The South Asia Channel
Enemy Number One for Minorities in Pakistan: Public Opinion
In a hostile world, Pakistani minorities face many threats; each new atrocity brings with it reams of analysis and no shortage of finger-pointing toward the perceived culprits. But general public opinion might be just as much to blame as terrorism.
Earlier this year, on the same day that small pockets of Pakistani society came together to commemorate the birthday of Professor Abdus Salam, Human Rights Watch released its annual World Report, which found that attacks against minority communities rose significantly in the country through 2014. The timing was laced with irony; Salam, Pakistan’s first Nobel laureate, has long been shunned by the people of his nation because he was an Ahmadi — a sect long ostracized and persecuted for its perceived heretical beliefs — standing thereby as perhaps the most symbolic icon of the struggles faced by minorities in Pakistan.
The cycle of violence has only escalated in 2015 in the form of a wave of brutal terrorist attacks, including an assault on two Christian churches in Lahore’s Youhanabad area, the targeted killing of an Ahmadi youth worker in Karachi, and the slaying of 61 Shiite worshippers in a suicide blast on a mosque in Shikarpur, in Sindh province’s interior. The latter marked the worst instance of sectarian violence against Shiites in almost two years and occurred in a part of the country that has remained largely outside the cross-hairs of Pakistan’s recent bloody history.
With no signs of the strife abating, the most recent harrowing episode in this long litany of massacres was the May 13 gun attack on a bus carrying a group of Ismailis, a highly regarded and peaceful Shiite community. The attackers, reportedly dressed as policemen, surrounded the bus on motorbikes when it stopped at Safoora Chowk during a daily commute. Several of the gunmen climbed onto the bus, where they shot passengers at point-blank range in the head and chest, killing at least 43 people.
In a hostile world, ever ready to devour them whole, Pakistani minorities face myriad threats; each new atrocity brings with it reams of analysis and no shortage of finger-pointing toward the perceived culprits.
Pakistan’s sectarianism problem is mostly viewed as a top-down phenomenon — orchestrated by the state and armed forces to advance their own vested interests, both domestic and foreign. Invariably then, they are often the first target of blame. For example, two days after the Safoora massacre, an editorial in the respected English-language newspaper Dawn lamented:
“After each new, grotesque low in the militants’ war on Pakistan, the state responds in the same manner. Emergency meetings, long huddles, promises to double down on the existing militarised security strategy — and some vague promises about doing something about the peddlers of hate. Then, unsurprisingly, as the media gaze turns to the next scandal or atrocity and the memory of the previous attack recedes, nothing of substance is done to crack down on extremism.”
Then there are the terrorists themselves. Faceless networks of jihadis, some supported by the machinery of the state, others with more shadowy backing from foreign powers, all bent on pursuing a clearly defined agenda of religious violence. When news first spread that the Islamic State had claimed responsibility for the most recent sectarian strife in what would have been its first attack on Pakistani soil, analysts were quick to pounce on the development. They hailed the Islamic State as a new enemy that stood against the peace and security of the country as though it represented something of a game-changer as opposed to just the entry of another actor in a revolving cast of murky villains.
The list of offenders does not end here, but extends far and wide to encompass the media, police, and, for the more conspiratorially minded, foreign powers like India and the United States. But beyond the usual suspects, there is another perilously ignored dynamic at work with regard to the plight of minorities in Pakistan — that being the weight of public opinion. The sad truth is that contempt toward non-Muslims is now the default attitude of significant numbers of Pakistanis, who, while not always condoning murder and violence, fully endorse the basic doctrinal core that fuels the hatred against non-Muslims.
The evolving narrative framework around the country’s 38 million or so Shiites is a potent indicator of this trend.
Many of the leaders of the Muslim League and the independence movement were Shiites, including Muhammad Ali Jinnah himself. Yet, after years of Salafi-sponsored Islamization, most notably during the era of Gen. Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq, the terra firma is so changed that according to a poll conducted by the Pew Research Center in 2012, 41 percent of regular Pakistanis do not even believe that Shiites are true Muslims. This is a remarkable statistic given the reverence in which the founder of the nation is held. Further, militant groups like Jundallah, the organization that claimed responsibility for the Shikarpur attack, has recognized this shift in attitudes and justify its attacks before the public gallery on the grounds that Shiites are the enemies of Islam. The prevalence of anti-Shiite sentiment has also acted as a spur for religious and political groups to demand that they, like Ahmadis before them, also be recognized by the state as non-Muslim.
Christians, Hindus, Sikhs, and other faith groups that have no link at all with Islam also suffer from negative perceptions, resulting in their increased marginalization from the public sphere. Pakistan’s blasphemy laws in particular have imperiled their civic and civil lives. In the minds of many, they are blasphemers simply because they are not Muslim; their very existence is an affront to Islam and thereby to Pakistan as well. In the case of Christians, the majority of violent attacks against them are conducted not by terrorist groups, but by civilian vigilantes, mainly after accusations of blasphemy or of being agents of a foreign power. In January, a Christian school in Bannu was stormed by a mob of almost 300 people in protest of the decision by French magazine Charlie Hebdo to publish cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed. Christians, it was reckoned, were guilty by association with these Western infidels and so had to be punished. Other mob attacks, like those in Joseph Colony and Gojra, have proved far more fatal and have been carried out not by pathological sadists, but by everyday Pakistanis who seamlessly return to their regular lives once the carnage is over.
Even sympathetic Pakistanis are active partners in this unholy alliance. Though they may not share the intolerant attitudes of many of their countrymen, each Muslim passport or ID card is a disquieting indictment of those who exist outside the Sunni majority because it requires the signing of a declaration against the country’s Ahmadis. Acceptance of this official proclamation represents a complicity of indifference and lack of moral courage.
The counter to this argument is that discrimination against minorities is so pervasive and institutionalized that public attitudes are merely a symptom of a broader manufactured hate campaign against non-Muslim by the country’s chief power brokers. Though there is more than just a grain of truth to this, it ignores the core truth that whatever the reasons for its emergence, societal discrimination is now a well grounded reality and one that needs to be tackled. Moreover, such lines of argument too readily vindicate Pakistani society as some sort of tragically impotent and oppressed people, ideologically bludgeoned by the trampling heel of a greater power. In truth, the general populace can no more easily be exonerated than those ordinary citizens who in various ways complied with the Nazis during the Holocaust or the Apartheid regime of South Africa.
Pakistan’s sectarian schisms are born of many culprits. While it is true that the authorities need to do more not only to counter militants but also to initiate an ideological reorientation in the country, it is also important to recognize that domestically, there is no great public pressure for them to do so, for the crimes committed against minorities often represent the will of the people. Only when such attitudes change can the movement against sectarian divisions gain impetus.
Photo credit: ASIF HASSAN/AFP/Getty Images