IT appears that there are three schools of thought when it comes to minority rights in Pakistan.
There are those who champion religious minorities and raise their voices against oppression. There are those who believe that Pakistanis have ‘bigger things to worry about’. And then there are those who actively pedal an anti-minority, pro-religious violence stance. It’s the latter I found most fervent in their self-belief while making the BBC documentary The Trouble with Pakistan’s White Stripe.
In Rawalpindi, I set out to find the home of Mumtaz Qadri, the man currently appealing a conviction for the murder of the late Punjab governor Salmaan Taseer. Before I even needed to ask for directions I was greeted with giant canvases of Qadri’s face, adorned with garlands and slogans evangelising his ‘bravery’. The home, in fact the entire street where he had lived, has been turned into a carnival-like homage to the man who shot Salmaan Taseer 27 times, before surrendering to the police.
So secure are Qadri’s family in their piety they said that although Mumtaz is their youngest brother, his actions mean they all “look up to him”. “His trial is not just about him. The whole ummah is on trial.” All the while, the brothers insisted I finish the bottle of Sprite they’d given me. They were happy to champion murder in the name of God. They just didn’t want me to question their hospitality.
A short drive away in his office I met Shujaul Rehman, the man spearheading Qadri’s appeal. When I asked him if he had offered Qadri pro-bono services, he refused to answer. But asked why he had taken on the case he could barely contain himself. “What you need to understand is that the people of Pakistan cannot tolerate an insult to the Prophet (PBUH).”
Rehman appeared to believe this sentence could justify Qadri’s hero status.
In a week when a man was burnt to death by a mob for alleged blasphemy, the danger of Rehman’s logic is even more pronounced.
Taseer did not commit blasphemy. He defended a Christian woman convicted for blasphemy, suggesting she was the victim of a law used consistently to punish religious minorities. So why has the whole debate about Mumtaz Qadri been shrouded in notions of religious honour?
The answer could lie with the Pakistani media’s willingness to muddy facts in the name of public consensus. I met Taseer’s daughter Sanam in Lahore. “A mainstream newspaper ran a cartoon strip calling for the ‘murder of the blasphemer’. The strip was aborted the day my father was murdered.” Mehar Bukhari too, saw fit to host a TV phone-in within hours of the governor’s death asking if the murder was in fact justified. “I called her boss to ask him to take some action. He just said ‘it is what it is’ and did nothing”.
It’s not just the Taseer family that is angry with TV’s high priests of piety. Dr Khalid Yusaf, an Ahmedi, recounted watching Amir Liaqat’s Khatmay Nabuwat special in 2008. “I was watching the programme at home with my family. Dr Liaqat was joined by two scholars who said anyone that follows our theology is worthy of murder. They talked about murder as a religious duty.”
Within 24 hours of the broadcast a prominent member of the Ahmedi community was shot dead in Mirpurkhas. A day later, Khalid Yusaf’s father, another Ahmedi community leader was shot. “The entire Ahmedi community has no doubt that these two murders were a result of Dr Liaqat’s programme. He has blood on his hands.”
I met Liaqat and his production team at the ARY studio in Karachi. “I have no regrets because it has nothing to do with me.
It is a misunderstanding. The panel only used the phrase wajib-al-katal with regard to false prophets. I’m sorry for the families but it has nothing to do with me or anything that was said on my programme.”
The incident hasn’t damaged his career. Cooking oil endorsements and a new, senior role at Geo can be added to his resumé. He attributes his success to “the love of the audience”. His popularity may have more to do with Pakistan’s collective impotence in tackling irresponsible broadcasting.
One of the Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority’s stated aims is to stop the broadcast of programmes that “encourage communal and sectarian attitudes and disharmony”. After arranging an interview with the Pemra GM I went to the Islamabad office where I was told I could ask any questions as long as they had nothing to do with “religion, television or regulation”. The representative said, “It will be like starting a fire.” I don’t believe the Pemra staff want to see people get hurt. They just don’t care enough to do anything.
Here is where the link between government servants and ordinary people is most pronounced. Time and time again, taxi drivers, friends and even my uncle in Sialkot told me minority rights are not on the agenda because there are “other things to worry about”. It’s understandable that spiralling food prices, constant loadshedding and lawlessness take priority in the lives of most Pakistanis. There is an argument, however, that a piece of our humanity dies every time we accept gross injustices because to do otherwise is inconvenient.
Peter Jacob from the National Commission for Justice and Peace goes further. “The status of minorities is directly related to whether Pakistan would like to survive as a respectable nation. It’s not a peripheral issue. We cannot have a bigoted, intolerant society and still survive. We are at a defining moment. We have to decide where we want to go.”
The damage done to minority groups may be irreversible. Mansoor Raza from Citizens for Democracy suggests Karachi had genuine religious diversity on the eve of Partition. “We had a 52 per cent Muslim majority with 48 per cent of the population from other religious groups. Now it’s 98 per cent Muslim. Easter, Christmas, Diwali have all disappeared.”
But beyond Pakistan’s history of intolerance, there is hope. “The voices that are calling for tolerance had dispersed. They are coming back together now and beginning to organise. That is a good thing”. For the sake of Pakistan’s survival, let us take action to ensure it’s not too late.
The writer is a BBC journalist and filmmaker. The views expressed are his own and do not reflect those of the BBC.
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