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OP-ED: - Religious minorities in Pakistan Saira Yamin
State intervention is a dangerous thing whether it legislates on the basis of religion or whether it encroaches upon the private sphere to keep itself secular. The first is denoted by what we have seen in Pakistan; the second is reflected in the Jacobin fundamentalism of the French
George Mason said that All men are born equally free and independent, and have certain inherent natural rights. He counted among those rights the enjoyment of life and liberty.
The February 15 decision by the chief election commissioner, chief justice (retd) Irshad Hasan Khan, that the Ahmadiyya community will be registered separately for voting purposes as before again brings into sharp focus the issue of minorities in Pakistan. But implicit in any debate on this question is also the larger issue of how much state intervention can, if at all, be allowed in the social and religious spheres.
The question cannot be glossed over on the basis of technicalities, especially when the state itself is responsible for regressive legislation that, in the case of the Ahmadiyya, not only declared them non-Muslim, but in doing so has managed to create an atmosphere where the persecution of the community has become an accepted norm. The fact that in a democracy voting can be based on citizens religious leanings or that some citizens can be made to vote separately undermines the very idea of peoples power that informs the systems functioning and spirit.
Clearly then, the question has to be tackled under the overhang of the issue of State intervention into the socio-religious arena. In Pakistans case, for example, the States attitude towards minorities rights in general and the Ahmadiyya question in particular seem to have undergone a drastic change between 1951 when the first anti-Qadiani riots broke out in Lahore and 1974 when the national assembly deemed fit to declare the Ahmadiyya non-Muslims.
A particularly insightful study in this regard is the Munir Report which was compiled by Justices Munir Ahmed Khan and A R Kiyani. Its findings, tone and tenor are a world apart from what transpired on the day the national legislature intervened into the socio-religious arena.
State intervention is a dangerous thing whether it legislates on the basis of religion or whether it encroaches upon the private sphere to keep itself secular. The first is denoted by what we have seen in Pakistan; the second is reflected in the Jacobin fundamentalism of the French (even the Turkish) State. The headscarf issue in France is a good example of such encroachment. The philosophy of inclusion of all communities cannot be based on measures that are exclusionary in essence and therefore essentialist. Both phenomena, one infusing religion into the social arena, the other excluding religion from it, end up doing the same harm all because of the common strand of State intervention.
The French case is particularly instructive because of States intervention to keep religion away as opposed to bringing it centre-stage. This model is patently different, for instance, from the British and even American models which believe in assimilation not on the basis of uniformity but cultural, social and religious differences, a pot pourri of sorts.
The interesting point about this comparison is that if State intervention is a flawed approach even in cases where the State chooses to act to keep religion out of the social arena, how much more nefarious can such intervention be where the State chooses to act on behalf of a majority community and ghettoizes the minorities. This is what we have seen happen in Pakistan. The essential point about such exclusionary policies is that they end up eroding every aspect of pluralism until the purity of the dominant group is achieved. This is why legislation such as the blasphemy laws is an essential downstream trend from that decision in 1974 that changed the States direction completely.
Given the overwhelming evidence one hardly requires to marshal arguments to prove that such legislation, including the blasphemy laws, breeds a culture of intolerance, bigotry and extremism against religious minorities. These laws, at a minimum, infringe on the rights of targeted religious minorities by attempting to curtail their freedom of expression and personal belief. Not only does this create a human tragedy, it manifests itself at various other levels. We have already seen how the minorities the best minds in this country have been hounded out, whether its the Christians, the Ahmadiyya, the Hindus or that wonderful Parsi community.
It will be an understatement to say that Pakistan is presently facing an assimilation crisis. This is not how Jinnah wanted it to be. The United Nations Bill of Rights, of which Pakistan is a signatory, enjoins upon all states to grant all citizens freedom of ideology and conscience, and equality before law. When religious discrimination is inscribed in laws and embedded in social structures, minorities stand the risk of victimisation and persecution, in violation of their human rights.
A government should concern itself with providing justice and protection to its subjects regardless of their religion. In a country like Pakistan which is infested with ethnic cleavages and sectarian divisions, governments cannot afford to worsen the situation by embodying such intolerance in regressive legislation. President Musharraf has often spoken about a modern, progressive Pakistan. The people expect him to deliver on that vision. There is no time left for oscillation.
Saira Yamin teaches at the Department of Defence and Strategic Studies, Quaid-e-Azam University