By Imtiaz Gul
Friday Times, April 17, 2015
Faith-based discrimination is an obstacle to social cohesion.
During the recent debate on the Yemen situation in parliament, Senator Aitzaz Ahsan made a rare observation followed by a recommendation – stop using the word “minorities” for non-Muslim Pakistanis, and start treating everybody living in this country as equal citizens.
Never before has a politician shown such courage to talk about an issue that continuously draws both scorn and sympathy from abroad – non-Muslims living in Pakistan. It is an issue that some of us have been agitating about for quite some time, but hardly any politicians would take it up.
It would have been wonderful if Aitzaz Ahsan had gone a step further and mentioned Article 25 of Chapter 1 of the Constitution, which relates to “equal citizenry.” It clearly mentions that every citizen of Pakistan will have equal rights. But then, Article 41 and Article 91 flout this fundamental right by specifically mentioning that the President and the Prime Minister will be Muslim.
“A person shall not be qualified for election as President unless he is a Muslim of not less than forty-five years of age and is qualified to be elected as member of the National Assembly,” says Article 41(2). “After the election of the Speaker and the Deputy Speaker, the National Assembly shall, to the exclusion of any other business, proceed to elect without debate one of its Muslim members to be the Prime Minister,” says Article 91(3). The architects of the constitution probably overlooked the inherent contradiction in these clauses, and the sociopolitical hazards that come with them. How can the constitution guarantee equal rights to its citizens when its own subsequent articles reserve the top two offices of the state for Muslims?
Similarly, the misuse of blasphemy laws has also put Pakistan in a bad spot. Blasphemy laws were part of the Pakistan Penal Code (1860), inherited from the British Raj. The original purpose of sections 295, 296, and 298 was to prevent inter-communal disharmony, rather than become an instrument thereof.
Stop using the word ‘minorities’ for non-Muslim Pakistanis
In 1986, sections 295(b) and 295(c) of the blasphemy laws introduced the additional clause of life imprisonment for Islam-specific blasphemy. Subsequently, in 1991, the Federal Shariat Court struck down the additional clause of life imprisonment in section 295(c), and, instead, made the death penalty mandatory upon conviction under this section.
Tahira Abdullah, a noted human rights activist, says the inherent contradictions in the provisions of the law that were inserted by Gen Zia’s dictatorship run counter to the spirit of religious and sectarian tolerance and interfaith harmony promised in the articles 20 to 22 of the constitution.
She also points out how Dr Akhtar Hameed Khan, the eminent Pakistani development guru and an international icon (of Comilla and Orangi fame), spent the last frail years of his life under trial for blasphemy in yet another false and mala fide accusation.
The broad-daylight assassinations of Punjab governor Salmaan Taseer, PPP’s federal minister for minorities Clement Shahbaz Bhatti, and HRCP’s Rashid Rehman, raise serious concerns. The lack of certainty of punishment and the fear of reprisal by religious radicals has even encouraged mob justice, such as in Gojra, Shanti Nagar, and Youhannabad, and in the Rimsha Masih case.
Now that the government and the military establishment seem to have realized the dangers inherent in disrespect for citizens based on their faith, and the extremely debilitating consequences of the abuse of blasphemy laws by religious political parties and vested interests, it appears the right moment to initiate a review of such laws on the one hand, and to inculcate the fear of punishment for their abuse on the other.
The government must – under the National Action Plan – ensure stern legal action against sectarian killers, criminals, and Jihadi outfits involved in hate-speech and incitement to violence against non-Muslims.
The concerns of Pakistani citizens at large and the non-Muslim Pakistani citizens in particular can be addressed with an immediate revision of the public school curricula and textbooks, especially those pertaining to religious instruction, history, social studies and Pakistan studies.
For too long, the concept of equal citizenry has been under attack. For the sake of social cohesion, peace and adherence to international covenants, the government must address these problems, which have resulted in the subversion of fundamental rights of all Pakistani citizens, vigilante justice, and abuse of laws.
People like Aitzaz Ahsan must step forward to prevent the abuse of and discrimination against non-Muslims in Pakistan. Trying to stop the assault on the fundamental rights of non-Muslim citizens without acknowledging equal citizenry as the force underpinning social peace and cohesion will be like chasing a mirage.
Imtiaz Gul is the executive director of the independent Centre for Research and Security Studies