Religious freedom in the shadow of extremism

1 Jun 2011

Executive summary

The assassinations of two prominent politicians within the first three months of 2011 for their opposition of the country's 'blasphemy laws' have catapulted some of Pakistan's primary religious freedom issues into the public consciousness, in a context relevant to Pakistanis of all faiths.

The deaths of Salmaan Taseer, Governor of Punjab, and Shahbaz Bhatti, Federal Minister for Minorities Affairs, are symptomatic of growing division and lawlessness in Pakistan, as well as being symbolic of the silencing of voices seeking to confront extremism. In a country where the influence of local religious leaders and landowners frequently overrides that  of thecentral government, these killings raise questions about the willingness and ability of the state to maintain the rule of law. The experiences of religious minorities in Pakistan have shown themselves to be precursors for a broader religious intolerance across the country.

There remains a large gulf between last year's advances in government policy towards religious minorities and the reality of life for these groups in Pakistani society. At present the state is neither preventing nor punishing lawlessness - effectively handing over justice to the most powerful or influential parties in any given region. There has been a marked increase in the level of fear among Christians and Hindus, with greater numbers seeking to flee the country. Christian groups in Sri Lanka report a significant rise in the numbers of Pakistani Christians seeking refugee status and warn that the situation is unsustainable.

According to the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP), an NGO, 2009 saw an increase in violence against minorities and 2010 was worse still. Also in 2010, Sufi Muslim sites were attacked, such as the popular Data Dabar shrine in Lahore, which attracts Pakistani Muslims from all backgrounds. Discrimination against religious minorities in Pakistan is visible at all levels of society and within the education and employment sectors. This most directly affects the poorest and least influential people – those who cannot retaliate. Ahmadi Muslims are discriminated against in their economic activity, political life and educational activities. They believe that their situation has worsened "under thecurrent democratic government"; at least 99 Ahmadis were killed for their faith in 2010. The striking feature in many of the cases is the complicity of state representatives.

Regarding implementation, there exist deeply-rooted problems in the police service, prisons, judiciary and court system alike, including the susceptibility of district level staff to bribery or intimidation, and inadequate knowledge of the law. Religious freedom concerns centre on discrimination against religious minorities on the part of state officials, the result being a decreased access to justice for non-Muslims (beyond the more general faults in the system).

Pakistan's blasphemy laws have been a source of suffering and controversy increasingly  since the mid-1980s. Contained within section 295 of the Pakistan Penal Code (PPC), they lack any definition of terms and the oft-cited clauses 295B and 295C ignore the question of intent. Furthermore, evidential requirements are wholly inadequate and the laws undermine the religious freedom provisions contained within the Pakistani constitution. Two decades of misuse of the blasphemy laws has had a damaging normative impact on social harmony in Pakistan. Crying 'blasphemy' is now a powerful and effective rallying call with which to incite action against a personal enemy. Spurious blasphemy accusations have become common, frequently used to settle personal scores, to target religious minorities, to further extremist agendas, or for a combination of all three motives. Local court hearings are often attended by large and vocal groups of supporters from the claimant's side. Judges are not immune from intimidation, and lawyers defending people accused of blasphemy face particular danger. In prison, those accused of blasphemy can experience discrimination and religiouslymotivated assault from guards and prisoners alike.

HRCP reports that 64 blasphemy accusations were registered in 2010. Moreover, according to the National Commission for Justice and Peace (NCJP), at least 966 people were accused under the blasphemy laws between 1986 and October 2009. Of this number, 50 per cent were Muslims. However, a disproportionate number of the accusations made against non-Muslims resulted in extrajudicial violence or killings. The anti-Christian violence in Gojra and Korian in 2009 is a case in point, as is the narrowly-averted violence in Gujranwala last month. These figures do not account for the countless unregistered, rumour-based accusations and their consequences.

During 2010, discreet steps were taken towards a government consensus in favour of amending Section 295 (PPC). However, this effort unravelled from November 2010 onwards, when the conviction of a Christian defendant, Asia Noreen (or Asia Bibi), prompted a highly polarised and volatile debate. On 4 January 2011, the Governor of Punjab, Salmaan Taseer, was murdered by one of his bodyguards for supporting Asia Noreen and for public criticism of the blasphemy laws. In the subsequent weeks, large-scale rallies were organised by the religious right in praise of Taseer's killer. Faced with national unrest at a time of existing instability, the state recoiled from earlier commitments to change the laws. However, a determined (and by now exposed) minority continued to call for amendment. Federal Minister for Minorities Affairs, Shahbaz Bhatti, was one of these, and he lost his life two months after Taseer.

Prior to the current blasphemy law debate, Pakistan's governing coalition had shown itself to be considerably more disposed towards human rights guarantees than its predecessors. The appointment of a Christian and former activist like Shahbaz Bhatti to a federal-level minorities role raised high hopes for religious freedom prospects in particular. It remains to be seen whether the state will take adequate measures to continue his high-quality work but it is promising that Pakistan recently signalled the end of the 'Combating Defamation of Religion' campaign at the United Nations (UN).

However, an extremely narrow version of Islam is now being promoted in Pakistan, to the exclusion of all others. The public space for debate is rapidly shrinking, with the loudest, most aggressive voices sidelining other claims to free expression. Moreover, the present  extremism is building upon foundations laid in the 1980s, under General Zia-ul-Haq'sIslamisation campaign. The pervasiveness of such norms suggests that neither reform nor repeal of the blasphemy laws is likely to have an immediate impact in society. Longer term initiatives are needed to challenge false perceptions of these laws and change the mindsets which render their misuse acceptable.

The state is showing signs of promoting interfaith harmony in Pakistan, a cause to which the late minorities minister was personally committed. But, while tackling misconceptions and prejudice is an essential component in uniting communities, this work necessarily sits alongside developmental initiatives. It is essential to combat the role played by poverty in exacerbating religious violence. An encouraging example of a holistic initiative of this kind already exists in the form of Bhatti's network of District Interfaith Harmony Committees, and the work of groups like the Christian Study Centre (CSC) in Rawalpindi offers further inspiration.

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