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Perceptions — bad and good

December 18, 2005


WHILE the presidency, what passes for a government, and all the assemblies are obsessed with and bickering over the question: to build or not to build dams, many ordinary citizens in the country and in the outer world are worried, even disgusted, with the rising religious intolerance, with the plight of human rights, and with incidents such as the one that occurred at Sangla Hill last month.

As an illustration of how this country and its leadership is perceived, reproduced are but a few of the messages that flowed into my mail box after last Sunday’s column on the subject of the happenings at Sangla Hill, provoked and brought about by the existence on our statute books of the blasphemy laws.

From the outer world, anonymous : “After reading the latest article on ‘blasphemy’ all one can ask is could it happen in this century and in countries which are members of the UN? Are you still living in the dark ages? Other than Christians, do others also go to normal schools or do they go only to madressahs where violence is being taught? Is this not a shame? This is from a person who is luckily not a Pakistani who must suffer this kind of atrocity inflicted on common citizens.”

Also anonymous: “This message has to be repeated again and again... One can hope and pray that the people will finally be moved to stop this crime from being committed again and again.”

From the United States: “Thanks for writing an article illustrating the events in Sangla Hill. It is sad to learn that our authorities did little to protect the Christians of this town. I would like to share with you an example from the small city I live in (Austin Tx). We have less than 5,000 Muslims in a city of one million and have little political or economic clout.

“On September 11, 2001, we were relatively far from the events in New York and Washington. Yet, even before we could comprehend what had happened and how this may impact Muslims living in America the, police chief of Austin, Stan Knee (on his own initiative and within a few hours of the events) decided to send a couple of police cars to the main Austin mosque because he feared there may be some retaliation on Muslims or Muslim places of worship. Nothing violent happened in our city but it was reassuring nonetheless. I doubt that most Pakistani officials realize this”

From Canada: “Thank you for documenting the Sangla affair is absolutely shocking. Events like these make me ashamed of being a Pakistani (and a Muslim).”

Another from the US: “I want to thank you for writing an article on the state of Christians in Pakistan and asking that something be done about tragedies like Sangla Hill.....I grew up as an Indian Christian in the state of Gujarat and am well aware that people who grow up as minorities in countries where the majority of the people follow a different path have certain crosses to bear. However, lately it seems that the atmosphere is very upsetting for the minorities of Pakistan.

“I read another article about three young Hindu girls converting seemingly overnight from Mr Irfan Hussain last weekend and have been disturbed ever since ... I feel that unless people speak up this slide will continue ... I firmly believe that I can believe as strongly as I want in my religion but should not force others in any way to believe as I do . . . .Almighty God would never have it any other way. I hope some action is taken so that poor minorities are not targeted.”

And another from Canada: “It is really unfortunate that President Musharraf, despite his protestations about Pakistan’s unsavoury reputation in the civilized world hasn’t demonstrated an ounce of courage to protect the rights of religious minorities against the blatantly false accusations made against them; his constant references to tolerance is in my opinion a mere facade that he uses to mask his own religious bigotry. On behalf of my two sisters who still live in Karachi and of the whole Christian community I would like to thank you most sincerely.”

From a resident of Karachi: “I thank you for highlighting, again, the plight of minorities in Pakistan just as Irfan Husain, the other columnist and a St.Pat’s boy, did two weeks ago. I am ashamed that another St.Pat’s boy does not have the courage — especially when he wields immense power - to take action, first by dumping the dreaded blasphemy law into oblivion with a simple ordinance and then hauling those coward culprits into jail. Why oh why does he not?

“He recently visited his alma mater to accept the award of St.Pats most excellent student. Two of his former teachers presented it: Fr. J. B. Todd and Mr. Simon D’Lima. If he cannot protect his minorities, he does not deserve that award.

“As you know better than others, every government usually tries to wipe the tears of the minorities after such incidents by saying they are trying to amend the blasphemy laws. Whenever the federal government indicates the possibility of any change extremists start campaigning. Now, Mr. Ejazul Haq, son of the former dictator and general who introduced these discriminatory laws, says that the government is considering amending them so that they cannot be misused. Again, the question is when will the government will be able to do so? If the government can build the Kalabagh Dam why can it not build religious harmony?”

And one final message from the US: “Who are you asking for action? A man of no principle? You do not have to praise him. As a supreme leader of a country, not only is he responsible but he is duty bound to ensure that every citizen, irrespective of his religion or race or creed, must be safeguarded and protected from any kind of violence or intolerance.”

None of the above requires any comment.

Earlier this month, following an earthquake relief related visit to Pakistan, Rowan Williams, Archbishop of Canterbury, wrote an article on the Sangla Hill incident and the controversial blasphemy laws which sparked the violence. He feels that “in private few of Pakistan’s governing elite are happy about the blasphemy legislation. It can be used against other minorities — and is regularly invoked by Muslims against other Muslims in just the same arbitrary way. But it is a totemic issue for most conservative religious leaders, and even an unambiguously Muslim government would hesitate to provoke popular outrage by attempting repeal.” Depressing and pessimistic.

Archbishop Williams met General Musharraf and expressed his dismay about Sangla. He also visited a “large and impeccably orthodox madressah in Lahore,” where he found the reception “overwhelmingly positive; everyone was eager to disavow any ‘clash of civilizations’ rhetoric, there was a clear condemnation of suicide bombing, and candid discussion of the points of convergence and of irreducible difference between the two faiths seemed to be welcomed.

“The affirmation publicly given by Muslim leaders to local Christians was the important point.” Uplifting and optimistic - as were his closing sentences: “It is slow work. It requires everyone to try and see what a majority looks and feels like to a minority. But change happens, and Pakistan may yet be a different kind of Islamic nation in a decade or so if all these signs mean what they seem to mean.”

Perhaps there is hope - or is the Archbishop the sole optimist amongst us all? ‘Enlightened moderation’ - the attempted image differs widely from the substance for sale.