Pakistan's Unfulfilled Promise
The tragic gulf between the country's founding ideals and its contemporary culture.
12:00 AM, Aug 21, 2007 • By JOSEPH LOCONTE
MILLIONS GATHERED LAST week to celebrate the 60th anniversary of Pakistan's emergence as an independent state. It was difficult for many, however, to ignore the massive problems that afflict this Islamic republic--from its string of military dictatorships to its rising levels of religious extremism. As one national newspaper complained, "The country has failed to achieve any of the ideals enunciated by its founding fathers."
Given Pakistan's influence in Asia, and its status as an American ally in the war on radical Islam, it is worth reflecting on those founding ideals. Many Westerners would be surprised, and many Islamic states shamed, by the religious pluralism and tolerance that once inspired Pakistan's political leadership.
Three days before the formal establishment of Pakistan, following its partition from British India, Governor-General Mohammad Ali Jinnah told the first constituent assembly: "You are free. You are free to go to your temples, you are free to got to your mosques or any other places of worship in this state of Pakistan. You may belong to any religion, caste or creed--that has nothing to do with the business of the State."
There are reasons to believe that Jinnah's proclamation was intended to be more than rhetorical flourish. Pakistan's first foreign minister, after all, was Muhammad Zafrullah Khan, an internationally respected scholar, jurist, and human-rights defender. He was well aware of the country's religious diversity , and endorsed a bold doctrine of religious liberty, as expressed in Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. "The Quran explains that it is only within the competence of God, the Almighty, to make a person believe, but even He does not force anyone to believe," Khan wrote in his short work, Islam and Human Rights. "He leaves everyone to exercise his or her reason and judgment. If He does that, it behooves no one else to try to force people to believe." Khan went on to quote repeatedly from the Koran to argue for complete freedom of conscience in matters of faith.
The sorrow of Pakistan, mostly ignored by secular observers, is the gulf between its founding ideals and its contemporary culture of religious persecution.
U.S. government reports and independent human rights groups agree that the shadow of religious extremism is growing larger. The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) wants the State Department to name Pakistan a "country of particular concern." And there's plenty to be concerned about: The nation's religious schools, or madrassas, promote a curriculum that "remains extremist and includes exhortations to violence." Blasphemy laws threaten harsh sentences--including the death penalty--for defiling Islam, the prophet Muhammad, or the Koran. Injuring the "religious feelings" of individual citizens, whatever that slippery phrase may mean, is prohibited. Religious minorities--such as Shia Muslims, Ahmadis, Hindus, Buddhists, Sikhs, and Christians--face social and economic discrimination. Once accused of blasphemy or other crimes, they can expect lengthy detentions and attacks on their homes and houses of worship. "The government often fails to protect religious minorities from sectarian violence," concludes a recent Freedom House report, "and discriminatory legislation contributes to a general climate of religious intolerance."
That view was confirmed to me recently by Cecil Chaudhry, executive secretary of the All Pakistan Minorities Alliance (APMA), and Benedict Rogers, a human rights activist with Christian Solidarity Worldwide. I met up with them earlier this year in London, during briefings with Members of Parliament and the Foreign Office about the problem of religious persecution in Pakistan.
Religious minorities are not only treated as "second-class citizens," but can also expect to be targeted for vigilante violence--sometimes instigated by local government officials. Two years ago in the Punjab Province, a mob of over 1,500 people, incited by local imams, set fire to churches and schools run by Christian families. Last year the bombing of a procession of Shia Muslims in Hangu killed dozens. Though the government condemned the attack, state officials often ignore religiously motivated violence. Chaudhry's organization, for example, cares for dozens of Christians and other girls who have been sexually assaulted but, because of their minority status, cannot get justice from the state. To help draw attention to the problem, APMA organized a rally last week at the site of the passage of the Lahore Declaration, the document that called for the separate state of Pakistan. The gathering drew Hindus, Sikhs, Christians, Buddhists and moderate Muslims--all to remind the country of the nation's original commitment to universal human rights.