In The News

The Struggle Against Religious Conflict in Pakistan

August 6, 2014

Asia Foundation 60th anniversary seriesOn the third day of Eid-ul Fitar last week, two Hindu trader brothers from district Umerkot in Sindh Province were murdered in front of their home. An Ahmadi doctor was murdered in Chiniot in May 2014 while a Hazara Shia community in Quetta was attacked and two brothers were murdered by Lashakr-e-Jhangvi on Eid-ul Fitar in July 2014. The killing of Rashid Rehman, a prominent human rights lawyer in the Punjabi city of Multan on May 8, 2014, who was defending a professor accused of blasphemy, has grave implications for the overall human rights situation in Pakistan.

According to the Pakistan Institute for Peace Studies, there were approximately 1,200 sectarian killings in 2013 and more than 80 Christians were killed in a double suicide bombing at a church in Peshawar. These string of attacks on religious minorities as well as a rise in kidnappings have escalated a sense of insecurity in these communities.

Home to 187 million people, Pakistan is divided among many different tribal, linguistic, and sectarian groups. According to the 1998 census, 96.14 percent of the population is Muslim and 3.86 percent are non-Muslim, out of which 1.58 percent are Christian, 1.6 percent Hindu, 0.22 percent Ahmadiyya, 0.2 percent are scheduled castes (a term used to denote lower class status), and 0.07 percent belong to other religions.

In 1940, the historical Pakistan Resolution declared religious nationalism as the unifying force for the foundation of an independent state, setting the groundwork for religious intolerance. The sectarian proxy war between Saudi Arabia and Iran to promote their respective strategic dominance has had a huge influence on the escalation and de-escalation of religious conflicts in Sunni-majority Pakistan. The religious pragmatism and puritanism in faith effectively backed by Saudi Arabia to promote the radical Wahhabi movement in South Asia played a role in rising religious tensions in Pakistan. The 1979 revolution led by Ayatollah Khomeini in Iran ignited hope for the Shia community to maneuver effectively for greater strategic dominance in the region. The 1981 siege of the parliament house in Islamabad by the Shiite community was a small sign of influence by virtue of their close links with Iran. Soon after the attack, the state attempted to support the formation of Sipah-e-Sahaba, a pro-Sunni organization, in an attempt to weaken the influence of the minority Shia community. Dr. Hassan Askari, a well-known political analyst, rightly pointed out that: “In Pakistan, the state joined societal groups i.e., the Sunni community to promote Islamic orthodoxy and militancy in the 1980s … this caused fragmentation of the society.” This sharpened not only the division between Muslims and non-Muslims but also increased religious-sectarian consciousness that still manifests itself in the violent conflicts we see today.

The 1973 constitution of Pakistan does not allow non-Muslims to hold the highest positions of president, prime minister, or chief justice. Recently there was an increase in the overall seats of the National Assembly to adjust for population increase, but the seats for the non-Muslims remained the same. The mechanism for the allocation of tickets to non-Muslims by the political parties focuses only on the powerful within the “powerless” groups. Thus, the interests and issues of the religious minority groups are not well represented or negotiated within the corridors of power. Socio-economic structural divisions and realities make it impossible for the privileged group within different religious communities to empathize with the majority of the poor population who share their faith. The non-Muslim minority representatives in the national and provincial assemblies are not directly elected by their communities, and as such, may be cut off from the realities on the ground of the religious communities they are supposed to represent. Most religious minority communities neither relate to these representatives, nor trust them to further their agenda.

However, it is important to mention that there are some positive developments in advancing religious rights that are evolving across Pakistani society. Space is opening up gradually in the parliament and society at large to discuss and debate issues that were previously perceived as too controversial. Various public and private institutions are taking up some of the major issues that have caused religious conflicts within communities, including misuse of loud speakers to influence masses of people against certain communities, and availability of hate literature and speech through print and electronic media. The recent virtual anti-terrorism campaign “Awaz Uthe Gi,” (“the voice will rise up”) condemns discrimination and violence based on religious and sectarian grounds. The Supreme Court’s June 19, 2014, judgment is also a positive development calling for the establishment of a National Council for the Rights of Minorities and the setting up of a special task force to protect the places of worship of religious minorities. The judgment also instructs the government to put in place immediate measures for registering criminal cases against desecrators of places of worship and to prepare appropriate and religiously unbiased curricula for use in schools and colleges across the country.

The recent bill passed by the Sindh Assembly to prevent the forced conversion of girls below the age of 18 is also an encouraging step. The decentralization policies, introduced by the 18th Amendment to the 1973 Pakistan Constitution (passed in April 2010), has brought about one of the most significant political shifts in “responsibilities” in Pakistan’s history – thus providing a unique opportunity to redress human rights violations including the rights of minorities.

In 2013, The Asia Foundation established the Rights of Expression, Assembly, Association, and Thought (REAT) network under the Human Rights Fund III program to ensure strategic coordination and relationships among local civil society organizations on issues of religious freedom and freedom of expression. In addition, some of our local partners are members of the Coalition for Rights of Minorities (CRM), which is also actively engaged on addressing issues of religious freedom across the country.

While the sources of religious intolerance are deeply rooted in Pakistan, and these recent spikes in attacks are disturbing, the recent moves by the government and civil society take a step forward in opening up a space for greater protection and participation of the country’s religious minorities.

Farid Alam is The Asia Foundation’s deputy director of Programs in Pakistan and Sofia Noreen leads the Foundation’s Human Rights team there. They can be reached at farid.alam@asiafoundation.org and sofia.noreen@asiafoundation.org. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the authors and not those of The Asia Foundation.

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