On Minority Rights in Pakistan

It is astonishing to see that the so-called Ulama offer historical truths to their audiences without ever mentioning that history is not really transparent and unmotivated and often presents the views and perceptions of the dominant groups. The treatment of religious minorities is also based in this flawed retrieval of historical truth and this atavistic perception of a modern Islamic state.

 

Image, Courtesy Viewpoint Online.

 

 

After the brutal murder of Shahbaz Bhatti, Ms. Asiya Nasir, a Christian member of Pakistani National Assembly, made a courageous and passionate speech in the national assembly. [The speech can be viewed here]. I have watched this speech numerous times, for in its tragic appeal also lies an incipient hope for a better Pakistan.

In the wake of Shahbaz Bahtti’s murder, Ms. Nasir puts the very question of what constitutes a Pakistani under a serious challenge. This question about the nature of a Pakistani identity is crucial, for it can decide the fate and future of Pakistani nation-state.

Ms. Nasir, one could say, in her historical retrieval of the contributions and sacrifices of Pakistani Christians inserts this marginalized community into the very heart of the nation, for after all, in her words, the Christian community was given a choice to move to India but they, as future citizens of what was to be a composite, cosmopolitan nation, chose to stay. They should, therefore, be included within the national promise as equals.

We cannot have it both ways: either we become a democracy in which all citizens—regardless of their religion, gender or other identities—are treated as equal right holders, or we stay the mockery of a nation that we have become: defined by a religious constituting power as opposed to the constituted power that at least, in theory, promises all citizens of Pakistan an equal humanity in the eyes of the law.

In her speech, the honorable member starts with a reference to the murder of Shahbaz Bhatti but soon moves on to challenge the very idea of Pakistan as an Islamic state. She points to the official portrait of Muhammad Ali Jinnah, and then asks him a direct question: “Is this the kind of Pakistan that you had promised us?” Her criticism of the current imaginary of Pakistan is, therefore, offered in comparison to the kind of Pakistan that Jinnah had envisioned and promised, a Pakistan in which the minorities would have had equal rights. The devolution of Pakistan into an Islamic republic, in this argument, is a failure of the Quaid’s dream and also a failure of the promises made to the minorities.

Ms. Nasir reminds her audience that when Pakistan needed the Christian votes to ask for a separate nation-state, the Christians had voted for Pakistan: their presence in the Pakistani public sphere, thus, was not an accident of history but a matter of choice. Now, however, the same Christians whose votes were coveted at the time of partition are treated as second-class citizens. The arguments, thus, rests on the kind of nation that was promised to the minorities and that the current definition of the nation as a purely Islamic state is nothing but a broken promise.

Ms. Nasir also has some pointed questions for the government: “Why did you not provide sufficient security for Shahbaz Bhatti?” and “Why there has been no clear declaration by the Prime minister and the President to hold the murderers accountable?” The obvious reason for the indifference of the leaders of Pakistan Peoples Party, the party that had benefited from Shahbaz Bhatti’s loyalties, is because he is a Christian and thus, it seems, his life was not as valuable as that of a Muslim.

Ms. Nasir also points out that the minorities have reached a point in their history in Pakistan that they are seriously questioning whether or not to remain in Pakistan. If the current treatment of the minorities continues, she states, then the minorities will have to choose to leave Pakistan.

Ms. Nasir’s speech is also made in the spirit of patriotism as a true Pakistani claiming equal rights in the national public sphere just like the Muslim citizens of Pakistan. This claim to equal treatment is also bolstered by the examples of Christian sacrifices for the cause of Pakistan, the sacrifices that have been elided from Pakistani history due to the “distorted history” being taught in schools. “We have not been given equal rights in sixty-five years” declares Ms. Nasir, and it is time now for the government and the people of Pakistan to recognize the Christians as equal citizens of the state.

The question of rights is, therefore, crucial to creating a more tolerant and humane nation and Islam, I am sad to say, will not solve this problem for us, especially the kind of historical retrieval attempted by our Ulama.

There is a perception amongst the devout Muslims that if we revert to a purely Islamic articulation of the nation, all our problems would be solved. This, of course, is a grand illusion created by the rhetoric of the mullahs and their followers and this rhetoric is made acceptable by cherry-picking Islamic history and by completely foreclosing any new and liberating interpretations of the Islamic sacred.

It is astonishing to see that the so-called Ulama offer historical truths to their audiences without ever mentioning that history is not really transparent and unmotivated and often presents the views and perceptions of the dominant groups. The treatment of religious minorities is also based in this flawed retrieval of historical truth and this atavistic perception of a modern Islamic state. This, in a way, foregrounds the role of constituting power over constituted power. [I am using Roberto Esposito’s discussion of these two facets of power to make my point. For details, see Esposito. Bios]. In such a project, the worth of the individual and the larger political entities is determined through recourse to a transcendental constituting power. But while in most of the cases the constituting power ceases to exert itself and creates a space for the constituted power to function independently, in case of our Ulama the constituted power of the Pakistani constitution is always under constant pressure from the metaphysical constituting power of the Muslim sacred. It is this reversal to a purist past that allows them to create unequal subjects within the Pakistani political space. Thus, even though they live in a modern nation, the individuals in Pakistan, based on their gender and religious identity, get divided into active and passive right holders. As a consequence, Only Muslim males seem to enjoy the full rights and humanity of real citizens, while women and minorities are reduced to a passive political identity, alive but not really fully realized political beings.

It is this nexus of power and religion that Ms. Nasir’s speech challenges, for if Pakistan really wants to be a democratic and humane polity, it must accord equal rights to all its citizens and no amount of purist religious retrieval should be able to trump that.

The saddest thing about our Ulama is that they have chosen to elide all views contrary to what they deem a proper interpretation of the sacred. Thus, while our mullahs can quote their respective scholars, none of them seems to acknowledge the existence of scholars such as Mumtaz Ali and Fazlur Rahman who, at least, attempted to force a more nuanced and enlightened interpretation of the sacred. These are the silenced histories of Muslim past that must be retrieved and foregrounded if Islam is to play any positive role within the Pakistani public sphere.

Meanwhile, in the absence of any such movement in Pakistan, I would declare my own personal stance: I stand with my brother Shahbaz Bhatti for his humanity, his wisdom, and his sacrifice and with my sister Asiya Nasir for her courage to ask some apt and hard questions.

(Also published by Viewpoint Online)

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