Saturday, March 05, 2011
With 18 million residents, Karachi is the world’s third most populous city by some counts. Residents include Muslims, Hindus, Christians and fire-worshipping Zoroastrians and it teems with different ethnicities, including Afghans, Bengalis, Burmese, Chinese, Sri Lankans, Filipinos and Iranians.
I was lucky enough to experience it first hand: I have watched Muslims running barefoot to mosques for prayers, Christians worshipping in the Baptist Central Church, and at school, Hindus studied alongside me.
It did not occur to me when I was a boy that behind their smiles and every-day routines, religious minorities of Pakistan live in constant fear of religious vendetta but as I grew older I realized that the situation was not as I had thought it to be.
But Wednesday, after the murder of Shahbaz Bhatti, the Christian minister for religious minorities, any remaining youthful illusions were finally dashed. His assassination is not the only one of his kind -- in early January Salman Taseer, the former governor of Punjab, was shot dead for criticizing Pakistan’s blasphemy law.
The Muslim politician who introduced cable television to Pakistan and encouraged the global consultancy firm KPMG to do business in the country, was assassinated for supporting the release of Asia Bibi, a Christian woman imprisoned for allegedly insulting Prophet Muhammad.
Bearing brunt of intolerance
Out of a population of 170 million, about 78 percent are Sunnis, 16 percent Shiites and 6 percent non-Muslims. The common perception is that everyone in the country regularly experiences the violence of the Taliban but the reality is that it’s mostly Muslims who get killed by their followers armed with suicide belts while non-Muslims have to face the brunt of ordinary Pakistanis armed with religious intolerance.
After the assassination of Taseer, a friend from Karachi who graduated from a university in the U.K., celebrated his death as a triumph.
“We need to set an example for those who want to insult our prophet,” he told me. “We have an emotional relationship with our prophet and once our emotions are infuriated, we need to retaliate.”
He is not alone and pressure on Pakistan’s minorities has been building for some time.
The judiciary often fails to protect Pakistan’s Hindus, 1.6% of Pakistan’s population, says Amarnath Motumal, a Pakistani Hindu and a council member of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan.
“Every month, around 25 Hindu girls are kidnapped and forcefully converted to Islam. And the police only rarely register their case,” Motumal told Geo Television in August 2010.
The country’s Christians also suffer from persecution, according to Alexander John Malik, Anglican Bishop of Lahore.
Judges often don’t prosecute the Muslim abductors of Christian girls, he says. In fact, in the light of the victim’s conversion to Islam, judges completely ignore the fact that these girls were forced to change their religion. Instead they forbid the forcefully converted Muslim girls to live with their Christian parents because it is illegal for Muslim children to live with non-Muslim parents.
The roots of this discrimination are not only found in the country’s laws but also in how people interpret Islam’s dictates.
For an idea of the many hard-line Muslim politicians’ feelings about non-Muslims, one needs only to go to the head of Pakistan’s largest religious party.
“Should we praise Hindus when they have occupied the disputed land of Kashmir?” Farid Paracha of Jamaat-E-Islami told Express News in October 2010. “Should we praise Hindus when they are killing thousands and millions of people?”
In the run up to recent elections, Jamaat’s campaign featured anti-Jewish, anti-Hindu and anti-Christian chants and slogans.
Another fact that makes it especially difficult for non-Muslims to live in Pakistan is the Shariah, or Islamic law. Although not a part of the Pakistani constitution, Shariah decrees that non-Muslims choose between paying a tax to live in a Muslim country, convert or migrate to a foreign land.
Another tenet of Shariah that is a part of the constitution is the blasphemy law, which dictates that anyone who insults the Prophet Mohammad should be sentenced to death. It is under this law that Bibi, the imprisoned Christian woman, was arrested.
Taseer was assassinated by his own security guard for lobbying a change in this law.
Glimmers of hope
There are still glimmers of hope for Pakistan’s minorities, and there are Pakistani Muslims who want to co-exist with other religions.
“Shariah law has got many controversial policies that require careful consideration before we implement them,” said Rana Khizer Hayat, a Sunni and former president of the influential National Union of Pakistani Students and Alumni [NUPSA]. “I would personally not support any law that treats non-Muslims in the country as unequal to us.”
NUPSA, an organization comprising of 25 college societies, has proposed to the Pakistan government that laws limiting the right of non-Muslim citizens to become the heads of state should be repealed.
Syed Zain Abid, a Shiite, goes further.
“We need to interpret our religion according to the environment of the 21st century and, in accordance, controversial policies of Shariah require re-consideration or complete desertion,” he says.
Shiite Muslims are often victims of attacks by the majority Sunni population. In January, two simultaneous suicide attacks took place on Shiites processions in Karachi and Lahore, killing 12 and injuring 79 people.
An old Hindu friend, who considers himself as much a citizen as anyone else in the country, holds out hope that the situation will improve.
“We, the Hindus, live the normal life and face the entirely same problems as other Pakistanis,” says Avenash Loughani. “The Taliban (is) killing everyone and it would be unfair for me to complain that minorities are being targeted.”