“Left with nothing”: The state of Pakistan’s minorities

Gojra, Punjab, 2009: "It was my daughter’s wedding. The mehndi (henna) was brought on the 25th, and we decided to have a quiet celebration. There were no loud, disturbing sounds coming from us. Young Muslim boys crumpled up pages from the Quran, threw them over the wall and then accused us of blaspheming. We know ...

RIZWAN TABASSUM/AFP/Getty Images
RIZWAN TABASSUM/AFP/Getty Images
RIZWAN TABASSUM/AFP/Getty Images

Gojra, Punjab, 2009:

"It was my daughter’s wedding. The mehndi (henna) was brought on the 25th, and we decided to have a quiet celebration. There were no loud, disturbing sounds coming from us. Young Muslim boys crumpled up pages from the Quran, threw them over the wall and then accused us of blaspheming. We know these people. They are Jats [a Punjabi caste]. For eight days, no one said anything to us, but when my daughter arrived with her in-laws to meet her own family, they called us and then attacked. They beat us. We were barely able to walk or run, and in the chaos, we left my small child there. She was 14 months old. By the time we got there and brought her back, our houses had been burnt. My 3 sons and 3 daughters were left with nothing."

Recounted by Mukhtar Masih to the Jinnah Institute (PDF).

There was a solar eclipse in Pakistan a few hours before Punjab Governor Salmaan Taseer was shot dead by his bodyguard Mumtaz Qadri. Pakistanis were warned to stay indoors and not look at the sun without protective eyewear. Darkness descended, and a few hours later, shots rang out in Islamabad. Taseer’s assassin, who grinned for the cameras, confessed that his motive was the former’s criticism of the country’s blasphemy law.

The shots that rang out in the air on January 4 in Islamabad, and again on March 2 when the Federal Minister for Minorities Affairs Shahbaz Bhatti was assassinated, showed that while the sun may have emerged, Pakistan remains shrouded in the darkness of discrimination, extremism and hatred toward minorities. And events of the past week in Taseer’s home province of Punjab demonstrate how minorities are treated in Pakistan, highlighting not just the extremism in society but the state’s inability and unwillingness to protect minorities, as well as the role of political parties in perpetuating discrimination.

News emerged this week that the ruling government in Punjab, led by the Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz), or PML-N, planned to refuse its Christian cabinet member Kamran Michael the opportunity to present the province’s budget in the assembly, due to internal opposition in the party and fears of how a Christian presenting the budget would play out in the minds of its conservative vote bank.

The Punjab government changed its mind after the initial report led to "national and international pressure," but the dark shadow of discrimination showed itself in other ways. An anti-terrorism court hearing the case of the 2009 carnage in the city of Gojra, evoked in the beginning of this piece, deferred proceedings for a year and acquitted 70 suspects. The riots at the heart of the investigation saw eight Christians burned alive along with 40 houses and a church, after a mob was incited to attack the Christian community over a case of alleged blasphemy.

In Faisalabad, one of Punjab’s largest cities and the textile capital of the country, the minority Muslim Ahmaddiya community found its members listed on flyers that called for them to be murdered. It is part of a several decades-long campaign of hatred and violence that has seen scores of Ahmadis gunned down on the streets and in mosques. It is also why Pakistan has failed to extend even a small degree of recognition to its sole Nobel Laureate, Dr Abdus Salam, who was an Ahmadi. The pattern of hatred and violence has seen Ahmadis flee the country for safer shores where the specter of state-supported intolerance cannot haunt them anymore.

There has been no effort to rid Pakistan of these demons. The country’s Anti-Terrorism Act outlaws hate literature and speech, yet the law is openly flouted on a daily basis as the groups like the Tehrik-e-Tahafuz Namoos-e-Rasalat spreading these messages enjoy patronage from powerful politicians and are untouched by the security apparatus, even after some, like the virulently anti-Shi’a Sipah-e-Sihaba Pakistan (SSP) are formally banned. Leading political parties promised to protect minorities in their 2008 election campaigns, a pledge that remains unfulfilled three years later. Efforts at reforming the country’s draconian blasphemy laws fell victim to the prevalent culture of appeasing the right-wing political parties and groups. In a cruel twist of fate, it was that very culture of appeasement that led to Ahmadis being declared non-Muslims in the constitution, followed by laws introduced by  military dictator Zia ul-Haq forbade Ahmadis to refer to themselves as Muslims.

That this culture endures in Pakistan is undoubtedly shocking. But what is inherently worse is that it will continue to live on until a political party finds the backbone to introduce and implement proper reforms. It is only then that the eclipse will finally be over.

Saba Imtiaz works for The Express Tribune newspaper in Pakistan and can be reached at saba.imtiaz@gmail.com

More from Foreign Policy

A photo collage illustration shows U.S. political figures plotted on a foreign-policy spectrum from most assertive to least. From left: Dick Cheney, Nikki Haley, Joe Biden, George H.W. Bush, Ron Desantis, Barack Obama, Donald Trump, Vivek Ramaswamy, and Bernie Sanders.
A photo collage illustration shows U.S. political figures plotted on a foreign-policy spectrum from most assertive to least. From left: Dick Cheney, Nikki Haley, Joe Biden, George H.W. Bush, Ron Desantis, Barack Obama, Donald Trump, Vivek Ramaswamy, and Bernie Sanders.

The Scrambled Spectrum of U.S. Foreign-Policy Thinking

Presidents, officials, and candidates tend to fall into six camps that don’t follow party lines.

A girl touches a photograph of her relative on the Memory Wall of Fallen Defenders of Ukraine in the Russian-Ukrainian war in Kyiv.
A girl touches a photograph of her relative on the Memory Wall of Fallen Defenders of Ukraine in the Russian-Ukrainian war in Kyiv.

What Does Victory Look Like in Ukraine?

Ukrainians differ on what would keep their nation safe from Russia.

A man is seen in profile standing several yards away from a prison.
A man is seen in profile standing several yards away from a prison.

The Biden Administration Is Dangerously Downplaying the Global Terrorism Threat

Today, there are more terror groups in existence, in more countries around the world, and with more territory under their control than ever before.

Then-Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Menendez arrives for a closed-door briefing by intelligence officials at the U.S. Capitol in Washington.
Then-Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Menendez arrives for a closed-door briefing by intelligence officials at the U.S. Capitol in Washington.

Blue Hawk Down

Sen. Bob Menendez’s indictment will shape the future of Congress’s foreign policy.