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Saturday, November 12, 2011

Life at risk

Ghazi Salahuddin
Sunday, November 13, 2011

What you read in the headlines is scary enough. But some incidents that you learn about in personal encounters can be devastating. And I am talking about the surge in religious extremism and intolerance at a time when supposedly liberal political parties are at the helm.

Particularly alarming is the recent growth of radical Islam in Sindh, the land of sufis and saints. Indeed, the Pakistan People’s Party, as it is being steered at present, has resorted to a policy of appeasement when it comes to dealing with the fanatic and the obscurantist forces. Is this the other side of the coin of political compromise they define as ‘mufahimat’? However, sleeping with the Q (qatil?) League may not be as detrimental to PPP’s prospects as a political party as the loss it is bound to suffer with the rise in right-wing extremism in our society.

As for headlines this week, the murder of three Hindu doctors in Shikarpur district on the auspicious day of Eid has prompted a lot of concern with reference to the insecurity of our religious minorities. It so happens that there was also a report this week that a study by the US Commission on International Religious Freedom has found that Pakistani textbooks discriminate against Hindus and other religious minorities. It said that many teachers regard non-Muslims as “enemies of Islam”.

Leonard Leo, chairman of the Commission, has been quoted as saying: “Teaching discrimination increases the likelihood that violent religious extremism in Pakistan will continue to grow, weakening religious freedom, national and regional stability, and global security”.

This study reviewed more than 100 textbooks used in grades one to ten in the four provinces of the country. In addition, researchers visited 37 schools in the public sector and interviewed 277 students and teachers. They also visited 19 madrassahs where they interviewed 226 students and teachers.

“Religious minorities are often portrayed as inferior or second class citizens who have been granted limited rights and privileges by generous Pakistani Muslims, for which they should be grateful”, the report said.

There is little doubt that the scope for religious tolerance in this country is shrinking. I have alluded to a shift in Sindh’s social and cultural environment in this context. Though there have been reports of forced conversions and kidnappings for ransom of Hindu traders and professionals from some parts of Sindh, my impression is based more on what I have heard from friends who reside or work in the interior of the province.

Well, over the past many years, I had known a Sindh that was mostly at peace with itself in terms of religious and sectarian harmony. Its spiritual identity was located in the shrines of Lal Shahbaz Qalander and Shah Lateef. Lately, more madrassahs have opened and fundamentalist outfits are seen to be gaining influence. Religious organisations, active in relief work after last year’s floods and this year’s rain emergency, are spreading their message of bias and discrimination.

One measure of growing concern about the level of extremist passions that exist in our society was the response of the civil society activists and even high political functionaries to the murder of three doctors on Eid. There were statements from the president and the prime minister. Nawaz Sharif, chief of his faction of Pakistan Muslim League, while offering his condolences to the families of the deceased doctors on telephone, said that his party would raise the issue in the National Assembly. Sherry Rehman has already submitted an adjournment motion on this issue.

This should be done in right earnest. The Shikarpur tragedy in which the three Hindu doctors – three brothers, in fact – were gunned down after an altercation with a Muslim tribe over a dancing girl has served to underline the entire range of issues that relate to the treatment of minorities in our society. It has helped that the report on the study done by the US Commission on International Religious Freedom has been released at this time.

One news report, datelined Rawalpindi, which attracted my attention this week was titled: “Ahmadis fear another attack after intimidation”. It relates to the emergence of banners in a part of the Satellite Town, demanding that Ahmadis leave the area because the community’s activities were ‘unconstitutional’. The intention is that the Qadianis should not use a particular building for worship. It is hard to forget the exceptionally brutal attack on this community in Lahore in May 2010 when as many as 93 persons were killed.

The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) has formed a working group on ‘communities vulnerable because of their beliefs’. A report published earlier this year –”Life at risk” – noted that “the traditional threats and discrimination faced by members of religious minority and vulnerable communities in Pakistan have steadily multiplied over the last few years in conjunction with militancy, growing intolerance and the rise to power of violent extremists in parts of Pakistan”.

It added that this was the result of “not only the advance of militants and religious extremist elements but also the government’s failure to take effective steps to protect the basic human rights” of the vulnerable communities. We may include the Hazara community of Quetta, victims of sectarian violence, in this category. So much so that even the Islamic scholars who are enlightened and who interpret religion in a progressive framework are threatened by the religious militants.

Do we really need to quote the Quaid or to emphasise that no civilised society can exist without giving the minorities a complete sense of security and confidence? The point here is that the kind of religious militancy that has been fostered in Pakistan, with ample encouragement from the ruling establishment, is in essence a rejection of the very rationale for creating Pakistan.

Unfortunately, our present rulers do not seem to understand the threat that is posed by the steady rise in religious militancy in Pakistan. Nor is this issue a major subject of our political discourse. Yes, the buzzword now is “change”. And there is a focus on “corruption” – without any appreciation of its implications in a moral and intellectual context.

We do expect our political parties to take an unambiguous position on the issue of religious militancy and define their strategies, if they genuinely want to combat this trend. Not confronting the radical Islamists may be an expedient move, as the PPP seems to think, but the consequences of this immoral ploy are bound to be horrendous.

Most of our leading politicians, including Imran Khan, the new star on the political horizon, have obviously not given much thought to the problems of invoking religion in politics. In a different context, they want to give peace a chance. They should, instead, be thinking of giving Pakistan a chance.

The writer is a staff member. Email: ghazi_salahuddin@hotmail.com

THE NEWS

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