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Religious Extremism and Intolerance in Pakistan

There are no two opinions about the fact that the biggest threat to the unity and integrity of the country is the burgeoning religious extremism and culture of intolerance. It was probably in the backdrop of this painful reality that Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif while addressing the international Seerat conference in Lahore on the birth anniversary of the Holy prophet (PBUH) urged the religious scholars to play their role for the elimination of root causes of extremism from the society. His call to the Ulema could not have been more timely in view of the fact that on the same day and probably round about the same time when he uttered this appeal, a mob in Chakwal was attacking the worship place of Ahmadis. What a shame! The incident happened when the faithful were celebrating the birth of the benefactor of the entire humanity, who preached tolerance, peaceful co-existence among different communities and faiths, as well as, championed the cause of rights of the minorities. The treatment meted out to the minorities in Pakistan and pummelling of their rights as a consequence of the emergence of religious extremism and culture of intolerance is also in contravention of the Pakistan Resolution, vision of the Quaid and the 1973 constitution.

The Pakistan Resolution adopted on 23 March 1940, while indicating the areas that would form the new state of Pakistan, also emphasized equality in regards to the rights of its citizens including the minorities in words, “Adequate, effective and mandatory safeguards shall be specifically provided in the constitution for minorities in the units and in the regions for the protection of their religious, cultural, economic, political, administrative and other rights of minorities with their consultation.”

Quaid-i-Azam epitomised his vision in a broadcast talk on Pakistan to the people of United States in February 1948 in these words: “The constitution of Pakistan has yet to be framed. I do not know what the ultimate shape of this constitution is going to be, but I am sure that it will be of a democratic type embodying the essential principles of Islam. Islam and its idealism have taught us democracy. It has taught equality of men, justice and fair play to everybody. In any case, Pakistan is not going to be a theocratic state, to be ruled by priests with a divine mission. We have many non-Muslims, Hindus, Christians and Parsis but they are all Pakistanis. They will enjoy the same rights and privileges as any other citizen and will play their rightful part in the affairs of Pakistan.”

His slogan of “Unity, Faith and Discipline” and the famous words uttered by him, “United We Stand, Divided We Fall,” are the pillars on which he wanted to erect the edifice of Pakistan that he envisioned. He was intensely aware of the fact that in a country with distinct cultural entities and regions, the only way Pakistan could move on the path towards its destiny successfully, was an impregnable unity among its people. He was conscious of the fact that building a nation into a vibrant and sustainable entity was much more arduous and thorny than the struggle to win freedom. As is evident from the foregoing, he wanted to construct Pakistan as a progressive democratic country, deriving strength and inspiration from the lofty Islamic principles of brotherhood, equality and fraternity of man that form the fundamental points of our religion, culture and civilisation.

Regrettably, Pakistan has become hostage to the self-proclaimed righteous guardians of the religious tenets as interpreted by them against the spirit of Islam, which believes in building social harmony, peace and protection of the minorities living in an Islamic country. The culture of intolerance and persecution of the minorities started with the anti-Ahmadi agitation in 1953 that triggered a wave of mass harassment and persecution of the community, which continues till today. Hindus also have received a rough treatment. Temples have been razed and reportedly forced conversions of Hindus to Islam in Sind have been a constant phenomenon. Many Hindus from Sind migrated to India which created quite a stir in the country and the issue also resonated in the Assembly, testifying to the maltreatment of that community at the hands of the religious extremists and the people under their influence.

The Christian community in the country has also been a target of this culture of religious intolerance. Churches have been burnt and the community as a whole treated as a second rate citizens. The venom of the religious fanatics against Christians intensified after the promulgation of the Blasphemy Law during Zia regime which provided them with a legal cover to advance their agendas and wreak vengeance on minorities in the name of religion. From Shanti Nagar to Gojra, the history of Pakistan is full of the murders of minorities at the hands religious zealots. The case of Asia Bibi, a mother of four which ignited a controversy over the Blasphemy Law, itself eventually culminated in the murder of Salman Taseer. Similarly the murder of ShahbazBhatti, Minister for Minority Affairs and incidents like the Rimsha case (thank Havens she has finally been acquitted of the charge) are a stigma on the face of the land of pure, we call Pakistan. The Rimsha case fully exposed the ill-intentions of the perpetrators of these excesses on the minorities.

The religious bigotry and intolerance has done an incalculable harm to the national unity, brought a bad name to Islam, and created a diabolical image of Pakistan in the comity of nations. It has nullified the article 20 of the constitution and the spirit of tolerance that it desired to generate. This curse cannot be eliminated only through laws.

There is an imperative need to inculcate culture of tolerance in the society, tackling the burgeoning rise of religious extremism and mobilizing intellectual community to help in changing the perceptions about minorities. The political and religious parties need to share bulk of the responsibility in changing the mindset that promotes anti-minority sentiments within the society, vitiating the vision of the Quaid. It is a national cause and all the stakeholders in the unity and survival of Pakistan as a sovereign state in conformity with the vision of its founding father, must rise to save its slide into a state of anarchy and God forbid, harm to its integrity.

Media, presently being the most vibrant entity and opinion maker, can play a pivotal role in the national effort to create a harmonious society. The inclusion of subjects like religious teachings about rights of minorities and Islamic tenets on the need for social harmony in the syllabus of schools and colleges could also help in removing inherited prejudices against minorities from the minds of the young generation.