Cue the curtain on Pakistani minorities
On 28 May 2010, two Ahmadi “places of worship” were attacked simultaneously during Friday prayers in Lahore. As the siege went on for hours, news channels across the board were strewn with live footage from the scene of attack. For the first time in Pakistani history, Ahmadi community, and the persecution they had faced since the time they were declared non-Muslim in 1974, started being discussed openly on television. Sane people watched the drama unfold amidst increasing horror. In the middle of all this mayhem, a friend at a news channel overheard a colleague begrudgingly say “its live television, so we can’t do anything about it. But we will make sure the issue dies by tomorrow.”
It took only two days for electronic media to shift their focus. The botched attempt by terrorists to free the only arrested assailant from the hospital got another day.
It happens in Pakistan. There is so much happening in rapid succession that sometimes the harshest of news (bomb blasts and such) have very short cycles. More blasts, target killings, political drama, omnipotent energy/food crises take its place. Sure enough, within two days of the 28 May attacks, the outrage and rants had found another focus: the Gaza-bound flotilla which was intercepted by Israeli forces and the detainment of Pakistani journalist Talat Hussain.
The uncomfortable truth in Pakistan is that we (the general population, including the media) don’t like to talk about minorities. Some English newspapers do try their best to highlight the issue regularly, but considering the overall readership, it is primarily preaching to the choir. The very dominant Urdu press and electronic media, however, are conveniently inflicted with the ostrich syndrome.
It’s not like we don’t acknowledge the minorities’ existence. Sure we do. We have the white portion on our national flag to prove it. We try (and fail) to remain on the correct side of the fence at least where Christians are concerned. Every media outlet carries greeting messages on their religious celebrations; politicians make appropriate statements of solidarity. In their subconscious it buys them enough room to ignore them for the remaining year. But the rest of the minorities including Hindus and Ahmadis are quite easily ignored — that is, when we are not killing them, imprisoning them under false allegations of blasphemy to serve personal vendetta, or disparaging them with mindless religious slurs.
Think I’m painting the picture too dark? Here is the reality check. Last month the Sikhs of Lahore were barred from holding an annual ceremony at the Gurdwara Shaheed Bhai Taru Singh to commemorate the martyrdom of their saint Taru Singh. The reason was that Shab-e-Barat was falling two nights “after” the Sikh ceremony was supposed to be held and the Gurdwara technically fell under the “courtyard” of Badshahi mosque. The officials concerned were convinced by some local men, who according to some media reports belonged to Jamat-ud-Dawa, and the Sikhs were asked to postpone their ceremony. Can anyone imagine Muslims in a non-Muslim country being asked to delay Eid Milad un Nabi?
Unfortunately this was only one of the numerous incidents which either go unreported or are so under reported that the purpose of “informing” the public is lost. How many of us know that a Hindu MLA who resigned from Sindh’s provincial assembly and migrated to India because he felt too insecure here? Who cares about the 131 Ahmadis who flew to Thailand in the hope to appeal to UNHCR in Bangkok for asylum and ended up spending months in detention under horrific conditions? Who remembers Qamar David, a convict of blasphemy, who suddenly died of a “heart attack” in a prison?
A few days ago, I emailed the ever understanding editor of Dawn blogs that I would be writing my next post on interfaith harmony. But when I sat down to write, the paragraphs felt a chain of random words bouncing off the walls of futility. I kept thinking that the people who matter in this equation are the majority who will never read these words — or if a few do, they will brush me off as another infidel. This majority is of the non-English speaking class who routinely uses religious slurs as an everyday abuse, the middle class small shop owners who put anti-Ahmadi stickers on their counters, the rural cultivators who do not use the utensils used by a Christian. These are the majority of this country — mostly silent but extremely vocal and reactionary when they sense the risk of being ousted from the circle of Islam.
This constant paranoia of becoming infidels, of their nikahs (marriage certificates) getting void, owing to the righteous guardians of the “Islamic fort” has crippled their intelligence. It has deprived them of the ability for any kind of productive discourse. The rigid definition of “virtue” with an all-or-nothing approach has narrowed down the concept of “good” follower of faith to a suffocating extent. This is the reason common people shrugged off Salman Taseer’s assassination with the usual justification clause: “What happened was wrong but Taseer himself was a <insert vice of choice> man.” It is but one example of how unforgiving and intolerant we really are.
That’s why you need to excuse me if I discard two unfinished drafts extolling religious harmony, drawing on the oft repeated speech of Jinnah to the first constituent assembly, calling out for Pakistanis to at least acknowledge the right to life of fellow citizens. When I reflect on how we have taken a step back from fighting for civil rights to pleading for human rights (of life), such posts become harder to finish.
My dread, this almost resigned rant, comes from a position where I see things getting worse, not just for the religious minorities, but also for those who are in a minority owing to their dissenting voice and alternate vision. And I’m afraid there’s not much we can do to stop it. So let’s have a (non-alcoholic) drink to mourn the battles we are constantly losing and reminisce about the war we have already lost.
Rest in peace Pakistani minorities.
Bushra S is an editor based in Lahore and can be found conversing on twitter here.
The views expressed by this blogger and in the following reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the Dawn Media Group.