IN a recent report on Pakistan, Asia Watch observes that some civil and criminal laws ``have dangerously undermined fundamental rights of freedom of religion and expression, and have led to serious abuses against the country's religious minorities.'' The situation is urgent because the religious intolerance in Pakistan has now received judicial approval that has opened the way for further persecution of its minorities. A decision of the Pakistani Supreme Court last July has effectively closed the door to any legal redress for the intolerance and persecution that the Ahmadiyya Muslims have been encountering in Pakistan for the last two decades.
Like all major world religions, Islam has many sects. Every living religion produces reformers and progressive interpreters from within, bringing different denominations and schools of thought into existence. Keeping in mind the diversity and natural growth of religious bodies, all civilized nations have cherished freedom of conscience, thought, and religion. The United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights safeguards these fundamental human rights. Pakistan's Constitution also embodies and upholds these freedoms. For that reason, the Supreme Court of Pakistan was expected to protect these rights; it was approached by some Ahmadi Muslims, who had been persecuted and victimized by lower courts, to resolve an important constitutional issue.
In 1984, when the Constitution of Pakistan was in abeyance, the then-Martial Law Administrator, General Mohammed Zia ul-Haq, promulgated Ordinance XX, curtailing the religious freedom of Ahmadis and changing some religious practices of Ahmadis into punishable crimes.
Since then the Pakistan government has allowed, under the cover of law, blatant abuse of human rights in violation of Pakistan's constitutional protection of religious freedom, freedom of speech, and the equality of its citizens. Many Ahmadis have been imprisoned and heavily fined merely for the ``crime'' of calling themselves Muslims or even for ``posing'' as Muslims.
The question of law before the Supreme Court of Pakistan was whether Ordinance XX of 1984 violated the Constitution of Pakistan. Justice Shaifur Rehman, the senior justice on the bench, gave his opinion that a number of provisions of Ordinance XX were repugnant to fundamental human rights as guaranteed by the Constitution:
``Prohibiting Ahmadis from calling their place of worship a `masjid' and preventing Azan [the Islamic way of calling to prayer] violated fundamental rights. These practices were not of recent origin or device and adopted not with a view to annoy or outrage the sentiments of non-Ahmadis. The provision violated the fundamental right to equality because only Ahmadis are restricted by it. And being an essential element of their faith, it violated the right of religious freedom. Preventing them from propagating their faith without practicing similar prohibition on any other minority is discriminatory.''
Two other Justices, however, dissented and went into a lengthy discussion on a subject which was never raised for the Court's opinion: Without giving the appellants any opportunity to refute polemical allegations, the dissenting Justices wrote a biased and discriminatory opinion on the question of whether Ahmadis were Muslims or not. Most amazingly, the justices justified the laws prohibiting Ahmadis the use of Islamic phrases by drawing a parallel from the trade laws prohibitive of trade and merchandise marks. This is a distasteful monetization of something spiritual and sublime. Furthermore, the Supreme Court's decision encourages religious intolerance and violence against Ahmadis.
All the appeals were dismissed by the majority decision. The Ahmadis were taken into custody forthwith for the ``crime'' that they practiced Islam as their religion, and they were required to undergo the remainder of the three-year imprisonment along with heavy monetary penalties.
If no redemptive measure is immediately taken in Pakistan against such flagrant and mind-boggling injustice against its citizens, Pakistan's hope to reestablish friendly relations with the United States and other civilized countries that are signatories of the UN convention may be doomed. The religious intolerance portrayed by the majority decision of the Pakistan Supreme Court not only contains onerous implications for law-abiding and peace-loving religious minorities, it also gives strong and direct support to the growth of fundamentalism in that region. Mass migration to other countries for asylum created unnecessary strains on the world's economy. The persistent abuse of human rights, especially legalized terrorism, may become a severe problem. By stating that allowing an Ahmadi to display Islamic symbols in public is like creating a Salman Rushdie out of him, the Court has made a direct incitement to kill Ahmadis.
The US should have a profound stake in this situation, which has serious worldwide implications. It is time that what America stands for and believes in is given more importance than any economic or geopolitical considerations. President Kennedy was right when he said that peace in the last analysis is a matter of human rights. Both for the world at large and indeed for Pakistan's own future, the restoration of fundamental human rights and religious freedom is imperative. The Opinion/Essay Page welcomes manuscripts. Authors of articles we accept will be notified by telephone. Authors of articles not accepted will be notified by postcard. Send manuscripts to Opinions/Essays, One Norway Street, Boston, MA 02115, by fax to 617 -450-2317, or by Internet E-mail to OPED@RACHEL.CSPS.COM.