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Rising Intolerance In Pakistan And Misuse Of Blasphemy Laws

Muslims attacked Christians and destroyed eight churches in the city of Faisalabad in the eastern Punjab province.

Pakistan’s vulnerable Christian minority — comprising about 3 million people (roughly 2% of the country’s total population of 230 million) — was shocked on Wednesday after a mob of Muslims vandalized eight churches and attacked Christians in the city of Faisalabad in the eastern Punjab province.

The shocking incident happened as the mob poured kerosene inside the church after vandalizing its minaret. Footage of this disturbing event showed Muslims chanting “Labbayk ya Rasoolullah” (“Here I am at your service, oh Muhammad”). Ironically, at the same time, Pakistan’s former Prime Minister Shahbaz Sharif, who stepped down two days earlier, issued a strongly worded statement on X, formerly known as Twitter, condemning the desecration of the Quran in Sweden.

This statement further spread fears and anxiety among Punjab’s Christian minority.

Yet another incident of the desecration of the Holy Quran, this time in front of the royal palace in Sweden is highly disturbing. The recurring nature of such reprehensible incidents establishes that there is a vile, sinister and evil intention behind them that aims at hurting…

— Shehbaz Sharif (@CMShehbaz) August 16, 2023

Historically, minorities have faced decades of violence, and the current political chaos and faith-driven politics have exacerbated the situation in Pakistan.

Three influential cards have always played well in Pakistan’s political arena: Sunni Islam, the army and patriotism. Being a Sunni Muslim makes you powerful and provides a deep sense of being an extraordinary Pakistani. You can evade taxes, steal electricity from a neighbor, raise the price of food during the Muslim festival of Ramadan, throw garbage in the street (especially during the Eid al-Fitr holiday), block roads or even vandalize your fellow Pakistani’s property in protest against Quran desecration in Europe. Pakistani Christians often suffer at the hands of their fellow Pakistanis whenever an anti-Islam incident occurs in Europe. (The attack  on a predominantly Christian area in Faisalabad was triggered by religious zealots accusing a local Christian family of desecrating the Quran.) It doesn’t matter at all. You will still be considered a good Muslim.

Christians shout slogans as they hold placards during a protest in Lahore to condemn the attacks on churches in Pakistan on August 20, 2023, . More than 80 Christian homes and 19 churches were vandalised in an hours-long riot in Jaranwala in Punjab province on August 16, after allegations that a Koran had been desecrated spread through the city. ARIF ALI/AFP/GETTY IMAGES 

Aligning with the military or having close ties to it naturally makes you a hardcore Pakistani and staunch opponent of Pakistan’s arch-rival India, along with Hindus and Jews. Pakistani school textbooks depict India, Hindus, Jews and the West as enemies of Pakistan and Islam, regardless of the country’s weak economy and reliance on the International Monetary Fund even today. If you’re pro-army, it doesn’t matter whether you keep unlicensed weapons, engage in smuggling, corruption and tax evasion, or mistreat your neighbors.

What it means to be a patriotic Pakistani

However, to be considered a true patriotic Pakistani, one must not only discredit the country’s vulnerable communities — particularly religious or ethnic minorities struggling for their fundamental rights — but also have deep respect for the other two powerful forces: the army and Sunni Islam.

Pakistan was apparently established based on the two-nation theory, which supported dividing United India into Pakistan and India officially based on the ideologies of Islam and Hinduism. But who would have thought this complex South Asian nation of 230 million people would one day be divided into dozens of ideologies based on ethnic and religious grounds?

In fact, divisions were seen soon after the partition. For many years after the Pakistan’s emergence in August 1947, politicians, scholars and intellectuals fought over whether the country’s founding father, Muhammad Ali Jinnah, wanted secularism or not. The supporters of Islamization argue that Pakistan was founded as a Muslim state and that Jinnah wanted a purely Islamic state. Others insist that Jinnah wanted an independent state with quality education, gender equality and equal rights for minorities, but not a secular state.

Country’s history and Islam

The roots of Islamization became evident soon after Pakistan emerged when Jogendra Nath Mandal, Jinnah’s minister of law and labor, resigned. He died as a refugee in West Bengal after leaving the Pakistani Cabinet on Oct. 8, 1950, three years after Pakistan’s birth. His resignation letter to the prime minister of Pakistan said it was all about the atrocities and discrimination Hindu minorities faced within three years of the country’s formation.

Some may argue that Jinnah aimed for a secular Pakistan due to his appointment of Jogendra Nath Mandal, a Hindu, as the first law minister. However, on Oct. 30, 1947, merely three months after Pakistan’s independence, Jinnah addressed a crowd at Lahore’s University Stadium. He said the following:

“Take inspiration and guidance from Holy Quran, the final victory will be ours. You have to develop the spirit of Mujahids (those engaged in Jihad). All I require of you is that everyone be prepared to sacrifice all, if necessary, in building Pakistan as a bulwark of Islam.”

He reiterated similar views on July 1, 1948, during the inauguration of the State Bank of Pakistan. Criticizing the Western economic system, he suggested an Islamic economic framework for the country. Jinnah’s desire for a Muslim state can be traced back to an event involving Ghazi Ilm-Deen, who had become a symbol of martyrdom in Pakistan’s eastern city, Lahore. An ornately adorned enclosure in the heart of the city’s main graveyard stands in memory of Ilm-Deen, who the colonial government hanged.

The incident occurred in 1929, when Ilm-Deen, deeply offended by the blasphemous content of the book “Rangeela Rasool,” violently attacked its Lahore-based publisher with a knife. The book sparked outrage among many Muslims due to its portrayal of the Prophet Muhammad.

As a lawyer, Jinnah traveled all the way from Mumbai (then known as Bombay) to Lahore to defend Ilm-Deen in his appeal hearing. Despite Jinnah’s efforts, Ilm-Deen was hanged by British rulers.

Ilm-Deen’s funeral drew a massive crowd of tens of thousands, including prominent figures like Muhammad Iqbal, Pakistan’s national poet, who delivered a moving eulogy at the graveside. This tragic incident left an indelible mark on the collective consciousness of today’s Pakistan, contributing to the deep-rooted aspiration for a separate Muslim state, which Jinnah would later champion.

Jinnah’s desired state, whether secular or Islamic, remains a mystery and unsettled issue. However, the more mysterious question in ideologically divided Pakistan is whether Jinnah was a Shiite Muslim. Five months after Pakistan’s creation in January 1948, riots erupted in Karachi, the nation’s initial capital, resulting in the deaths of over 100 Hindu and Sikh minorities. Their places of worship were burned and homes were ransacked and looted.

Nearly six years after its emergence, Jinnah’s dream of a secular state, as some said he wanted, was crushed when Lahore turned into a bloodbath for its Ahmadiyya community in 1953. Ahmadis, who played a key role in the formation of Pakistan, are a modern Islamic sect and share a name with several Sufi (Muslim mystic) orders. The sect — founded in Qādiān in Punjab, India, in 1889 — claims its founder, Mirza Ghulam Aḥmad, is the mahdī, a figure expected by some Muslims at the end of the world. The anti-Ahmadiyya riots resulted in the imposition of military coups in Lahore.

Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, educated in the U.S. and the United Kingdom, was a Pakistani lawyer, politician and statesman known for his secular ideas. He further divided the country in 1974, which had broken in 1971 when Bangladesh, then known as East Pakistan, separated. The secular Bhutto shocked the world by declaring Ahmadis non-Muslim. Bhutto founded the liberal political Pakistan Peoples Party and served as Pakistan’s fourth president (from 1971–73) and prime minister (1973–77). Bhutto declared Ahmadis as non-Muslims through an amendment to the 1973 Constitution of Pakistan in 1974.

Rule under Zia-ul-Haq

On July 5, 1977, an Islamist military Gen. Muhammed Zia-Ul-Haq overthrew the government and later executed Bhutto in 1979. Zia was deeply committed to enforcing his interpretation of Nizam-e-Mustafa, which aimed to establish a purely Islamic state and implemented strict Sharia in Pakistan. To achieve this goal, he established separate Shariat judicial courts and court benches to apply Islamic doctrine in legal cases. His actions have had a long-lasting impact on Pakistan’s political landscape.

Zia-Ul-Haq initiated a vigorous campaign to transform the liberal nature of theconstitution. He introduced Islamic laws, Islamized curriculums and established thousands of religious seminaries nationwide. He appointed Islamists to the judiciary, bureaucracy and military positions.

He strengthened the controversial colonial blasphemy law. He introduced five new clauses related to Islam, making offenses such as defiling the Quran, insulting the prophet of Islam or using derogatory language against certain religious figures punishable by law. These measures not only changed Pakistan’s political landscape but further divided it.

During Zia-Ul-Haq’s years in office, there was a dramatic surge in blasphemy cases. Islamabad-based Centre for Research and Security Studies reported more than 80 blasphemy cases were registered during that era. This contrasted the period between 1860 and 1947, when Pakistan gained independence from British rule and separated from United India, during which only seven cases of blasphemy were recorded.

The situation deteriorated and took an uglier turn after a 1991 ruling by a higher Islamic court that mandated the death penalty for insulting Islam’s prophet. Since the 1990s, at least 82 individuals have been killed by mobs due to blasphemy accusations in Pakistan.

Increase in blasphemy cases

Between 2011 and 2015, 1,296 blasphemy cases were registered in Pakistan. And the number keeps rising each year. According to the country`s independent rights watchdog, the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, in 2021, 585 cases were registered in the country’s most populous province of Punjab under the blasphemy law, which has become a center of faith-driven politics recently.

Marvi Sirmed, a social democrat advocating for secular polity and minority rights in Pakistan, said this is partly due to the rise of religious extremism, which is strongly linked to the Pakistani establishment’s reliance on political Islam and religious narratives for controlling politics domestically and conducting national security and foreign policies.

In Punjab, Imran Khan embodies Islam-driven politics. A playboy cricket celebrity and husband of a British heiress turned conservative populist — dubbed “Taliban Khan” by rivals — he has staunchly defended Islam and Pakistan’s notorious blasphemy law during his election campaigns in Punjab. In the 2013 and 2018 political campaigns, particularly in Punjab, Khan — now incarcerated on corruption charges — repeatedly pledged to establish a welfare state akin to Prophet Muhammad’s seventh century Riyasat-E-Madina (state of Madina). Early in his political career, Khan faced accusations of being a Jewish agent due to his marriage to British socialite Jemima Goldsmith in 1995. They divorced in 2004. At the time, Khan said, “My political life made it difficult for her to adapt to life in Pakistan.”

Christians shout slogans as they hold placards during a protest in Lahore to condemn the attacks on churches in Pakistan on August 20, 2023, . More than 80 Christian homes and 19 churches were vandalised in an hours-long riot in Jaranwala in Punjab province on August 16, after allegations that a Koran had been desecrated spread through the city. ARIF ALI/AFP/GETTY IMAGES 

Khan, who during his election campaign vowed to protect Pakistan’s blasphemy law despite rights groups’ calls for its repeal, now faces those charges himself. Khan has well understood the mentality and psyche of Pakistanis. He is married to a woman now who wears a burqa. She is known as a practicing Muslim. When he was the prime minister, Khan called for a ban on “Islamophobic content” on Facebook. He repeatedly criticized the West, including French President Emmanuel Macron, for rising religious intolerance.

Given Khan’s popularity, other Pakistani politicians also now use Islam for political gains, as evident from the recent statement of the outgoing Prime Minister Shahbaz Sharif. He released a statement amid a violent attack on Christians in his native Punjab while condemning the desecration of the Quran in Sweden and staying silent on church vandalism in Faisalabad.

Sirmed believes one reason for this could be the gradual decline of secular political parties in Pakistan. She said religion has been made the central point of all politics domestically and in foreign policy for such a long time.

“I would say for the entire existence of Pakistan,” she said, “the natural outcome would be that every party or group or movement or individual will have to not just include but increasingly rely on the religious angle in order to attract popular support and military establishment’s blessings.”

This is precisely what is happening in present-day Pakistan, where not only are non-Muslims, Hindus and Christians consistently attacked but Muslims such as Shiites, too. Jaffar Abbas Mirza, a researcher and doctorate student of Shiite Islam at London’s King’s College, noted that anti-Shiites have always been part of Muslim history. He said that before the partition of united India, Takfir (the practice of one Muslim declaring another Muslim an infidel) against Shiites was there.

“The biggest turn in Pakistan’s history, particularly in the context of anti-Shiite politics, was during former military dictator Zia-ul-Haq when the institutionalization of anti-Shi’a hatred happened,” he said.

Today, Pakistan isn’t only ideologically divided among various groups of Islam — it has become a feared nation. Fellow Muslims don’t feel secure among each other. When Sunni Muslims enter a mosque, they first secure their shoes to prevent theft. Water glasses within the mosque are chained to the water cooler to avoid theft. A Shiite entering an imambargah (place of worship) worries about potential suicide attacks.

Meanwhile, Ahmadi Muslims are viewed as a threat to Pakistan. The army chief of staff, Retired Gen. Qamar Javed Bajwa, Pakistan’s most powerful man, had to organize a grand Eid Milad-un-Nabi celebration (the Prophet Muhammad’s birthday) at his residence a few years ago after being falsely labeled an Ahmadi. His primary concern was to avoid being shot by a fellow soldier.

“Pakistan is a highly intolerant, rather toxic society for religious and even ethnic or ideological minorities,” said Sirmed. “No party or state institution in Pakistan is so far able to enact or implement a law against mob violence — not for the foreseeable future. Pakistani people are on their own.”

Kiyya Baloch is a former media project fellow, freelance journalist and researcher from Pakistan’s southwestern Balochistan province. He tweets at @KiyyaBaloch.


Produced in association with Religion Unplugged

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