Farahnaz Ispahani’s book review Pakistan’s Beleaguered Minorities by Abubakar Siddique:

Countries adapted to celebrating their religious, racial, ethnic, and linguist diversity are typically stable and prosperous and face fewer domestic and external threats.

But states obsessed with imposing a militarized uniformity on their diverse societies are prone to instability, secessionism, mounting extremism, violence, external interference, and intolerance.

Former Pakistani lawmaker Farahnaz Ispahani’s book Purifying The Land Of The Pure: A History Of Pakistan’s Religious Minorities is an in-depth analysis of how Islamabad’s policies toward minorities have devastated their fortunes, exacerbated extremism, and hold the country back from realizing its full potential.

Seventy years ago, Pakistan was heralded as a safe haven for South Asia’s largest minority, Muslims. Since then, the country has proved itself to be anything but.

In 1971, a quarter-century after its creation, the numerical majority of Bengalis in Pakistan’s eastern wing seceded to form their new country, Bangladesh. Meanwhile, its other ethnic and religious minorities continue to languish.

Ispahani, a former journalist and current fellow at Washington’s Woodrow Wilson Center, masterfully captures how Pakistan’s small religious minorities — now estimated to be only 3 percent of the country’s more than 200 million predominantly Muslim population — continue to suffer from escalating violence and discrimination both from the government and private groups.

At the outset, Pakistan was warned of such an eventuality.

“Now you are raising the cry of Pakistan in danger for the purpose of arousing Muslim sentiments and binding them together in order to maintain you in power,” Huseyn Shaheed Suhrawardy, a Bengali politician who later became the prime minister of Pakistan, warned in 1948.

He called on Pakistan’s founding leaders “to be fair to the minorities” because intolerance and discrimination would boomerang on the new country’s Muslims majority.

“Those lawless elements that maybe turned today against non-Muslims will be turned later on, once those fratricidal tendencies have been aroused, against the Muslim gentry,” he predicted.

Sadly, his prophesies proved true. While Pakistan’s Hindus, Christians, Sikhs, and other non-Muslim minorities still face discriminatory laws, lynching mobs, and forced conversions, the country’s Shi’ite Muslims now bear the brunt of extremist violence. A plethora of jihadists and militant groups are now determined to purify the “land of the pure” (the literal meaning of the name Pakistan) from anyone deviating from their puritanical Sunni Muslim doctrines.


Within five years of Suhrawardy’s warning, two eminent jurists had a damning verdict. After riots against the Ahmadiyya sect, justices Muhammad Munir and Muhammad Rustam Kiyani noted in 1954 that after listening to scores of clerics in nearly 100 hearings they concluded that “no one who has given serious thought to the introduction of a religious state in Pakistan has failed to notice the tremendous difficulties with which any such scheme must be confronted.”

Indeed, the country’s subsequent history proved them right. After riots and a campaign in the eastern province of Punjab, the Pakistani Parliament enacted a law in September 1974 to declare the Ahmadiyya a non-Muslim minority.

Ispahani says the development was a tragedy as it undermined both secularism and tolerance in the country.

“It was a greater tragedy that this had happened under an otherwise progressive and pluralist government,” she wrote, referring to the administration of the Pakistan Peoples Party populist firebrand founder, Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto.

She notes that such intolerance toward religious minorities hastened after military dictator General Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq assumed power in 1977. His regime promoted hard-line Sunni Islam at the expense of other Muslim sects and religions. It also actively encouraged and bankrolled its proponents to militaries by forming militant factions.

Decades later, tens of thousands of Pakistanis are paying a heavy toll with their lives and properties while reeling from discriminatory laws. Every year, scores of Muslims and non-Muslim Pakistanis are lynched or imprisoned under the blasphemy laws under which people accused of insulting Islam or religious figures can be sentenced to death.

On September 16, a Christian man in eastern Pakistan was sentenced to death after being arrested in 2016 on blasphemy charges. While no one has officially been executed on blasphemy charges in Pakistan, blasphemy is an emotive issue, and outraged mobs often choose to take justice in their own hands against the accused, who are often from religious minorities.

Precise, well-researched, and eloquent, Ispahani’s Purifying The Land Of The Pure is a must read for policymakers, scholars, and general readers trying to understanding the roots of intolerance and violent extremism in Pakistan.


The U.N. Needs A Peacekeeping Force, Not Just Words, To Protect Myanmar’s Rohingya by Farahnaz Ispahani

As reports of atrocities against Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar’s western Rakhine state pour in, one thing is clear: The international community needs to respond more robustly.

The United Nations refugee agency has reported that more than a quarter of the Rohingya in Myanmar — 270,000 people — have fled their homes so far. The horrors we’re seeing in Rakhine are similar to those we witnessed in the 1990s during the slaughter of the Tutsi minority in Rwanda and the ethnic cleansing of Bosnia’s Muslims and Croats.

Rendered stateless because Myanmar refuses to recognize them as citizens, the Rohingya are being forced to flee as their villages are burned. Reports of rape, murder and arson have increased as refugees arrive by land or sea in Bangladesh, Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand.

Rohingya refugees flee to Bangladesh. Sept. 10.
Rohingya refugees flee to Bangladesh. Sept. 10.

The horrors we’re seeing in Rakhine are similar to those we witnessed during the Rwandan genocide and ethnic cleansing in the Balkans.

But the situation demands a stronger response than merely condemning the actions of the Myanmar government. The atrocities in Bosnia did not end without NATO’s involvement, and the genocide in Rwanda did not cease until the U.N. sent in a peacekeeping force.

Much of the world’s response to the Rohingya crisis has centered on well-deserved criticism of Nobel laureate and Myanmar’s de-facto leader, Aung San Suu Kyi. Public figures have penned newspaper editorials calling to revoke Suu Kyi’s Nobel Prize. Two Nobel laureates, Malala Yousafzai and Desmond Tutu, have criticized Suu Kyi’s role in the humanitarian crisis. Tutu came out of retirement to voice his criticism of a woman he described as “a dearly beloved sister” he has long admired but whose behavior he strongly condemns in the “unfolding horror” of this “ethnic cleansing.”

Tutu admonished Suu Kyi, saying it was “incongruous for a symbol of righteousness to lead” a country that allowed such atrocities. “If the political price of your ascension to the highest office in Myanmar is your silence, the price is surely too steep,” he said.

This situation demands a stronger response than merely condemning the actions of the Myanmar government.

Suu Kyi’s attempts to spin the violence against the Rohingya is ingenuous, at best. Reports of attempted genocide and mass exodus of the Rohingya, which began to surface in 2009, are based on eyewitness accounts and are documented on video. Refugees arriving in Bangladesh have recounted matching stories of children being beheaded and men and women being burned to death.

The Rohingya are unwanted in Bangladesh and other neighboring countries as well. With little economic or social standing and virtually no rights even in their homeland, these people have no voice. They are friendless under the might of military guns.

Although the history of the Rohingya can be traced back to the eighth century, Myanmar law does not recognize the ethnic minority as one of its national races. The government’s attitude, as well as silence from the international community, reflects the mistreatment and marginalization of ethnic and religious minorities that have, unfortunately, resurfaced as a global phenomenon today.

It’s shocking. I’ve never encountered a situation like this. Linnea Arvidsson, U.N. investigator

The result of events like the tragedy in Myanmar is communal majoritarianism. As Linnea Arvidsson, a U.N. investigator who met refugees in Bangladesh, put it: “It’s shocking. I’ve never encountered a situation like this, where you do 204 interviews and every single person you speak with has a traumatic story, whether their house was burnt, they’ve been raped or a relative was killed or taken away.”

The U.N. Security Council must heed the advice of Secretary-General António Guterres to step up its response. “The international community has a responsibility to undertake concerted efforts to prevent further escalation of the crisis,” Guterres warned. This might involve sending international forces to protect the Rohingya from Myanmar’s security forces and allied mobs intent on eliminating another minority.

But after the immediate issue has been attended to and international forces have intervened to save the Rohingya from being eliminated or permanently excluded from their homeland, there will remain a need to work on the larger issue of communalism. Majorities must not be allowed to attack minorities to create religiously or ethnically pure societies. Finding a mechanism to prevent future Rwandas and Rakhines will be the real test for our civilization.


‘A Champion of Minorities’ A review of Farahnaz Ispahani’s book by Ambassador Akbar S. Ahmed

On Easter Sunday last year a Taliban suicide bomber detonated ten kilograms of explosives and metal ball bearings in a park full of Pakistani Christian families in Lahore, killing 73. The bomber had chosen a spot between two children’s rides. 29 of those killed were children, the youngest only 2 years old.

It is with this heartbreaking story that Farahnaz Ispahani introduces her book, Purifying the Land of the Pure: A History of Pakistan’s Religious Minorities.The grim figures continue. After the Lahore attack we are reminded that the previous year twin suicide bombings in churches in Lahore killed at least 15 people and sparked Christian outrage and protests across the city.

Again and again, guiding us through the harrowing journey of Pakistan’s minorities, Farahnaz takes us back to the example of the Quaid-e-Azam, Mr Jinnah, the towering father of the nation. She quotes in full Jinnah’s historic first address to the Constituent Assembly in August 1947 with this defining sentence in it: “You may belong to any religion or caste or creed — that has nothing to do with the business of the State.”She quotes Jinnah’s earlier speeches promising religious freedom with sentences like, “Minorities, to whichever community they may belong, will be safeguarded. …They will be, in all respects, the citizens of Pakistan without any distinction of caste or creed.”

Here it should be noted that Jinnah himself argued, as Farahnaz states, “[Pakistan] was not intended to be an Islamic state nor was Partition aimed at creating permanent hostility between Hindus and Muslims.” As early as 1947, Muslim leaders like Nawab Chhatari from the UP in India, had warned Pakistan’s first prime minister, Liaquat Ali Khan, that if Pakistan moved toward a theocratic state, then Muslims like him in India would face a Hindu India and Ram Raj.

Farahnaz mournfully explains, “Jinnah — himself a Shia — nominated a Hindu, several Shias, and an Ahmadi to Pakistan’s first cabinet. Now, non-Muslim representation at the cabinet level is limited to symbolic appointments, while Shias face smear campaigns from Sunni Muslims that declare them non-Muslims. And the Ahmadis — who were some of Jinnah’s most ardent supporters in his quest for a Muslim homeland on the Subcontinent — are completely unrepresented; they live as virtual outcasts within modern Pakistan.”

The minorities have suffered the most but there has been a general deterioration of law and order in Pakistan. Tragically, Shia, Ahmadis, Hindus and Christians are targets but the horror is universal: schools and even shrines representing mainstream Sunni Islam have been targeted
There is one looming villain in Farahnaz’s book and that is the military dictator General Zia-ul-Haq who in her words “forced Islamization” and “his bigoted worldview” onto her beloved Pakistan. He had seized power from the popular elected Prime Minister Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto and imposed a strict martial law. It was his period in which madrassas proliferated and Blasphemy Laws and Sharia Courts were instituted. Pakistan, according to Farahnaz, lurched towards extremism.

In telling us that when Pakistan was first founded, 23 percent of the population came from non-Muslim minority religious groups and now only three percent of the population is non-Muslim, Farahnazhas fallen into a common statistical error.On the creation of Pakistan,West Pakistan had a tiny Hindu population as most of the community had already fled to India, but East Pakistan still had a substantial Hindu population. After the breakup of Pakistan, the tiny Hindu population of West Pakistan, now constituting Pakistan, is all that is reflected in thecurrent low percentage.

In the general deterioration of law and order in Pakistan, not only the minorities are suffering the violence. Tragically,Shia, Ahmadis, Hindus and Christians are targets but the horror is universal: schools and even shrines representing mainstream Sunni Islam have been targeted. Who can un see the video of the savage lynching of Mashal Khan in Mardan?

Farahnaz’s bleak picture is somewhat balanced by the many examples of well-integrated and devoted Pakistanis from the minorities. She herself, a Shia, and her distinguished family are good examples. Of the many at hand, takeJimmy Engineer, a Zoroastrian, who is one of Pakistan’s most famous painters and widely loved. Dr. Ruth Pfau, a Christian missionary doctor battling leprosy, was held in such high esteem that upon her recent death, the President,along with the Commanders-in-Chief of the armed forces, attended her funeral. Another Christian Pakistani, Dr. James Shera,the first Asian Mayor of Rugby, England, and himself widely loved among the Pakistani community,shared his passion for Pakistan in a moving obituary to Pfau, calling her “Pakistan’s Mother Teresa”:

“As I watched on television, as the state-run and private television networks of Pakistan broadcast live footage of her funeral, this sight of an exceptional measure for a foreign Christian in this Muslim country overwhelmed my heart and soul.”

Farahnaz expresses gratitude to those who inspired her, including her distinguished grandparents, Hassan Ispahani and Begum Ispahani, close associates of the Quaid. Her book pays tribute to three leading Pakistani figures assassinated in the cause of religious freedom–Benazir Bhutto, Salman Taseer and Shahbaz Bhatti, the Christian federal minister.

Farahnaz has held many important positions in her career including that of a member of the Pakistan National Assemblyand a Fellow at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington, D.C. Perhaps her greatestachievementis this book, in which she emerges as the champion of Pakistan’s minorities.Whether you agree or disagree with her, there is no denying the courage, clarity and passion with which she reminds Pakistanis of the need to live up to the high ideals of the Quaid.

The writer is an author, poet, filmmaker, playwright, and is the Ibn Khaldun Chair of Islamic Studies, American University in Washington, DC. He formerly served as the Pakistani High Commissioner to the UK and Ireland. He tweets @AskAkbar