02 Oct Abbasi tongue-tied on blasphemy
01-Oct-17 by Kaleem Dean
During his recent stint at the UN General Assembly, Prime Minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi gave an unwitting insight into the plight of Pakistan’s minorities. The venue was the Council on Foreign Relations. And it was Kenneth Roth, the Human Rights Watch chief that caught him unawares.
The question was innocent enough and pertained to the misuse of Pakistan’s blasphemy laws. Citing three different cases whereby Christians had been convicted under these provisions — Mr Roth then asked if our PM, in his official capacity, would speak out against this draconian legislation.
Sadly, the only thing that was forthcoming was immense equivocation. Meaning that Abbasi proceeded to shift the entire burden of responsibility to Parliament, given how it is the institution charged with repealing or reforming national laws. Even when push came to rhetorical shove he remained steadfast in his response. To be blunt, this was not good enough.
For it did nothing to alleviate concerns both at home and abroad regarding Pakistan’s seemingly cavalier approach to the security of its minorities. And attempts to circumvent the issue entirely on the basis of his being a somewhat reluctant premier didn’t cut it. And nor does any of this bear witness to the history of this country.
Abbasi’s clumsy equivocating on blasphemy becomes reflective of a broader flawed political and judicial structure. Yet there surely must come a time in the life of a nation when it will eventually reap what it has sown. And no one wants a bad crop
The initial problems suffered by religious and ethnic minorities that emerged in the immediate aftermath of Partition — have today metamorphosed into a complex interweaving of hate, prejudice, inequality, injustice and persecution. To understand how the state legitimised this we have to go back to 1949 and the Objective Resolution. For the latter — which buried good and proper Jinnah’s vision of a secular Pakistan — represents the first of move to recast minorities as second-class citizens. Then in 1972 came the nationalisation of their education institutes, which served to thwart socio-economic progress.
As if this were not enough, 1986 saw the blasphemy laws formally become part of the constitution. Then came the Musharraf era of Enlightened Moderation that introduced minorities representation to both legislative houses, whereby minority parliamentarians were selected — as opposed to elected. This served as the final nail in the political coffin for this community.
Thus the cumulative effect of all this has been a loss of every single socio-political right; not to mention the inherent social injustice and discrimination sustained day in and day out. Those who can get out as soon as is feasibly possible. Indeed, this veritable exodus of Pakistan’s minorities began in earnest in the 1970s and continues to this day. Of course, there exists a privileged few who are happy to fulfil the role of government mouthpiece. Yet they know not the gross disservice they do when they loudly insist to the whole world that minorities are safe in this country. Or maybe they do.
Abbasi proceeded to shift the entire burden of responsibility to Parliament, given how it is the institution charged with repealing or reforming national laws. Even when push came to rhetorical shove he remained steadfast in his response. To be blunt, this was not good enough
Whatever the case may be one thing is certain — this deliberate intent to deceive has become a cruel joke. How can we as a nation deny the fact that at least 1,000 non-Muslim women have been abducted and forced to convert to Islam? Are we also blind to the blasphemy cases that pop up every couple of months targeting minority communities, whose members are largely illiterate and suddenly find themselves falling foul of merciless laws.
This is to say nothing of the dehumanising treatment of Christian and Hindu children as well as those from Muslim-minority sects at the hands of the public school system’s national syllabus, which is hate literature by another name.
And these are just the basic areas of concern.
The phenomena of urbanisation and industrialisation bring with them changes to natural employment patterns. Meaning that as minorities began to move to the outskirts of big cities — they left behind a life of manual labour, such as brick maker, for that of a cleaner, usually employed by small businesses. It is important to stop and consider this for a moment. Especially given how this reduces minorities to the status of ‘untouchables’. Keeping in mind how the Christians of this country were at one time veritable torchbearers in the fields of health and education.
This is not to say that there aren’t any exceptions. Certainly, there are a handful of fortunate souls who have made a name for themselves here. But they remain just that: exceptions to the rule. Even organisations committed to the uplift of minority communities can’t do anything about the unlevel playing field that is encountered in the ‘outside’ world of mainstream Pakistani society.
Fast-forward to 2015 and once again legislation paved the way to bypass the right of minorities to elect their own representatives. The Punjab Local Government (Amendment) Ordinance provides that union council members get to select — again, not elect — a non-Muslim appointee for their respective wards. At the time, the Church leadership tried to protest the unfairness of this move. Yet it was effectively silenced by the provincial government’s handpicked minority members. Thus the political structure that has evolved in Pakistan over the last decade or so has absolutely no grounding in humanitarian principles — rather, it appears to embrace the primitive notion that only the fittest survive.
Our politicians need to remember that there is a vast difference between authority and service. Here, governments don’t serve but rule, a throwback to ancient Arabian tribal customs. Therefore, not only minorities but underprivileged Muslims, too, suffer in more or less equal doses at the hands of an uncaring state. Thus Prime Minister Abbasi’s clumsy handling of the blasphemy question becomes reflective of a broader flawed political and judicial structure.
Yet there surely must come a time in the life of a nation when it will eventually reap what it has sown. And no one wants a bad crop. The time has therefore come to understand that any amendments to these draconian laws will not precipitate any plunging into the abyss of the Muslim mainstream. Rather, it will reflect the true spirit of the official religion of this country.