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A question of faith

March 11, 2018

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THE language of protection of the rights of non-Muslim citizens in Pakistan has often been co-opted by those who are far from well-wishers of the country’s non-Muslim population. Indeed, the judiciary is regularly petitioned by individuals with malicious intentions or having a record of discrimination against Pakistani citizens who are non-Muslim, both legally defined and self-declared. A judgement by a justice of the Islamabad High Court has once again cast a troubling spotlight on the status of non-Muslims in the country. The court has seemingly issued an order in a matter that has already been legislatively handled by parliament and in a controversy that should have been left behind. Henceforth, according to Justice Shaukat Aziz Siddiqui’s order, an affidavit must be signed by anyone seeking a CNIC, passport, birth certificate, registration in a voters’ list, and appointment in government and semi-government institutions, especially the judiciary, armed forces and the civil services.

The sweeping judgement does not explicitly state so, but the proceedings in court and the petition that triggered the judicial intervention might be perceived as indicating an attempt to further demarcate and separate from mainstream society the country’s beleaguered Ahmadi population. As such, it is a deeply troubling intervention from quarters that are otherwise designed to enhance and promote the rights of all Pakistanis. At the heart of it all, lies an unanswered question: why would sensible, rational and law-abiding citizens of Pakistan feel the need to hide or mis-declare their religious faith? Arguably, that in and of itself is a sign of a society that is dangerously tilted away from constitutionally guaranteed freedoms and rights of all citizens. Any argument that a non-Muslim citizen may seek to capture high office constitutionally reserved explicitly for Muslims is implausible in the extreme. Indeed, such arguments can stoke communal tensions by vilifying entire groups of citizens and should be avoided.

Away from the specific judgement, there is a disturbing trend in the recent national discourse of emphasising religious differences. Pakistan is an overwhelming Muslim country, but it is also a diverse country. Perhaps it is necessary to re-emphasise the authoritative Munir Report of 1954. The events that triggered the inquiry and formed the backdrop of the report are a warning to all Pakistanis of mobilising public opinion along religious and sectarian lines. Instead of emphasising differences, political and institutional leaders should focus on improving the lives of all Pakistanis, making them safer, more prosperous and more productive members of a modern, progressive society. Non-Muslims in Pakistan are certainly deserving of special attention by state and society, but that is because they face unique dangers and threats. The imaginary threats that non-Muslims allegedly pose to Pakistan is an affront to those citizens and all Pakistanis. A safer Pakistan for non-Muslims is a better Pakistan for all Pakistanis. Let Jinnah’s Pakistan prevail.

Published in Dawn, March 11th, 2018