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Opinion

Pakistan Independence Day – not really

The founder of Pakistan, which today celebrates Independence Day, believed in the separation of mosque and state. He would not recognize his country now. Blasphemy laws silence religious expression. On a visit, I was often reminded to lower my voice 'lest the servants hear you.'

By Qanta A. Ahmed / August 14, 2012

Pakistani students visit the mausoleum of Mohammed Ali Jinnah, the founder of Pakistan, to mark Independence Day in Karachi Aug. 14. Op-ed contributor Qanta A. Ahmed, who has often visited the mausoleum, writes: 'Just as lawmakers have authored Pakistan’s demise, so too, only lawmakers can write prescriptions for its resurrection.'

Shakil Adil/AP

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Growing up in England, my Pakistani émigré parents taught me to revere the founder of Pakistan, which marks its 65th anniversary of independence today. Mohammed Ali Jinnah was a secular, westernized moderate – a sort of Muslim Thomas Jefferson, who cherished the separation of mosque and state. Our family trips to Pakistan always included a trip to Jinnah’s mausoleum in the center of Karachi.

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Almost 40 years after those childhood visits, it pains me to watch the relentless rise of religious extremism in Pakistan – a rise that has been permitted and even abetted by Pakistan’s government. While readers in the West may be conscious of Islamism’s tightening grip on the country, many are not aware of how this happened and how dangerous life in Pakistan has become for those deemed insufficiently devout – the very minorities Jinnah believed Pakistan would safeguard.

Starting with the 1978 Islamicization program instituted by then-President Gen. Zia-ul-Haq, Pakistan has steadily dismembered the secular society Jinnah once envisioned. Yet it was Pakistan’s blasphemy laws, a series of five ordinances targeting religious minorities enacted from 1980 onward, that would deal a decisive blow to Jinnah’s democracy.

These include a law criminalizing blasphemy; a law punishing the defilement of the Quran; one denouncing any insult to the family, companions, or personage of the Prophet Mohammed; and two laws expressly targeting Pakistan’s tiny pacifist Muslim community – the Ahmadi Muslims. 

These are nothing less than “lawfare,” the abuse of laws and judicial systems to achieve strategic military or political ends. The blasphemy laws are a volte face from Jinnah’s ideals. Speaking to Pakistan’s Constituent Assembly just days before Pakistan’s 1947 independence from Britain, Jinnah emphasized religious tolerance as the bedrock of the new state.

“Every one of you,” he said, “is first, second and last a citizen of this State with equal rights, privileges, and obligations.” He went on: “You are free; you are free to go to your temples, you are free to go to your mosques or to any other places of worship in this State of Pakistan. You may belong to any religion or caste or creed – that has nothing to do with the business of the State.”

Not only do these ideals now ring hollow, but few Pakistani newspaper editors dare publish anything that reflects such values. The notorious Islamist blasphemy laws have ensured a silencing not only of Pakistani minorities but also of free speech in Pakistan.

But Pakistan’s Islamist lawfare has a far wider reach. While over 40 percent of all arrests under the blasphemy laws have been of Ahmadi Muslims, Christians also fall victim.

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