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Hope for tolerance

August 26, 2012

ALL the Eid greetings I received this year were tinged with despair. Eid wishes came interspersed with prayers for a better future for the country and its citizens, especially its religious minorities. Many people confessed that they were in no mood to celebrate.

Given the recent horror stories that have poured in from across the country, this despondency did not seem misplaced. In the run-up to Eid, we heard about a young a Christian girl with Down’s Syndrome accused of blasphemy; the killing of 20 Shia passengers in Mansehra in the third savage bus attack in six months; the apparent choice of some Hindu families from Sindh and Balochistan to ‘emigrate’ to India to escape the persecution and violence that define their lives in Pakistan; and the intervention by district officials to prevent Ahmadis from offering Eid prayers in Rawalpindi.

This barrage of bad news has made many Pakistanis bleak about the country’s future and prompted a sense that this is the beginning of the end — of a vision, a dream, an optimism about how things could have been. Standing at this precipice, Pakistan has two options: either the nation can reach a consensus that things have spiralled out of control and initiate a dialogue to amend the situation, or it can give up and brace for the selfishness, suspicion and violence that a survival instinct engenders. In the former scenario there is hope, in the latter, only more despair.

As horrific as they have been, recent events have offered scant indication that all is not yet lost for Pakistani pluralism. The Christian girl’s arrest sparked outrage among liberal Twitterati, but also from the likes of Imran Khan, who despite his flirtations with the Difa-i-Pakistan Council tweeted, “Shameful! Sending an 11-year-old girl to prison is against the very spirit of Islam which is all about being Just and Compassionate”.

More importantly, news reports coming out of Islamabad suggest that many people from the girl’s locality disapprove of her arrest. The young man who first accused her of blasphemy is apparently on the run because members of his extended family don’t approve of his actions and are siding with the local Christian community. The accuser’s uncle is said to have taken a stand against local imams and other zealots calling for action against the girl accused of blasphemy and other Christians. Despite the virulent words of imams, who have termed her actions a ‘conspiracy’, many locals are reportedly willing to accept the fact that the girl was unaware of what she was doing given her medical condition.

In an entirely separate context, the deputy secretary of the Jamaat-i-Islami, Dr Farid Ahmed Piracha, condemned the killing of anyone on sectarian or ethnic grounds and argued that Mohammad Ali Jinnah’s sectarian identity should not be emphasised in order to prevent national identity from being divided along sectarian lines. He was responding to a recent speech by MQM chief Altaf Hussain in which he decried the killing of Shias in Pakistan, terming it a betrayal of the country’s founding principles.

And earlier this month, responding to reports of a Hindu exodus from Pakistan, leaders of the Awami Jamhoori Party (AJP) appealed to Sindhi Hindus not to leave their “motherland” since they were “equal owners of this historic land” along with Muslims.

Highlighting these isolated responses is a last-ditch attempt to clutch at straws. After all, none of these responses exemplify the tolerance, regard for human rights and pluralistic ideology that is essential for democracies to thrive: the blasphemy victim’s predicament could have been avoided if some democratic dispensation had had the courage and political will to repeal or reform the blasphemy law; moreover, her accuser’s uncle is only able to take a strong pro-Christian and anti-imam stance because he is politically well-connected.

As for the AJP, its leadership is likely empathising with Sindh’s Hindus as part of an election-year campaign to undermine political rivals who have failed to protect minorities during their time in office.

Despite these caveats, these scattered responses to religious intolerance offer hope because they imply that there is still room for dialogue on these issues — room to say that things have gotten completely out of hand. The importance of this cannot be underestimated. From Peru to Indian Punjab, local populations have turned against the intolerant ideologies of extremists once their atrocities and violence became too much — too frequent, too brutal and too arbitrary. But all resistance begins with a question: haven’t we gone too far?

Pakistan is steps away from the point of no return and urgently needs a public outcry against religiously motivated violence. The situation is clearly at an extreme, but there is still some space (beyond Twitter and the op-ed columns of English-language newspapers) to question the way things are progressing and even voice horror at the mounting instances of injustice and violence. If we don’t seize this opportunity, we will soon find ourselves with no recourse.

It is essential that the government, civil society, media, imams with a conscience and others avail of this window of opportunity to start a robust dialogue about religious tolerance. We can no longer afford the lip service of another interfaith council; what’s needed are grass-roots efforts to identify, consolidate and protect spaces where dialogue on tolerance and pluralism is still possible and amplify the voices willing to engage in such dialogue. Without this, we can only look forward to more lacklustre celebrations.

The writer is a freelance contributor.