May 11th, 2020
News, PakistanMay 11th, 2020

The curse of bigotry

Pakistan is a country with a Muslim population of over 96%. Thus anyone who isn’t a Muslim is a religious minority. Religious identity is a factor that determines which citizens are more equal than others in terms of status, rights and opportunities. We claim to realize that we don’t treat minorities well and the injustice of it. We thus decided to constitute a commission for minorities to protect their rights and interests. But we have now decided to disallow Ahmadis representation even on such commission.

At an academic level we agree that equality is a fundamental right of all citizens and we must take affirmative steps to pursue the ideal of equality. We realize there exists a pecking order in everything. Some citizens are more equal than others. Some minorities are more equal than others. We thus want a body to help even the odds for those less equal. But then we want to shun Ahmadis (who are the most persecuted and hated minority in Pakistan) even from such body. This is what logic of bigotry looks like.

Article 260(3)(b) defines a non-Muslim as “a person who is not a Muslim and includes a person belonging to the Christian, Hindu, Sikh, Buddhist or Parsi community, a person of the Quadiani Group or the Lahori Group who call themselves ‘Ahmadis’ or by any other name or a Bahai, and a person belonging to any of the Scheduled Castes”. We amended the Constitution in 1974 to explicitly identify Ahmadis as a minority. And 46 years we have decided that they won’t make the cut even for a minority commission.

Article 20 of our Constitution states that, “subject to law, public order and morality… every citizen shall have the right to profess, practice and propagate his religion.” But Section 298-C of Pakistan Penal Code states that, “any person of the Quadiani group or the Lahori group (who call themselves ‘Ahmadis’ or by any other name), who directly or indirectly … preaches or propagates his faith, or invites others to accept his faith… shall be punished with imprisonment” for up to three years and also be fined.

The matter came up for adjudication in Zaheeruddin vs. State (1993 SCMR 1718) after a few Ahmedis were jailed for “posing as Muslims” after Zia promulgated Section 298 in PPC in 1984 and subsequently when a Deputy Commissioner banned Ahmadiyya Jamaat’s centurial celebrations in 1989. While upholding legality of Section 298 and the restrictions it imposes on Ahmadis, Supreme Court held in a lesser-but-equal type 3–2 verdict that, “there is no other restriction of any sort, whatever, against their religion.”

The SC went on: “It must be noted here that the Injunctions of Islam, as contained in Qur’an and the Sunnah, guarantee the rights of the minorities also in such a satisfactory way that no other legal order can offer anything equal. It may further be added that no law can violate them… Ahmadis like other minorities are free to profess their religion in this country and no one can take away that right of theirs either by legislation or by executive orders.” So SC created a carve-out: Ahmadis can profess but not propagate.

Even celebrated Justices Shafi-ur-Rehman and Saleem Akhtar, who were in minority, agreed that the right to propagate religion must remain subject to demands of public order. As Justice Rehman noted, “nobody has a fundamental right or can have one of outraging religious feelings of others while propagating his own religion or faith.” As we, Pakistan’s Muslim majority, are outraged by Ahmadi existence let alone propagation of their religion, Ahmadi right to preach was effectively buried by SC in 1993.

We have Article 25 reminding us that, “all citizens are equal before law and entitled to equal protection of law.” But we have the magic argument that Article 25 doesn’t prohibit rational classification and distinctions. It is not that we discriminate against Ahmadis. It’s only about public order we say. Their propagation threatens communal peace and thus can’t be allowed. Propagation by others, including Muslims across the world, is different. It outrages no one and must therefore be seen as a protected right.

Aghast by violence and crimes against minorities, SC took up the matter of persecution of religious minorities in 2014. CJP Tassaduq Jillani authored an extraordinary judgment which projected that ‘justice is blind’ doesn’t mean that judges are unable to see unfairness when staring it in their faces but only that they must be impartial in dealing with citizens who are less equal in terms of power and standing in society. In 2014, SC ordered the state to take affirmative steps to create a level-playing field for minorities.

It ordered that the “Federal Government should take appropriate steps to ensure that hate speeches in social media were discouraged and delinquents were brought to justice under the law”, “National Council for minorities’ rights should be constituted… to monitor practical realization of the rights and safeguards provided to minorities under the Constitution and law… frame policy recommendations for safeguarding and protecting minorities’ rights by the Provincial and Federal Government”

And further, “that Article 20 of the Constitution must be interpreted to guarantee the rights of the community as well as the right of the individual against those from his own or other religious communities — the ultimate goal being the eradication of religious intolerance in the society.” Thus PTI government decided to create a minority commission. And then it decided to bar Ahmadis from it with our Minister for Interfaith Harmony declaring that anyone with a soft corner for them isn’t ‘loyal to Islam and Pakistan’.

What’s the basis for arguing that Ahmadis, declared non-Muslims by the Constitution itself and thus a religious minority by definition, mustn’t be treated like other religious? That they haven’t accepted the Constitution, and until they do they can’t be afforded its protection. By this logic anyone opposed to any provision of the Constitution would automatically lose the right to seek its protection. So we now require Ahmadis to accede to the Constitution directly to seek its protection, except there is no way to do so.

To state the obvious, accepting the fundamental rights of those with a different religious belief system doesn’t amount to taking a view on the truth of such belief system. As Muslims we believe our religion comprises the eternal truth. (And most of us believe so as we were born to Muslim parents and raised with such belief system, just as we now raise our kids). To acknowledge rights of a Christian or Hindu or Parsi is not tantamount to endorsing the truth of their beliefs. So why single out Ahmadis?

We single out Ahmadis because our hatred for their belief system is rooted partly in our reading of the history of how their religion emerged and partly because we believe it attempts to distort ours. How is this different from drivers of bitter debates that take place between intolerant elements across other religions? When racists in the West chide Islamic beliefs we call it Islamophobia. When RSS-inspired Hindu leaders project Muslims as evil lesser beings with no place in India, we label their hatred as bigotry.

And yet the same folks who passionately call out intolerance and bigotry of others and demand justice for Muslims (in India or Palestine or the West) are at perfect ease with themselves when it comes to their own hated for disagreeable beliefs of others at home. We started out after the creation of Pakistan with a demand for othering the Ahmadis. That happened in 1974 with a Constitutional Amendment under Bhutto’s watch. We then sought legal tools to persecute them. That happened in 1984 under Zia’s watch.

We now wish to deny them even the barest human rights we are willing to afford other minorities, while also labeling fellow Muslims objecting to such bigotry as traitors to Islam and Pakistan. This is happening today in the name of inter-faith harmony under Imran Khan’s watch.