues to be the day-to-day persecution, harassment and murder of Christians, Ahmadis and Hindus under Pakistan’s laws. Much of the legal paraphernalia of discrimination and oppression on religious grounds, including the blasphemy laws, are merely more extreme versions of laws introduced by the British. As Myra McDonald of Reuters has said, “Ironic, backers of blasphemy law defending a British law, inspired by the Old Testament.”

The Associated Press reported on Monday that the All Pakistan Ulema Council, an organisation of Muslim clerics, held a joint news conference with the Pakistan Interfaith League. The Interfaith League has said that 600 Christian families have fled their homes and is campaigning to restore them to their abodes.

In a separate story AP quoted Maulana Tahir-ul-Ashrafi of the All Pakistan Ulema Council as saying, “We demand an impartial and thorough investigation into the [Rimsha Masih] case. Strict action shouldbe taken against all those accusing the girl if she is found innocent,” he said.

Mr Ashrafi also declared, “The government should make this case an example so that nobody will dare misuse the blasphemy law in future.” Therein lies the rub. Mr Ashrafi and his colleagues want this case to be used to end discussion about the need to reform the Blasphemy Laws. They want Rimsha Masih’s case to be investigated and decided under a law that has been so massively abused that it needs fundamental review. But they would rather get mercy for Rimsha without challenging the structure and process that makes oppression of religious minorities possible.

For a little unlettered girl to be investigated under any law at all for the crime of allegedly unwittingly burning the pages of the Holy Quran is intolerable. But what is even worse for those who understand what Pakistan has become, especially those who belong to minority communities themselves or are citizens who have spent a lifetime fighting injustices with their pens as activists, as human rights lawyers, and as thinkers, is to exploit this case as mere eyewash.

What makes this case of young Rimsha so different from other instances of false or unjustified cases filed under blasphemy laws? Why was there no joint platform before, why the focus on this one case alone? Because, as the Maulana remarked (as reported by AP), “At the news conference, the head of the clerics’ council, Maulana Tahir-ul-Ashrafi, told the outside world not to interfere, saying Pakistan would provide justice for the girl and her community.”

Even after Rimsha has been freed, which we hope she will, the laws opposed by most of the civilised world will still stand.

Why did the Maulana feel he had the right to speak for ‘Pakistan’? Perhaps because he was asked to do so by some in the state apparatus who do not want the case of Rimsha Masih hanging over efforts to ‘re-set’, yet again, Pakistan-US ties or around the forthcoming United Nations General Assembly meeting.

But the deep-rooted problem of oppression and intolerance of religious minorities, to which one may add the ongoing organised killings (which some plausibly call genocide) of Shias, needs greater resolve than the temporary solution of solving an individual case within the framework of flawed existing laws.

If our establishment showed the resolve to put Pakistan and the lives of Pakistani citizens, including those from religious minorities, before those of strategic depth and other such outdated concepts, then perhaps they could get on with the business of dismantling the jihadi groups that are often behind the mobs baying for blood in blasphemy cases.

We cannot afford more courageous and crucial voices standing alone and being cut down like Shaheed Salmaan Taseer and Shaheed Shahbaz Bhatti. The larger issue has to be dealt with by the real powerbrokers in Pakistan, not just the case of a handicapped poor Christian Pakistan child.

The writer is a suspended Member of the National Assembly of Pakistan who serves on the National Assembly’s Standing Committee on Human Rights ( Article is published in Daily Times at Friday, August 31, 2012)

Hate crime legislation By Farahnaz Ispahani

Hate crime legislation

Published: August 16, 2012

The writer is a suspended member of the National Assembly of Pakistan and Media Adviser to the PPP Co-Chairman

Pakistan has become a brutal place to live, especially if you are a member of a religious minority. Most observers agree that the country is being swept by a rising tide of hate encouraged by unbridled hate speech. Hate speech is defined as any spoken or physical action that negatively targets a person or group of people based on their ethnicity, gender or religion.

Several countries have dealt with hate by introducing laws that enhance penalties for crimes if they are motivated by racial, gender or religious hatred. Pakistan, too, needs to implement laws that discourage the whipping up of hateful religious sentiments. While researching a private members bill to be introduced in the National Assembly of Pakistan on hate crimes and hate speech, I noticed that the issue of preventing incitement had been addressed by several articles of the Pakistan Penal Code, which dates back to 1860. The adhoc introduction of ostensibly religion-based ordinances by dictators has significantly altered Pakistan’s legal edifice, adding parallel  ‘Islamic’ provisions to the pre-partition criminal justice system. In some cases, the new superstructure has weakened the foundations of a more tolerant and pluralist society that could be ensured under the original scheme of things.

The Pakistan Penal Code is fairly rigorous on the subject of hate crimes of all kind. However, we have two serious and pressing issues. Firstly, contradictory laws like the blasphemy laws challenge the ability to prosecute under the Pakistan Penal Code and secondly, over the decades, we have seen less and less implementation of the Penal Code as in the protection of rights of our minority citizens.

Article 153-A of the Penal Code prescribes punishments for promoting “enmity, hatred or ill-will between different religious, racial, language or regional groups or castes or communities”. If implemented effectively, it could be the basis for prosecuting extremists who encourage religious hatred, particularly those whose  ‘malicious intent’ is clear.

Part XV of the Penal Code focuses on ‘Offences Relating to Religion’. Article 295 criminalises the destruction, damaging or defiling any place of worship “or any object held sacred by any class of persons with the intention of thereby insulting the religion of any class of persons or with the knowledge that any class of persons is likely to consider such destruction damage or defilement as an insult to their religion”. Article 298 provides for punishing uttering of words or making of gestures  “with the deliberate intention of wounding the religious feelings of any person”.

Instead of applying these and related articles on all those who fuel strife between various religious groups, General Ziaul Haq amended laws in a way that religious minorities, especially Christians, Hindus and Ahmadis could be systematically discriminated against. Insulting these religions is easy while practising them has been rendered difficult. There is increasing violence against Shia Muslims as well, notwithstanding the fact that several of Pakistan’s founding fathers, including the Quaid-e-Azam, were Shia Muslims themselves.

The bill I intended to submit envisaged much longer jail terms and far stiffer monetary fines for promoting or practising religious hatred. But in terms of spirit and language, even the present Penal Code, if fully implemented, could be a good starting point for punishing those who incite violence against religious minorities. Today’s Pakistan, which has little resemblance to the country envisioned by Muhammad Ali Jinnah, consistently fails to punish those who define religiosity as hatred of other religions instead of being a manifestation of personal piety. The law should ensure that sermons should teach people about their faith and its practice rather than railing against the beliefs of others.

Naysayers may say this is no longer practical or possible to implement. However, pushing provincial and federal governments on implementation of laws against hate has become critical to ensure the country’s survival and progress. The role in preventing or protecting minorities is the duty of all law officers, judiciary and government officials which has completely fallen by the wayside. There are new incidents every day and people either don’t care enough or have been intimidated into silence by the powerful extreme right from speaking up for the Christian, Ahmadi, Hindu and Sikh communities, as well as Shia Muslims.

Acting upon our existing laws is essential. If we cannot ensure consensus or muster the will to stop the abuse of blasphemy laws then we have to, at the very minimum, implement the other laws we have. Haters need to feel the heat or else the degradation of our society will continue.

Published in The Express Tribune, August 17th, 2012.

A truly democratic future by Farahnaz Ispahani

A truly democratic future

Published: July 30, 2012

The writer is a suspended member of the National Assembly of Pakistan and Media Adviser to the PPP Co-Chairman

For the first time in its history, Pakistan is close to a democratic transfer of power. One directly elected government will go through the electoral process again in the first quarter of 2013 and a new, elected group answerable to the people of Pakistan will be sworn in to govern it and determine its future.

This is a great stride forward but much of what true democracy envisages has not yet unfolded.

A great deal of the blame for unfulfilled expectations of the masses has to be doled out to ‘the establishment’ — the rulers of Pakistan since its birth. An overbearing military that intervenes constantly in matters of state — be they domestic or relate to foreign policy — has constantly held the feet of our elected representatives to the fire though they have no constitutional right to the power they exert.

The second component of  ‘the establishment’ is the permanent bureaucracy. They are contemptuous of both the voters and their elected representatives. Along with their permanent allies in the military, bureaucrats, too, are often corrupt but never held accountable. They are often the ones to provide grist for the rumour mills that churn constantly whenever an elected government is in office.

The judiciary often works in tandem with the bureaucracy to derail visionary schemes and conduct accountability exclusively of elected politicians. The sheer volume of political issues that have ended up at the judiciary’s doorstep in the current term of parliament is evidence of how the administration of justice has given way to a generation of headlines.

A third and much expanded factor among anti-politician forces is the major explosion of the media. The electronic media, as well as sections of the Urdu press, keeps its readers constantly abreast of any hint of mismanagement and corruption by the politicians but quickly sweeps away stories that involve it or the establishment. To perform as a government or even as an opposition in such an environment is never easy.

The politicians, especially the government and its allied parties, have an obligation to implement the vision they presented to the voters to secure election. The people have a right to ask what steps have been taken to prevent mob rule in Pakistan.

Equally valid are concerns about plans to stem the tide of extremism. Voters will almost certainly ask at the next election if elected representatives just turned a blind eye to daily sectarian, ethnic and political killings.

True democracy is not just about the right to vote and the sanctity of the ballot box.

The will of the people is supreme in a democratic order. But elections are just the first step towards democracy. A democratic nation aspires to and means far more. The freedom of its polity to be safe, express itself freely and ultimately to be equal as citizens notwithstanding religion, gender or ethnicity.

Without all the important building blocks in place to ensure individual freedoms, we will see more and more democracies of the kind that we witness as a result of the ‘Arab Spring’.

Tunisia and Egypt show us that if the vote alone is to be the barometer, then Islamists who do not accept pluralism at heart will ultimately triumph. The first steps some of these emerging democracies have taken are to take away rights from minority religious groups and women. The outcome of the process has neither been fair nor truly democratic. In some ways it represents a frightening turn.

Pakistan has a much older tradition and aspiration of democracy than the ‘Arab Spring’ nations. However, after 50 years of some small periods of democracy, can we say that we are more evolved than those nations? I think not.

We must focus on the individual’s right to happiness and safety to emerge as a proud nation. A democracy built only and solely on the ballot box will always remain shaky and vulnerable. We have to take back our national narrative from extremists and ensure all institutions adapt to putting the rights of every citizen before the protection of their powerful institutions.

Published in The Express Tribune, July 31st, 2012.