KARACHI, Pakistan: As soon as I heard that gunmen had attacked two Ahmadi houses of worship in Lahore on 27 May, I posted a despairing comment on my Facebook page, condemning the violence and wondering out loud why we, as a nation, had let it come to this.
Only later was I struck by the irony of my action: I had logged on to Facebook, a website recently banned in Pakistan for carrying blasphemous content against the Prophet Muhammad, to decry the murder of members of a community that has for too long been persecuted on charges of blasphemy.
Ahmadiyya is a religious sect founded by 19th century Indian religious leader Mirza Ghulam Ahmad, who claimed he was the promised Messiah foretold by the Prophet Muhammad and many religions’ scriptures. Though Ahmadis consider themselves Muslims, Pakistani law considers them non-Muslims due to ideological differences on theological issues, such as Ahmad’s claim of prophethood, whereas Muslims affirm the Prophet Muhammad as the last and final prophet.
Even as the attack was unfolding, law enforcement officers started pointing fingers at the Taliban and its affiliated terror groups. But we can no longer pretend that Friday’s attacks were the extreme actions of a lone terror group. Instead, attacks of escalating horror and violence, growing in their scope, against the Ahmadi community are the most terrible articulations of a widespread social sentiment — that members of this community are, because of their religious beliefs, lesser people.
For letting this ill-conceived notion flourish over the decades, Pakistanis are collectively complicit in the attacks.
The 27 June attacks demand soul-searching at all levels of the state and society. The fact is, young men, not automatons, carried out these attacks. In a way, the attackers were fed the idea that some views, practices or people are anti-Islamic and blasphemous, and should therefore be obliterated. This basic idea is manifest in the sweeping ban against Facebook and other websites believed to host sacrilegious content, in the murder of a former Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) official accused of having links to the Ahmadi community and now in the slaughter of over 70 people at prayer.
It may seem inappropriate to compare these disparate events, but the logic deployed in each instance has been the same: wherever a difference of opinion or a divergent belief is detected, it must be snuffed out, no matter what the toll on human life, human rights, freedom of belief, freedom of expression and social harmony. Political rhetoric aside, the ferocity of these attacks demands a concrete and drastic government response.
It has been well documented over the years that growing intolerance of minority beliefs is a consequence of Pakistan’s controversial blasphemy laws, which carry severe punishments including death. These have been used to justify censorship, settle personal vendettas, facilitate land grabs and inflict violence on minorities.
In August 2009, Pakistani Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani announced the establishment of a committee to review “laws detrimental to religious harmony”, which was understood to include the blasphemy laws. Nothing came to pass from that process. Subsequently, in February, the government announced that it would implement procedural changes to laws that can be exploited to create ”violence and disharmony” in society.
Sadly, no changes have been implemented and the battle cry of blasphemy is increasingly invoked. There is no more time for dithering on this issue.
Pakistan is currently leading 56 other Muslim-majority countries in an anti-defamation of religion campaign. But it is too ironic — indeed insulting — to see our government lobby for the rights of religions on the world stage when it cannot defend the rights or lives of its own people at home.
The fact is that if our government truly rejects the violent attacks on the Ahmadi community, it should take all the necessary steps to address the root causes of discrimination against religious minorities. In addition to outlawing the blasphemy laws, the government must support open debate, interfaith dialogue, and school curriculum reform — including religious school curricula – with an eye to dispelling misconceptions about different religions and sects.
Huma Yusuf is a freelance writer. This abridged article is distributed by the Common Ground News Service (CGNews) with permission from the author. The full text can be found at www.dawn.com.