‘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


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