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.'

Shakil Adil/AP
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.'

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.

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.

This past spring I traveled to Pakistan as a physician on business, and also to see relatives. I spoke with Father Edward Joseph at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in Karachi, Pakistan’s largest Catholic diocese. As he showed me the damage to his cathedral, still unrepaired from a 1998 bombing by a Pakistani Muslim jihadist just after mass, I asked him how he guided his congregation in such a hostile climate. His reply was philosophic:

“Just as Christ had his cross to bear, so, too, do we.” Not a trace of anger inflected his voice.

“So you mean the blasphemy laws are the ‘cross’ Pakistani Christians must bear?” I clarified.

“Yes,” he answered simply.

Next to him stood Davina, the young Christian doctor who had invited me to meet him. She added, “I never tender my opinion on any matter pertaining to religion, whether mine or anyone else’s. Even if I hear completely false things said about Christianity I don’t challenge them; it’s too dangerous.”

Earlier in my stay touring Karachi’s Ziauddin hospital, a community general government hospital, I spoke to Christian nurses and asked them about their working conditions. One matron explained her situation:

“I am in charge of all nursing assignments. My nurses are Christians and Muslim. I cannot afford to show any favoritism to Christian nurses, nor would I. I always ensure my work is of the highest standards. We Christians have to be better, to be beyond reproach, because we don’t want to invite any accusations of blasphemy. We must always do our job well, and better than others.”

Later, as I exited the hospital toward my waiting driver, ensuring she was well out of earshot of any colleagues, she rushed up to me, whispering she had applied for political asylum in the United States.

In Pakistan, religion, caste, and creed have become the prime business of the state, and this submerges all in an impenetrable silence.

Wherever I went, friends and relatives reminded me to lower my voice “lest the servants hear you,” to close the window “lest anyone hear your voice carried into the garden.” I was silenced in cars (“not in front of the driver”), silenced in airports (“not here in public”), and yet many Pakistanis, Christians, minority Muslims, and Pakistan’s fading Zoroastrian community (the Parsis) were desperate to talk with me.

Predictably the blasphemy laws lead to scores of arrests each year, and to subsequent violence.

Once convicted – often on hearsay – blasphemers are subject to the death penalty, though that sentence has yet to be carried out by the state. At least 16 people are on death row for blasphemy, and at least 20 are serving life sentences for the offense, according to the US Commission on International Religious Freedom.

If released on clemency, the accused are often lynched. Emboldened by a national climate of Islamist lawfare, Pakistani police rarely intervene, legitimizing generations of rising Islamists.

Today’s Islamist Pakistan is a failing state. Even so it exerts serious international influence. Within 20 years, it is expected to overtake Indonesia as the world’s most populous majority-Muslim state.

The retreat of tolerance in Pakistan has global ramifications. The country plays a prominent  role in the Organization of the Islamic Cooperation, the 57 member-state organization speaking for the Muslim majority world. Pakistan leads the group’s efforts to broaden the application of abusive blasphemy laws across the world, efforts that remain, to date, largely uncontested.

Instead of holding Pakistan accountable, the world has lauded her: Pakistan sits on UN human rights panels – including the United Nations Human Rights Council (from 2006 to 2011). The US boycotted the council in the previous administration, but American drones and billions in aid simply fuel Islamist ideologies. 

In Pakistan, what the law has destroyed, the law must rebuild. Just as lawmakers have authored Pakistan’s demise, so too, only lawmakers can write prescriptions for its resurrection.

Last year, a leading Christian lawmaker, Pakistan’s minister for minority affairs, Shahbaz Bhatti, was assassinated for his attempts to rewrite the archaic blasphemy laws. His fate followed that of Gov. Salman Taseer, who was assassinated months earlier for calling for a repeal of the same laws.

Following through on their work requires moral courage. The next 65 years depend on it.

Qanta A. Ahmed is the author of In the Land of Invisible Women,” detailing her life in Saudi Arabia. She is associate professor of medicine at the State University of New York at Stony Brook and honorary professor at Glasgow Caledonian University in Scotland. Follow Dr. Ahmed on Facebook, Twitter (@MissDiagnosis), and her Huffington Post blog.

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