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Children of lesser gods

August 08, 2013

PERSECUTING people holding other racial, ethnic and religious identities has unfortunately been an enduring human tendency.

Although religions and philosophies have long decried identity-based persecution, it is only recently that governments have started curbing it, with mixed results. Thus religious persecution remains rampant.

Victims and perpetrators belong to almost all major religions. Victimised children of ‘lesser’ gods in one country become dominant perpetrators in another. Still, certain societies do perpetuate higher levels of persecution today. Pakistan unfortunately is one of those where persecution, particularly of Christians, Hindus, Ahmadis as well as the Shia community is widespread presently.

Religious persecution can be analysed along two axes nationally: its form and perpetrators. The worst forms include genocide and religious cleansing followed by forced conversions, restricted religious practice and segregation. Weaker but more widespread forms include formal laws and informal discrimination which reduce opportunities for minorities.

The second axis contains three possibilities: i) governments overtly perpetuate persecution; ii) non-state actors perpetuate persecution with insufficient government counter-action; iii) non-state actors perpetuate persecution despite significant government counter-action. The height of religious persecution is when governments (eg Nazi Germany) implement genocide. The mildest form is where non-state actors perpetuate informal discrimination despite serious government counter-efforts, as in many Western countries today.

The International Association of Religion Data Archives tracks religious persecution incidents globally to inform research on religious persecution. Pakistan fares poorly in such analyses. Discussions about Pakistan’s human rights problems irritate ‘nationalistic’ Pakistanis. International comparisons particularly are instantly labelled as American, Jewish and Indian conspiracies.

Let me first provide fodder to such thinking by highlighting that Jewish scholars contribute extensively to such research. Let me secondly inform readers wishing to go beyond conspiratorial banalities that these researchers highlight religious persecution not only in Muslim-majority countries but also where Muslims are victims, eg Myanmar, Israel and even Europe.

Other Pakistanis wonder why writers highlight Pakistan’s negatives but not its positives. However, for a country facing so many undeniable problems, discussing its negatives and finding collective solutions is a better way of ensuring positive write-ups eventually than burying our heads in the sand and perpetuating these problems.

Pakistan mercifully does not perpetuate the worst forms of religious persecution, ie state-sponsored genocides. However, beyond this, the analysis is largely negative. Pakistan bans religious minorities, eg Christians and Hindus, from its top-most political positions. How many other countries have such laws? Perhaps only a dozen do, almost all of them Muslim-majority countries.

In how many other countries have thousands of religious minorities been killed because of their religious belief during the last five years, as happens with Shias in Pakistan, while the state watches passively except after highly egregious incidents? I can only identify Iraq, Nigeria and perhaps a handful of other countries. Moreover, the situation is becoming worse. History frighteningly shows that religious persecution is a steep, slippery slope where countries can descend from mild to intense persecution within months.

This is a sad situation for a country whose main sources of moral inspiration decry religious persecution. Islam forbids Muslims from even vilifying other beliefs let alone persecuting their followers. Pakistan’s Constitution promises full rights for minorities as did its founder on Aug 11, 1947. Why has a country with strong intellectual traditions for becoming a safe haven for minorities instead become a hell-house for them?

Pakistani nationalism was based on fears of religious persecution. Moreover, this nationalism was unique in succeeding despite being pre-emptive. It arose even before any large-scale persecution had occurred; even before Muslims were governed by Hindus.

Almost all national movements arise after decades of intense persecution; yet many do not succeed even then. Why has Pakistani nationalism transformed from being a pre-emptive shield against religious persecution for its majority into a weapon for the religious persecution of its minorities by that very majority which was lucky enough to have its own pre-emptive demands and fears addressed?

People give religious or cultural explanations in response. However, as a political economist, I always view the evolving political and economic calculations of national elites as the supreme causes. Made insecure by the secession of ex-East Pakistan (after decades of ethnic persecution), Pakistan’s elite has subsequently pursued non-normal national goals, eg becoming an ‘Islamic’ fortress, liberating Kashmir through jihad and ensuring strategic depth in Afghanistan, instead of the usual developmental goals that normal countries pursue.

The result has been the glorification of a presently non-existent ‘pure Muslim’ and an implied vilification of minorities. Collective religious ritualism has consequently been adopted as a political national project. Rituals become the gateway to true spirituality for many Pakistanis (of all religions) who practise them privately.

However, their adoption as a collective national project has had no corresponding effect on collective Pakistani spirituality. Instead, national morality has deteriorated significantly since this project’s adoption in the 1970s given its underlying political motives. This trend highlights the dangers of governments misusing and dabbling in religion today.

Pakistan must drop this project and its related abnormal national goals. Pakistan must also eliminate armed organisations targeting minorities. Equally importantly, political leaders, especially the Sharifs and Imran Khan who enjoy credibility among conservatives who often hold religious biases, must take strong public stands against religious discrimination.

Finally, as in India, Pakistan must undertake a minority rights audit to identify the extent and forms of religious persecution prevalent in Pakistan and devise policies to tackle them. Pakistan emulated India’s nuclear explosions days later. How about emulating India’s act of undertaking such an audit eight years later?

The writer is a political economist at UC Berkeley.