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Our yellow stars

March 17, 2018

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THE Islamabad High Court’s recent ruling that Pakistanis have to declare their faith to obtain birth certificates, ID cards and passports, and to get on to voters’ lists has generated a debate on the possible outcome of the implementation of the judgement; it has also heightened concerns that minority religious communities could be pushed even further from the mainstream. Although the court does not identify them, there is a perception that the reference in the ruling is to the Ahmadi community.

According to the judgement, failure to declare one’s faith is tantamount to a “betrayal of the state” and “exploiting the Constitution”.

This is an odd position considering that the Constitution guarantees equal rights for all citizens, and enjoins the state to protect the minorities.

Intolerance is ingrained in our society.

The ruling makes it compulsory for citizens to take an oath regarding their faith when joining the civil services, the armed forces and the judiciary. As far as I am aware, the military does not discriminate according to faith, though it is now rare to see a non-Muslim climb beyond a certain level of the hierarchy.

The question is, why should an individual’s faith be the business of the state? Frankly, I am not concerned about my neighbour’s religion, or, indeed, lack of one. As long as a citizen has not broken the law, why can’t he get an ID card, a birth certificate or a passport without declaring his faith? And how exactly does a failure to do so amount to a betrayal?

Our minorities are being rendered even more vulnerable to abuse and persecution. Pakistan ranks among the 15 most religiously intolerant countries in the world. Unsurprisingly, most of them have Muslim majorities. If non-Muslim citizens now have their faith recorded on their ID cards, how many will get jobs?

Unfortunately, intolerance is ingrained in our society. As I.A. Rehman reminded us in a recent speech at an event to celebrate Asma Jahangir’s life, this business of identifying minorities has a long and dishonourable history. In the Nazi-occupied Europe of the 1940s, Jews were forced to wear distinguishing yellow stars on their sleeves. This made them vulnerable to daily harassment and humiliation. It also made them easier to identify and transport to concentration camps during the Holocaust.

But the Nazis did not invent the yellow stars: mediaeval Europe is full of examples of anti-Semitic persecution, and rulers as well as the Church made Jews display their faith. And while Muslims claim that their treatment of Jews was better than that accorded to them by Christians, the record is mixed at best.

There were periods in which Jews rose to eminent positions in Muslim Spain and the Ottoman Empire. But equally, there were pogroms and riots that saw Jews killed and their property destroyed. In Morocco, one of the more tolerant Muslim countries in the 19th century, Jews were forced to walk barefooted or wear straw shoes when they emerged from their ghettos. Thus identified, they became easy targets of harassment and humiliation.

Is this the sort of Pakistan we want? As it is, many non-Muslims have fled the persecution they suffer from. Many of my Christian school friends from St Patrick’s have emigrated. As kids in the 1950s and 1960s, we were not concerned about what religion our friends followed. But with time, the state, the clergy — and even individuals — started taking an inordinate interest in the beliefs of others.

Ahmadis were declared non-Muslims in 1974. Zia’s 1984 Ordinance XX forbade Ahmadis from “posing as Muslims”. Even the mention of an Islamic verse on a wedding invitation was enough for a jail sentence. Over the years, hundreds of Ahmadis have been killed and jailed.

And they aren’t the only ones: Hindus and Christians, too, have felt the lash of our zeal. Many have been victimised through the misuse of our blasphemy laws. Even if they have been declared innocent by the courts, they remain at risk from bloodthirsty clerics and the mobs the latter can whip up.

One of the factors that drives this frenzy is the sense of immunity that zealots are given by the state’s refusal to protect our minorities. In all the hundreds of incidents involving attacks on non-Muslims, how many perpetrators have been arrested and sentenced?

When screaming mobs are told by clerics that it is their religious duty to kill an alleged blasphemer, what would stop them but the power of the state? But when the state chooses to become a bystander, who will protect an illiterate Christian woman accused by spiteful Muslim neighbours of desecrating religious verses?

We often ask why the world has ganged up against us, blaming foreign powers for their nefarious designs. But we need to look at our own actions for answers.

irfan.husain@gmail.com

Published in Dawn, March 17th, 2018