July Issue 2010
Interview: I. A. Rehman, Secretary-General, HRCP
“The blasphemy law is damaging Islam”
– I. A. Rehman, Secretary-General, HRCP
Q: You have been directly involved in supporting human rights in Pakistan for decades. It seems as though the rights of religious minorities have diminished over the years. Is this true?
A: It is true that the rights of religious minorities have shrunk over the past couple of decades. There are several main reasons. Firstly, the majority community (Muslim) has been following a more and more conservative interpretation of its belief, and the seeds of an exclusivist (hence intolerant) belief sown by Zia-ul-Haq have produced a bumper crop. Next, the wars in Afghanistan have thrown up a militant force that is extremely intolerant of any worldview other than its own; it uses violence to suppress all ‘others’ (non-Muslims, Ahmedis, Shias, Barelvis, et al). Thirdly, the political parties dare not distance themselves from extremists. Also, the government has neither the will nor the capacity to prevent persecution of minorities. The religious minorities are considered part of western or Indian communities or their sympathisers and are increasingly targeted in reaction to what is perceived as the West’s crusade against Islam or Muslim people. And finally, the rise of the new Right after the retreat of the Left in the West-ruled world has produced a backlash.
Q: How does the situation for religious minorities compare, for instance, to the current state of women’s rights and children’s rights?
A: Women and children are exploited. In some parts of the country they are gradually winning their rights while in other parts they are losing the rights they had till some years ago (namely, girls’ right to education). But Muslim women and children are not as badly off as minorities as they are not under a threat of liquidation. The non-Muslim women and children share the fate of their menfolk and are even more vulnerable than the latter.
Q: In many cases of violence against religious minorities, there is mob violence: people are worked into frenzy over an alleged case of blasphemy and buildings are burned, people are killed. Can the government do anything to fight this belief in mob ‘justice’ and to help instil the sanctity of the rule of law and every citizen’s right to a fair trial?
A: Mob violence has become the rule for two main reasons. Firstly, society has become more intolerant than before and has been thoroughly brutalised. Secondly, the clerics, judges, et al., have consistently propagated the view that the people have a right to kill blasphemers. The government is unable to stop such violence as its functionaries have been infected by the virus of intolerance and share the mob’s views; the government is afraid of the conservative population’s backlash; and the government’s writ has become weak in all areas.
Q: Our police and judicial system has been infected too?
A: Yes, the community police and courts have been infected. Ahmedis are killed in broad daylight. Eyewitnesses do not depose against the criminals. The police are not keen to investigate cases. Policemen themselves have killed blasphemy suspects. The system has lost the capacity to punish those who persecute the minorities.
Q: Is it possible to have “transparent and fair investigations” after attacks on minorities when violence and intimidation are often used as a tool by extremists to coerce the police, politicians and even the victims?
A: No. The extremists do resort to violence and intimidation to coerce the police, politicians, courts and even the victims. However, except for the victims, all others are amenable to slight pressure because they themselves are in various stages of conversion to minority-bashing.
Q: Has the HRCP succeeded in providing any relief to minorities vis-Ã -vis any changes in laws and any instances of usurpation of their rights?
A: I must clarify that not all acts of violence upon and persecution of minorities are rooted in laws and many of them can be dealt with under the law. HRCP campaigned for the abolition of separate electorates and this objective has been largely achieved. HRCP (backed by other NGOs) also succeeded in blocking the move to have a column for religion on identity cards, HRCP has consistently called for withdrawal of the blasphemy law and Ordinance XX of Zia-ul-Haq.
Q: From whom has the HRCP faced the most threats and intimidation in this regard?
A: The biggest threats to HRCP have come from extremists flying religious standards.
Q: Before the attacks on the Ahmedi community in Lahore in May, authorities in Punjab were told about threats against the community but no extra protection was given. Should the Punjab government be held indirectly responsible for the slaughter and in cases like this should people file cases against the government for a dereliction of duty in the hope of setting some type of precedent?
A: Yes, the Punjab government had been warned. It can fairly be indicted for the slaughter. It is doubtful if anyone will risk his life by filing a case against the government. You have no idea of the animus against the Ahmedis: hospitals are even afraid of disclosing that they have treated the wounded Ahmedis. Try to persuade the media to call the Ahmedis killed “shaheeds” or even to stop calling them Qadianis and you will find out where you are living.
Q: In terms of the Ahmedi community, it seems like it is more than a case of freedom of religion. There is economic discrimination promoted by the government via land auctions where those who oppose the finality of the Prophethood are barred from participating. How can this be legal?
A: Of course, it is much more than a case of freedom of belief. The economic, social and political motives have always been there. The government policies have fuelled discrimination. Further, Ahmedi-baiting is lucrative business. For quite a few, persecution of Ahmedis is a means of living and gaining social influence.
Q: What progress has been made in the fight against forced conversions and forced marriages in the case of Hindus?
A: Not much progress. In most cases efforts to recover forcibly converted and married girls fail. As a Hindu advocate puts it, the police, the courts and the community at large lack the capacity to do justice to victims. There are only a couple of exceptions over the past many years. Justice is possible where society and police have not totally given up their secular ideals.
Q: There have also been cases of land grabbing by way of destroying Hindu temples, Sikh property and Christian churches, and then occupying the land. How has the government addressed this problem and what solutions has the HRCP spearheaded?
A: Land grabbing is a national pastime. The government leads the way by seizing non-Muslim properties attached to shrines, churches, temples and public welfare trusts. The official managers of these properties are known for corruption. HRCP has not been able to adequately address this problem and it is one of the issues the newly formed HRCP working group on the rights of communities vulnerable because of belief has been asked to take up. As a matter of principle these properties should be restored to the original owners. As for trusts, their incomes must be spent on achieving the objectives their founders had set for themselves.
Q: Do minority MNAs and MPAs play any role in alleviating the problems of their respective communities or are they merely token representatives?
A: The minority MNAs / MPAs are not taken seriously by the government and it can easily please them. In the given situation, they do try to help their communities in the feudal way — that is, people close to them benefit more from their patronage/benevolence than those who are at a distance from them (just like the pure Muslim legislators).
Q: What initiatives have the federal and provincial ministries of minority affairs implemented in improving the situation for minorities in the country in the past decade?
A: In the past decade the most significant step has been the annulment of the system of separate electorates (not yet fully implemented).
Q: The blasphemy law is misused to persecute minorities or frame people to settle personal feuds. In its 2009 report on the state of human rights, the HRCP has recommended that the blasphemy law be repealed. Is this likely, and what would need to happen in both the public and political spheres for this recommendation to gather momentum and strength and be implemented?
A: Case studies have established abuse of the blasphemy law for petty, often personal, ends. HRCP is consistent in demanding repeal of this law because it is damaging Islam and causing havoc to the majority community’s mindset besides making the lives of minorities utterly hazardous. The repeal of the law in the near future is unlikely. This will be possible only when a large number of people (Muslims) realise the prohibitive cost of keeping this law active.
- The Plight of Religious Minorities in Pakistan: “No Room for the ‘Other’” by Talib Qizilbash
- Interview: Shahbaz Bhatti, Federal Minister for Minorities
- Sectarian Attacks: “No Headway” by Saad Hasan
- Target Killings of Shia Doctors: “Surgical Strikes” by Saher Baloch