Huma Yusuf


In a forthright and bold analysis, the author contends that Pakistanis are collectively complicit in the brutal attack on Ahmadis in a mosque by allowing the persistence of religious bigotry as justifiable defense of Islam.


As soon as I heard that gunmen had attacked two Ahmadi houses of worship in Lahore, I posted a despairing comment on my Facebook page, condemning the violence and wondering out loud why we, as a nation, had

let it come to this.


Only later was I struck by the irony of my action: I had logged on to a website recently banned for carrying blasphemous content to decry the murder of members of a community that has for too long been persecuted on charges of blasphemy. But the point of my comment was not to be ironic – it was simply the closest I could get to screaming out loud.


Even as the attack was unfolding, law-enforcement officers started pointing fingers at the Taliban and its affiliated terror groups. But we can no longer pretend that Friday´s attacks were the extreme actions of a lone terror group. Instead, attacks of escalating horror and violence, growing in their scope,  against the Ahmadi community are the most terrible articulations of a widespread social sentiment – that members of this community are, because of their religious beliefs, lesser people. For letting this ill-conceived notion flourish over the decades, Pakistanis are collectively complicit in the attacks.


On a practical level, the attacks are another tragic failure by the state to protect its citizens. The government is aware of the increasingly religiously motivated nature of terror attacks in Pakistan, and had been warned of the  possibility of organized violence against Ahmadi targets in Punjabi cities. Friday’s ambush comes on the heels of the blatant persecution of the Ahmadi community in Faisalabad through robberies, kidnappings and target  killings in March and April. In this context, it is appalling that the government had not provided better security for the mosques.


But more than an inquiry into the anti-terror capacity of the Lahore police, Friday’s attacks demand soul-searching at all levels of the state and society. The fact is, young men, not automatons, carried out Friday’s attacks. They were no doubt brainwashed into thinking that they were attacking the sites of worship of `infidels´, a label that is consistently used by extremists to dehumanize minorities and other vulnerable groups.


In a way, the attackers were fed the same rhetoric that Pakistanis have been heartily chewing on in the past few weeks – the idea that some views,  practices or people are anti-Islam and blasphemous, and should therefore be obliterated. This basic idea is manifest in the sweeping ban against  Face book and other websites believed to host sacrilegious content, in the murder of a former ISI official accused of having links to the Ahmadi community and now in the slaughter of over 70 people at prayer.


It may seem inappropriate to compare these disparate events, but the logic deployed in each instance has been the same: wherever a difference of opinion or a divergent belief is detected, it must be snuffed out, no matter what the toll on human life, human rights, freedom of belief, freedom of expression and social harmony. This is the premise of the endemic and institutional intolerance that has Pakistan in a death grip.


Immediately after the attacks, Punjab Chief Minister Shahbaz Sharif declared that the “entire nation will fight this evil”, by which he meant terrorism. One wishes he had the courage to correctly identify the `evil´ that Pakistanis must collectively battle as the intolerance and hatred that have become hallmarks of our national character.


Political rhetoric aside, the ferocity of Friday’s attacks demands a concrete and drastic government response. It has been well documented over the years that growing intolerance of minority beliefs is a consequence of Pakistan’s controversial blasphemy laws. These have been used to justify censorship, settle personal vendettas, facilitate land grabs and inflict violence on minorities. Crying blasphemy, as Fauzia Wahab well knows, is also becoming a political tactic to silence dissent in a mockery of the basic principles of democratic dialogue. Most dangerously, accusations of blasphemy fuel the mob mentality that has hijacked social interaction in this country.


Given that this is the broader religio-political context in which Fridays attacks occurred, there is no question that the government must repeal the blasphemy laws on an urgent basis. In August 2009, Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani announced the establishment of a committee to review “laws detrimental to religious harmony”, which was understood to include the blasphemy laws. Nothing came to pass from that process. Subsequently, in February, the government announced that it would implement procedural changes to laws that can be exploited to create `violence and disharmony´ in society. Sadly, no changes have been implemented and the battle cry of blasphemy is increasingly invoked. Now, there is no more time for dithering on this issue.


Moreover, the government should reconsider lobbying the United Nations for international legislation against blasphemy. Pakistan is currently leading 56  other Islamic countries in an anti-defamation of religion campaign. But it is too ironic – indeed insulting – to see our government lobby for the rights of religions on the world stage when it cannot defend the rights or lives of its own people at home. Indeed, how can the powers that be champion blasphemy laws in the name of protecting religious freedom, when those same laws are being used to incite hatred, foster extremism and justify the persecution and even murder of innocent Pakistanis?


The fact is, if our government truly rejects Fridays violence, it should take all the necessary steps to address the root causes of discrimination against religious minorities. Chasing down those who planned, financed and executed Fridays attack is just a stop-gap measure – the government must now take the bold step of showing Pakistanis as well as the international community that intolerance and hatred can have no place in our society. In addition to outlawing the blasphemy law, the government must support open debate, interfaith dialogue and school and madarsa curriculum reform with an eye to dispelling misconceptions about different religions and sects.


Sadly, that is a tall order, which cannot come to pass for a host of reasons: shameful historical precedent; the resurgence of banned Punjabi sectarian outfits pursuing an independent agenda; the political clout of religious parties; and Pakistan’s aspirations to be a major player within the Muslim world. But if we don’t address systemic intolerance and the violence and human rights abuses that it engenders, someone else will.


In 2002, the US House of Representatives introduced a resolution urging Pakistan to repeal its blasphemy and anti-Ahmadi laws. If the situation worsens, it may place similar demands on Pakistan again. But if the impetus to quell religious intolerance comes from an external power, it will never be effective. This is one evil we have to ward off ourselves.


(Dawn, May 30, 2010)



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