October 2012


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Religious Fascism in Pakistan

Naeem Shakir

The boundaries of religious freedom in Pakistan are being tested as violence replaces fervor
The boundaries of religious freedom in Pakistan
are being tested as violence replaces fervor
(Photo from www.asianews.it)

Pakistan has reached the verge of religious fascism, a phenomenon that is posing a serious threat to the State and humanity. Religious minorities have become soft targets as they are killed and dehumanized with impunity by religious extremists while the State fails to protect the life, property and human dignity of its non-Muslim citizens.

Now an 11-year-old Christian girl with Down’s syndrome, Rimsha Masih, and her family have faced the wrath of religious zealots in the suburban village of Mehrabad near the country’s capital of Islamabad. She was beaten by her neighbors and has been falsely charged in a criminal case under the blasphemy law for “defiling, damaging and desecrating the holy Qur’an” as she has been accused of burning some papers with Qur’anic verses that she reportedly collected from the nearby garbage for cooking purposes. The minor girl is jailed in Ramna police station, and the members of the family have been taken into “protective custody”’ on the orders of Islamabad’s inspector general of police (IGP). Moreover, hundreds of Christians of that locality have fled from their homes for fear of a backlash. Meanwhile, Qasim Niazi, the station house officer of the Ramna police station, has admitted to the media that he asked the Christians of that village to leave for a safe place or otherwise they would be lynched in their houses.

A few examples of such socio-religious oppression of the last six months show how religion is turning into a fascist movement by imposing sharia law by force on even those who do not adhere to it. For instance, Abbas Malang, a mentally deranged person, was publically lynched by a religiously charged mob in Channigoth, a small town in the province of Punjab, for alleged blasphemy against the Prophet and the Qur’an. The Muslim extremists did not deem it proper to try him under due process of the law and through the courts. They became the prosecutor and the judge as they claimed their duty under Islamic tenets to punish the blasphemer—a state of total absence of the rule of law.

In July 2012, hundreds of Hindus from the province of Sind migrated to India as the state agencies failed to protect their life and honor from religious fanatics. Furthermore, early this year the case of the young Hindu girl Rinkle Kumari and two others became high profile for their abduction and later forced marriage and conversion by some Muslim feudals, one of whom is a member of Parliament belonging to the ruling Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) of President Asif Ali Zardari.

In early August in Mansehra of the province of Khyber Pukhunkhwa (previously known as Northwest Frontier Province, or NWFP), 20 Shias were taken off a bus and were shot down by religious extremists of a Sunni group which treated them as infidels. It was the third cruel bus attack against Shias. Meanwhile, members of the Ahmadi community are also frequently being killed on a sectarian basis, and they face discrimination through legislation for which they have suffered tremendously. The worship places of non-Muslims have also been burned many times and worshipers lynched by religiously frenzied mobs or some suicide bomber. These incidents are a few examples among many gory occurrences through which non-Muslim citizens in Pakistan have been dehumanized.

In the earlier case cited above, Rimsha is a minor, mentally handicapped, illiterate, belongs to the Christian minority, and her family is from a downtrodden class. Therefore, she is a marginalized person upon whom is being inflicted the rigors of the blasphemy law that is vague, ambiguous and from an inherently flawed Islamic perspective. The law has been ruthlessly abused repeatedly for religious persecution, for settling personal scores and for grabbing property. The law under which Rimsha is being charged uses the word willfully for “defiling, damaging and desecrating the Qur’an.” Therefore, by no stretch of the imagination can one allege that this minor girl willfully committed blasphemy. No one from among the zealots, however, would care whether a poor, minor and mentally handicapped girl ever intended to harm the sanctity of the Qur’an.

Sadly, these faith-based gory occurrences are not new in Pakistan, but now the State and its administrators are totally failing to safeguard their own citizens. Instead, they succumb to the religious extremists. The writ of the State is not being imposed as the government lacks the political will to curb this fast-growing religious militancy. In the wake of demands to repeal the blasphemy law from secular circles, the previous prime minister of the ruling party, Yousaf Raza Gillani, categorically declared that the government was in no mood even to amend the blasphemy law. The ruling elite that is primarily comprised of feudal lords in collaboration with the military establishment has constructed a socio-political and socio-religious narrative that lends support to their undemocratic rule and corrupt practices. Half of the national life of Pakistan has been under direct military rule, and the other half has been under its umbrella as the country’s foreign and interior policies remained under the domain of the military. They have run the country on a security paradigm rather than as a welfare and pluralistic state. Thus, these religious extremists are treated as strategic assets for the doctrine of the security state and are extended a policy of appeasement by the civil and military bureaucracy. Moreover, ever since its formation, the country’s rulers have propagated that Pakistan’s security was in danger.

If this situation is allowed to persist, it will disintegrate society, leading to total chaos and anarchy. Much lies on the shoulders of secular and progressive forces to devise ways and means to face this fascist movement of religious extremism in a steadfast manner as social change has to come from within Pakistan. Human rights violations on such a large scale should also be a matter of serious concern for the international community as well.

* Naeem Shakir is an advocate of the Supreme Court of Pakistan living in Lahore who regularly defends people charged under Pakistan's blasphemy laws.