PESHAWAR- Pakistan is reeling under a new surge of sectarian violence targeting Shiite and other religious minorities across the country, threatening new rounds of instability in the Muslim majority nation.
The rising trend is being fueled in part by state organs and authorities who cosset and align with radicals bent on violence instead of upholding their duty to protect marginalized communities.
Over 96% of Pakistanis practice Islam, of which anywhere between 75-95% of adherents are Sunni. Shiites comprise somewhere between 5-15% of all Muslims while Christians, Hindus and Ahmadis combined make up around 3% of the population.
Over the last month, four people including two Shiite Muslims, one Ahmadi sect member and a US citizen who renounced the Ahmadi sect have been brutally gunned down for apparent religious reasons.
Over the same period, around 50 people mostly belonging to the Shiite sect were booked under draconian sections – namely 295-A and 298 – of the blasphemy law as defined under the Pakistan penal code for allegedly “insulting the companions of Prophet Muhammad.” Penalties for insulting Islam under the law range from fines to death.
Encouraged by the mass filing of blasphemy cases against Shiite orators by the local administration, thousands of Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP) and Ahl-e-Sunnat Wal Jamaat (ASWJ) Islamic group activists took to the streets last week in Pakistan’s port city of Karachi against the minority.
Both extremist outfits had clear backing and support of security agencies and authorities. The rally pelted an imambargah (Shiite religious place) with stones as unruly radical Sunni mobs went berserk in the Imamia Lines Area.
The participants shouted “Shia kafir”, or “Shiite unbelievers”, and demanded the government impose a new ban on Shiite religious processions in the city.
In June, Nadeem Joseph, a Christian who bought a house in a Muslim locality in Peshawar, saw his home stormed by an Islamic radical mob. Radicals fired indiscriminately into his residence killing Nadeem and critically injuring his Christian mother-in-law Elizabeth Masih.
Mehdi Hasan, chairperson of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP), told Asia Times that both state and society must be true to national founder Muhammad Ali Jinnah’s vision, in which religion or belief is a personal matter and not a basis for differences among citizens.
“Seventy-three years on, the historic speech of Jinnah has sunk into oblivion and Pakistan’s religious minorities consigned to the status of second-class citizens, vulnerable to inherent discriminatory practices, forced conversions and faith-based violence,” he said.
The draconian Blasphemy Law was made tougher by former dictator Zia Ul Haq through the insertion of sections 295-B and 295-C in the relevant law through an act of parliament in 1986 which declared derogatory remarks against the Prophet Muhammad as an offense punishable by death.
Worryingly, Prime Minister Imran Khan’s Pakistan Tehrik-e-Insaf (PTI) government is inciting, not suppressing, religious violence by exhorting people to kill those who negate the finality of the prophet Muhammad.
PTI Minister Ali Muhammad Khan has reportedly motivated people to execute those who commit blasphemy as broadly defined under the local law. In an Urdu language tweet from his handle in May, he wrote, “Beheading is the only punishment for those who mock Prophet Muhammad.”
He made the comment in response to a report that Ahmadis were given representation on a newly established National Minorities Council. Ahmadis, declared as “non-Muslim” by the Pakistani parliament in 1974, are denied most of their constitutional rights and are frequently persecuted by mainstream Muslim sects.
Another PTI leader, Qamar Riaz, attempted to file a blasphemy case against former foreign minister Khwaja Muhammad Asif because he said in parliament that all religions including Islam were equal. Islam is Pakistan’s official state religion but other faiths are protected under the constitution.
Last month, Amnesty International earned the government’s ire by condemning the alarming rise in blasphemy accusations across the country. The rights watchdog underlined the need for repealing the draconian law, which put the lives of minorities at risk, it said.
“The broad, vague and coercive nature of the blasphemy laws violate the rights to freedom of religion and belief and opinion and expression. They have been used to target some of the most marginalized people in society, including children, individuals with mental disabilities, members of religious minorities, and poorer people,” the Amnesty report said.
Last week, HRCP also raised concerns about the recent surge in blasphemy cases registered against minorities, including namely the Shiite community, and the potential for a dangerous swell of sectarian violence.
The rights group believes that the state has abdicated its responsibilities under international human rights law and left those arbitrarily accused of blasphemy to the mercy of mobs.
Last year, dozens of people were killed in sectarian violence, but the state failed to apprehend any of the zealots involved in the attacks on minorities.
Pakistani think tank Center for Research and Security Studies’ Annual Security Report 2019 shows that 28 Shiite and two Ahmadis were killed in targeted attacks, while 58 others were injured in related violence.
The report claims that there have been at least five attacks on Ahmadi places of worship since August 2018 – two at Hindu temples and one at a Christian church.
There have also been 13 blasphemy cases filed against Ahmadis, nine against Christians, two against Hindus, and one against a Shiite over the period. In all the cases, nobody has been brought to justice.