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)

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