Pakistan has been put on a US watch list for countries of concern over “severe violations of religious freedom” – and a closer look at the situation reveals that religious minorities and atheists are at a higher risk than ever.
The State Department’s move came after a tweet by President Donald Trump in New Year accusing Pakistan of providing “safe haven to terrorists”. However, the list is significant given the state’s surrender to protests by the Islamic political party Tehreek Labbaik Ya Rasool Allah (TLY) at the end of last year.
Islamabad’s capitulation to the radical Islamist mob has endangered the Ahmadiyya community, which has been the target of death threats made openly since the party besieged the capital a few months ago.
The Ahmadis, an Islamic sect excommunicated by the second amendment to Pakistan’s Constitution in 1974, have faced a severe backlash over the initial changes made regarding Khatm-e-Nabuwat (finality of prophethood) in the Elections Reforms Bill passed in October. According to the Pakistan Penal Code, an Ahmadi can be imprisoned for reading the Koran or even using Islamic titles.
Ahmadis face the sword of blasphemy
“What’s ironic is that those ideologues who were against the creation of Pakistan not only accuse us of heresy, but also call Ahmadis – who played a crucial role in Pakistan’s freedom struggle – anti-nationals,” Ahmadiyya spokesperson Saleem Uddin said to Asia Times. “We have been the convenient scapegoats for the state since Pakistan’s inception. What was a breach of freedom of religion in 1974 [through the Second Amendment], was transformed into apartheid a decade later when the state slashed and barred us from ‘posing as Muslims’,” he went on.
While Ahmadis are constantly under the sword of blasphemy – a ‘crime’ punishable by death in Pakistan – owing to their interpretation of Islamic theology, the state has recently begun targeting atheists.
Last year, a judge in the Islamabad High Court maintained that “blasphemers are terrorists”. That prompted the Pakistan Telecommunication Authority (PTA) to not only block local Facebook pages that questioned religion, but also to send text messages to cell-phone users nationwide throughout the year, warning against blasphemy.
Social media crackdown, atheists at risk
An atheist, who organizes underground meetings for local skeptics and appeared in the BBC documentary ‘Pakistan’s Secret Atheists‘, told Asia Times there has been a significant decrease in atheist gatherings in his country.
“After the social media crackdown, many of us deactivated our profiles fearing abduction, especially after secular bloggers were abducted in January last year,” he says. “But there’s also a reluctance among atheists about meeting up at homes. Our homes and the internet used to be our safe spaces to share ideas, but even those have been taken away from us.”
While local atheists can pass off as Muslims – if that is their birth religion in Pakistan, Hindus and Christians are more visible targets. Last month, two suicide bombers killed nine and injured nearly 60 others inside Bethel Memorial Methodist Church in Quetta, the latest in a string of attacks on the local Christian community.
“We feared going out on Christmas with memories of the Easter Day bombing [at a children’s park in Lahore] from 2016 still fresh,” a member of the Christian clergy, who asked to remain anonymous, said. “But what support can we expect when our own Kamran Michael is more interested in seeking the support of Presbyterian and Anglican Church bodies for the Sharifs’ election campaigns than in safeguarding our rights.”
Kamran Michael, a senator from the ruling Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N), was elected in a seat allocated for minorities and served as the minister for human rights from 2013 until Nawaz Sharif’s disqualification as prime minister last July. Many locals accuse Michael of not doing enough to protect minorities. Threats by Muslim radicals has prompted innumerable Christians to flee Pakistan and look for asylum elsewhere.
Hindus also targeted
Members of the local Hindu community have also been seeking shelter abroad. Recently, two Hindu traders were shot to death in Sindh’s Tharparkar city just days before the US announced that Pakistan was on its watch list in regard to religious freedom.
PML-N Senator Ramesh Kumar said “around 5,000 Hindus leave Pakistan every year” because of the extensive persecution. This includes forced marriages and kidnapping for ransom, as well as attacks on Hindu temples. Pakistani human rights activist Kapil Dev (named after the Indian cricket star) blames the state’s acquiescence to the radical Islamist narrative as the main reason why Pakistani Hindus are targeted.
“The mushrooming growth of seminaries of banned outfits has paved quick inroads for growing extremism in Tharparkar, where both Hindus and Muslims had been enjoying an exemplary interfaith coexistence,” Dev said to Asia Times. He believes the country’s educational curricula, which marginalizes local Hindus while outlining the Muslim separatist movement that resulted in the creation of Pakistan, needs an overhaul.
“Hatred against Hindus, primarily driven from the ideology of Two-Nation Theory, is deeply injected in the veins of raw minds through distorted history and fabricated tales taught in books,” he said. “There is a need to secularize curricula by filtering out religion and distorted versions of history promoting hatred against Hindus.”
Activists want to counter radical Islamist perspectives with a secular narrative, but Ibn Abdur Rehman, secretary-general of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, doesn’t see it happening anytime soon.
“This is only going to get worse,” he told Asia Times. “The state has surrendered to the radical Islamists and plans on gradually taking away every last bit of freedom from its citizens.”