Pakistan’s future is tied to rights for minorities

In 1947, Muhammad Ali Jinnah gave a speech to the New Delhi Press Club, setting out the basis on which the new State of Pakistan was to be founded. In it, he forcefully defended the right of minorities to be protected and to have their beliefs respected:

“Minorities, to whichever community they may belong, will be safeguarded. Their religion, faith or belief will be secure. There will be no interference of any kind with their freedom of worship. They will have their protection with regard to their religion, faith, their life and their culture. They will be, in all respects, the citizens of Pakistan without any distinction of caste and creed.”

These words are a forgotten aspiration in today’s Pakistan where minorities, ranging from Ahmadis to Sikhs, from Christians to Hindus, Buddhists and Zoroastrians, face relentless violence and profound discrimination.

It is estimated that, of a population of over 172 million people, at least 4% of the population come from the minorities: in 2011 the Pakistan Hindu Council put the number of Hindus alone at 5.5% – some 7 million people, while there are almost 3 million Christians, and Pakistan’s Ahmadiyya community is 4 million strong. All of
these minorities have suffered grievously, along with those caught up in the sectarian violence between Sunni and Shi’a Muslims.

Jinnah rightly declared that the Government of Pakistan has a duty to protect all of its citizens, regardless of their beliefs or origins. The international community ought to be asking how the State today honours that pledge.

Take the Ahmadis. One year ago, in two separate attacks in Lahore, 98 Ahmadis were murdered and many more injured while they were at Friday prayers. The vicious brutality of these attacks is magnified when considering the Ahmadis’ belief: “love for all and hatred for none.”

Sadly, too few share the same passion for tolerance. While the Ahmadis consider themselves Muslim and follow all Islamic rituals, in 1974 the State declared them to be non-Muslim and, in 1984, they were legally barred from proselytising or identifying themselves as Muslims. Ali Dayan Hassan of Human Rights Watch believes that Ahmadis had thus become “easy targets” for militant Sunni groups who behave with impunity believing they have the full authority of the State in declaring Ahmadis to be infidels. Despite repeated attacks on the Ahmadis no prosecution of perpetrators has occurred in the past 15 years.

And the situation is set to get worse. Earlier this month, on June 11th, The Asian Human Rights Commission issued a statement that “extremists openly plan to kill hundreds of Ahmadis while the government turns a blind eye.”

Last year Terrorism Monitor warned that:

“As the Pakistani Taliban are trying to spread their war on the Pakistani State, they are likely to continue to target minorities like the Ahmadis in their efforts to create instability.”

On March 29th of this year that threat was brutally and graphically underlined by the murder of Pakistan’s Minister for Minority Affairs, Mr.Shahbaz Bhatti. An advocate of reform of the country’s Blasphemy Law – the cause of many bogus prosecutions against non Muslims – he was gunned down by self described Taliban
assassins as he left his Islamabad home. His murderers scattered pamphlets describing him as a “Christian infidel”. The leaflets were signed Taliban al-Qaida Punjab.”

Shahbaz Bhatti’s death is the second high profile killing this year of someone asking for changes to Pakistan’s laws and greater protection for its minorities.

The Foreign Secretary, William Hague, said that Bhatti’s death “is a tragic loss for Pakistan and for all people who believe in human rights and freedom of speech.”

Alistair Burt, Minister for South Asia, added that he had supported Mr.Bhatti’s “in his difficult role and in his attempts to revise his country’s Blasphemy Laws. Those laws have been used to target minorities.”

Minister Bhatti’s death was not an isolated incident.

As terrorism and instability has intensified, so have the deaths. Over 35,000 people have died in attacks since 2003; 2,522 fatalities in the first six months of 2011 alone. And, on the day of writing this, a report from Peshwar detailed the deaths of 34 more people, with over 100 badly injured.

Meanwhile, forced conversions to Islam, rape, and forced marriage are increasingly commonplace.

Take the case of Sidra Bibi.

She is a 14 year old Christian living in the district of Sheikhupura in Punjab, and the daughter of a worker in the cotton industry. She was molested, abducted, raped and threatened her with death. Physically and psychologically abused, she became pregnant. Police have refused to accept her complaint.

Samina Ayub, is also a Christian. Aged 17, she lives with her family near Lahore. Kidnapped, forcibly converted to Islam, renamed Fatima Bibi, she was coerced into marrying in the Muslim rite. Her family reported the abduction but police have not prosecuted those responsible.

Attacks have also been made on places and books sacred to those with minority beliefs. The radical Islamist party, Jamiat ulema-e-Islam recently filed an application to the Supreme Court to ban the circulation of the Bible, describing it as “blasphemous” and “pornographic”

Such intolerance and such virulent attacks pose a grave threat to Pakistan, to the region, but, also, to the UK, where around 1.2 million British citizens of Pakistani descent now reside.

Unlike the authorities who have such a lamentable record in protecting their citizens, Pakistan’s own citizens clearly understand from where the threat to their security originates. In an independent survey 90% cited religious extremism as the greatest threat to the country: which is why we have a duty to speak out for these
vulnerable and preyed upon minorities, especially in the aftermath of the killing of Osama bin Laden, since when intolerant violence has intensified.

The former Foreign Secretary, David Miliband commented that: “It is when the international community has taken its eye off the ball in Pakistan that instability has increased…Internally, Pakistan has a duty to protect minority groups and needs the support of its allies to do so.”

Those words are in complete accord with Jinnah’s 1947 Declaration promising tolerance, respect and security for the new country’s minorities – a vision that needs to be reinserted into the political mainstream. In 2011 the grievous plight of Pakistan’s minorities is inextricably bound to its destiny as a nation.

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