Show Hide image

Extreme injustice — a legal mandate for bigotry

Why the religious persecution of minorities in Pakistan is getting worse.

Standing on a dusty street under the Karachi sun, already blazing at 9am, it strikes me that I am being rejected. I am at a Christian-run school, amongst a crowd of parents vying for appointments to secure admission for their children. The reception, if that is the word for it, is a hatch in the brick wall, behind which sits a harried looking man with a stack of papers and a phone. After wrestling my way to the front, I explain that I am here to talk to the headmaster about religious discrimination.

The man phones the headmaster's personal assistant. I explain my connection to the acquaintance that told him to expect me, and tell her that I'm researching Christians in Pakistan. After nearly 10 minutes, standing on the pavement with the phone cord pulled awkwardly out into the street, I realise that the line has gone dead and she's hung up the phone. The man behind the desk is distinctly unimpressed, given the crowd amassing behind me. Convinced the line has been accidentally cut off, I ask him to call again. The PA's tone is markedly different. "You're not the only person I'm dealing with," she snaps. "The father doesn't have time for all this."

When I speak to my acquaintance later that day, he shrugs. "Don't be offended," he says. "He is prominent so he is easily identifiable. Are you surprised he is scared to talk?"

Pakistan was conceived as a secular state with Islam as its main religion. "We have many non-Muslims -- Hindus, Christians, and Parsis -- but they are all Pakistanis," said the country's founder, Muhammad Ali Jinnah in a celebrated speech. However, in the late 1970s and 1980s, the military dictator General Zia-ul-Huq engaged in a repressive programme of 'Islamisation'. Among his actions was the introduction of a set of blasphemy laws, under which a person can face indefinite imprisonment or even the death penalty for criticising the Prophet Muhammad or the Qur'an.

The current debate is not about the existence of the law itself (many countries have blasphemy laws, as did the UK until 2008), but about the exceptionally harsh penalties and the very light burden of proof. Hardly any evidence is required - the accuser can even refuse to repeat the blasphemy in court for fear of committing the crime himself - and so the law is frequently used as a means of settling personal scores or stirring up sectarian tension.

The issue came to international attention last November, when Aasia Bibi, a Christian mother of five, was sentenced to death for "insulting the Prophet". The remarks were allegedly made after co-workers refused to share water that she had carried, on the basis that Christians are unclean. Throughout her trial, she did not have access to a lawyer.

Aasia's case was taken up by three politicians in the ruling Pakistan People's Party, who called for reform: Salman Taseer, the governor of Punjab (Pakistan's most populous state), Shahbaz Bhatti, the Minorities Minister, and Sherry Rehman, a prominent backbencher.

The consequences speak for themselves. On 4 January, Taseer was shot dead by his own bodyguard outside a coffee shop in Islamabad. On 2 March, Bhatti too was shot by assassins from the Pakistani Taliban. Rehman is living in semi-hiding in fear for her life. And on 2 February, soon after Taseer was killed, the prime minister, Yousuf Raza Gilani, told his government that he would not touch the law and that all reform would be shelved: "We are all unanimous that nobody wants to change the law."

It is easy to see why people might be afraid to speak out in favour of change. Taseer's daughter Shehrbano is a recent graduate working as a journalist for Newsweek in Lahore. "Very few people condemned my father's murder," she tells me when we speak on the phone. "Everyone was so petrified that they'd be next. That's how terrorists operate. The night that my father died, I thought, OK, this is going to be a huge watershed moment in the history of Pakistan. But the complete opposite happened. We went ten steps back."

This anger at the government's handling of the assassinations is shared by many. "I feel very strongly about it, of course I do. But I won't say anything because I don't want to get shot," a diplomat tells me. "Even my servants could betray me. It was his bodyguard - a servant - who shot him."

There is a real sense of fear among the ruling classes. One evening, a PPP former minister tells me that he hates the idea of having an armed guard and drives himself everywhere - but keeps this fact to himself, and makes sure to take different routes and not to travel at the same time every day.

Caste out

About 96 per cent of Pakistan's population is Muslim. However, the 4 per cent minority of Christians, Hindus and Islamic sects such as the Ahmadis (regarded as non-Muslims) translates to nearly ten million people, the equivalent of the population of Tunisia.

Well before the Taliban became a political force in the country, minorities faced serious social discrimination. I speak to Sujawal Massey, a Christian man who works as a sweeper - one of the lowest-status jobs there is. Aware of his position in this acutely class-bound society, he does not sit down, but hovers awkwardly as we talk in the living room of the lavish house where he works, looking at the floor except when spoken to.

He tells me it is difficult to find work. "They don't let us move ahead. We get no chances. If they know you're a Christian they say: there's no room here for you."

I ask what impact this has on a day-to-day level. "If we end up somewhere where there are Muslims, we're in trouble if they discover we're Christian," he says. "We don't tell them we're Christian in the market, because they won't give us anything. They won't even let us drink from a glass."

His employer tells me that while she insists that he is fed with the other servants (most of whom live in quarters in the house) many of her friends do not do the same for Christian members of staff. She keeps separate utensils for him to eat with, because her Muslim servants are unwilling to share theirs with him.

The reluctance to share water was also central to the Aasia Bibi case. "It is a carry-over from the Hindu caste system - the idea of untouchability," explains Dr Theodore Gabriel, a University of Gloucestershire academic and author of a study of Pakistan, Christian Citizens in an Islamic State. "Most of the Christians in Pakistan come from a low caste. The 'untouchable' or Dalit class were targets of missionary activity during colonisation, so they have come from a low economic and social background."

This social persecution remains in place even for those who have worked their way out of typical 'untouchable' jobs. I visit a beauty salon in an affluent suburb of Karachi, owned by a Christian Pakistani woman, Jane Peters. The shop is busy, with several Muslim women waiting to be seen.

However, all is not well behind the scenes. "There are terrible problems," she tells me. "I pay my bills, I pay my taxes, but the neighbours have had the water supply cut off." This means that she cannot get running water to the shop, and instead has to buy it in tankers each morning and manually heat the water required for hair-washes and manicures. The process of giving treatments is delayed by staff having to carry kettles and basins of hot water up and down stairs.

The shop is staffed entirely by Christian girls - "otherwise there are quarrels," explains Peters - and so it provides a rare employment opportunity for those who would otherwise end up in menial positions. One of the girls tells me that she quit school prematurely so that she could take the job, and is trying to complete her education part-time. "It is very hard for us to find employment," she says.

No change

It goes beyond sharing water. Gabriel describes school textbooks which claim that Christians worship three Gods, and define citizens of Pakistan as Muslims. "That means Christians are not regarded as citizens - if a textbook says that, then that is what children are learning. It's not going to foster tolerance, is it?"

Speaking to Christians, I am struck by their acceptance. "People are afraid," explains Peters' daughter, Sabiha, an articulate young woman who speaks fluent English. "If we make a fuss, it's very easy for someone to accuse us of blasphemy. It affects the poorer communities more, but it is a worry for everyone."

This type of discrimination is deeply entrenched, given that it pre-existed the formation of Pakistan by more than a thousand years. But is it worsening given the increasing influence of extremist ideas? Many view the decision to shelve reform of the blasphemy law as a victory for the militants. The women in the beauty salon - educated and politically aware - share this view. Yet when I asked Massey whether he was afraid and if he felt his situation could be improved, it was clear that the world of law and reform was alien to him.

"We are very few in a big nation, so we try to stay out of trouble," he says. "Maybe someone can help but we don't know who there is or is not. Politicians don't give us any importance." During the interview, my interpreter wells up. Later, she tells me that she was distressed by his total acceptance of the status quo.

This social discrimination is intensifying, says Ali Dayan Hasan, country director for Human Rights Watch in Pakistan. "Empowered extremists are making more frequent use of the legal tools at their disposal to persecute minorities. They are also killing them with impunity in a way they haven't done before."

He explains that rising extremism means that minorities are increasingly targets. "The militancy is contributing to it, but the fact of the matter is that the structure of these legal frameworks essentially makes the Pakistani state a partisan, sectarian actor, rather than a neutral arbiter between citizens. That tilts the balance in favour of the persecutor rather than the persecuted."

It appears that there is no real appetite for change. Most of the Muslim Pakistanis I speak to agree that there are problems with community relations, but prioritise other concerns.

"We have no human rights," says Iqbal Haider, a human rights lawyer who served in both Benazir Bhutto's governments, slamming his glass down on the table. "If I don't have the right to survive, all other rights are meaningless. And if the majority is not safe, then how can you expect the minorities to be? Nobody is safe."

He draws attention to the thousands of lives lost to terrorist attacks in the country since the beginning of the 'war on terror'. The death toll is rising each year and currently stands at record levels. "The Muslim places of worship are not safe. This is the greatest tragedy of Pakistan," he shouts. "Forget about the Christian church, forget about the Hindu temples. Muslim mosques are unsafe." Several days later, a big attack on a Sufi shrine in the Dera Ghazi Khan district kills 40 people.

While many Pakistanis brush over the impact that the government's retreat over the blasphemy law will have on religious minorities, most acknowledge that this refusal to stand behind the reformers handed the extremists a symbolic and practical victory.

"Salman Taseer was not just an ordinary citizen, "says Haider. "He was a representative of the federation. Shahbaz Bhatti was not just a Christian leader. He was a minister of Pakistan. It was an attack on the government. It is a matter of shame that the government is succumbing to this violence, and does not take these attacks as an attack on their existence."

The government's retreat leaves little hope for reform of these repressive laws, or for the introduction of legal steps to penalise discrimination. Moreover, the legislation is just one part of the complex Pakistani state system. "You have a judiciary that is in sympathy with many extremist views, that feels that it is its duty to uphold discriminatory laws," Dayan Hasan explains. "You also have a military that has a historical alliance with extremist groups and tends to view them with a higher level of tolerance. So when we criticise the government and its inaction, which absolutely needs to be done, we have to contextualise it within the framework of the forces arrayed on the tide of intolerance and extremism."

Yet Shehrbano Taseer sees some cause for optimism. "These laws won't go away tomorrow, but something huge has happened from my father's murder - these laws are being talked about. Nobody knew the cases, the stories, the numbers, the origins of the laws. All of this has come forward. It's important that the debate and criticism should not die with him. My father always said it's not about religion, it's not about politics: it's about humanity. He was genuinely concerned about the humanitarian crisis in Pakistan."

Some names have been changed to protect identities

Samira Shackle is a staff writer for the NS

Samira Shackle is a freelance journalist, who tweets @samirashackle. She was formerly a staff writer for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 08 August 2011 issue of the New Statesman, Slum rule

Photo: ANDREW TESTA/THE NEW YORK TIMES/ EYEVINE
Show Hide image

Interview: Nicola Sturgeon's Scottish referendum dilemma

In a candid interview, the First Minister discusses Theresa May’s coldness, Brexit and tax rises – and why she doesn't know when a second referendum will be held. 

Nicola Sturgeon – along with her aides, who I gather weren’t given much choice – has taken up jogging in the verdant country­side that lies to the east of the Scottish Parliament. “The first time was last week,” she says, when we meet in her large, bright Holyrood office. “Loads of people were out running, which made me a bit self-conscious. But it was fine for ages because everybody’s so focused. Then, suddenly, what must have been a running group came towards me. I saw one of them look and as they ran past I turned round and all of them were looking.” She winces. “I will eventually get to the point where I can run for more than 100 yards at a time, but I’m not at the stage yet where I can go very far. So I’m thinking, God, they’re going to see me stop. I don’t know if I can do this.”

This is a very Nicola Sturgeon story – a touch of the ordinary amid the extraordinary. She may have been a frontbencher for almost two decades, a cabinet minister for half of that and the First Minister since 2014, but she retains that particularly Scottish trait of wry self-mockery. She is also exceptionally steely, evident in her willed transformation over her adult life from a shy, awkward party member to the charismatic leader sitting in front of me. Don’t be surprised if she is doing competitive ten-kilometre runs before the year is out.

I arrived at the parliament wondering what frame of mind the First Minister would be in. The past year has not been especially kind to her or the SNP. While the party is still Scotland’s most popular by a significant margin, and Sturgeon continues to be its dominant politician, the warning lights are flashing. In the 2015 general election, the SNP went from six seats out of 59 to 56, a remarkable result. However, in Theresa May’s snap election in June this year, it lost 21 of those seats (including those of Angus Robertson, the SNP leader at Westminster, and Alex Salmond), as well as half a million votes. Much of the blame has been placed on Sturgeon and her call for a second independence referendum following the vote for Brexit. For critics, it confirmed a suspicion that the SNP only cares about one thing and will manipulate any situation to that end. Her decision also seemed a little rushed and desperate, the act of a woman all too aware of the clock ticking.

But if I expect Sturgeon to be on the defensive, maybe even a little downbeat, I’m wrong. Having just come from a feisty session of First Minister’s Questions, where she had the usual barney with her Tory opposite number, Ruth Davidson, she is impressively candid. “When you come out [of FMQs], your adrenaline levels are through the roof,” she says, waggling a fist in my direction. “It’s never a good idea to come straight out and do an interview, for example.” Adrenalised or not, for the next hour, she is thoughtful, frank, funny and perhaps even a little bitchy.

Sturgeon’s office is on the fourth floor, looking out over – and down on – Holyrood Palace, the Queen’s official residence in Edinburgh. As we talk, a large artistic rendering of a saltire adorns the wall behind her. She is similarly in blue and white, and there are books about Burns on the shelves. This is an SNP first minister’s office.

She tells me that she and her husband, Peter Murrell, the party’s chief executive, took a summer break in Portugal, where his parents have a share in an apartment. “We came home and Peter went back to work and I spent a week at home, just basically doing housework…” I raise an eyebrow and an aide, sitting nearby, snorts. She catches herself. “Not really… I periodically – and by periodically I mean once a year or once every two years – decide I’m going to dust and hoover and things like that. So I did that for a morning. It’s quite therapeutic when you get into it. And then I spent a week at home, reading and chilling out.”

In a recent Guardian interview, Martin Amis had a dig at Jeremy Corbyn for having “no autodidact streak”. Amis said: “I mean, is he a reader?… It does matter if leaders have some sort of backing.” One of Sturgeon’s great strengths is that she is a committed bibliophile. She consumes books, especially novels, at a tremendous rate and raves to me about Gabriel Tallent’s astonishing debut, My Absolute Darling, as well as Bernard MacLaverty’s Midwinter Break. She has just ploughed through Paul Auster’s daunting, 880-page 4 3 2 1 (“It was OK. I don’t think it should be on the Booker shortlist.”) She also reread the works of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie before interviewing her onstage at the Edinburgh International Book Festival in August.

The First Minister is now reading What Happened, Hillary Clinton’s book about her defeat by Donald Trump. “I’ve never been able to read any of her [previous] books because literally every word is focus-grouped to the nth degree,” Sturgeon says. “This one, there are moments of frankness and raw honesty and passages where it’s victimhood and self-pity, but that’s kind of understandable and very human. The thing that fascinates me about Hillary, apart from the politics, is just her sheer bloody resilience.  Given what she’s gone through and everything that’s been chucked at her, I genuinely don’t know how she keeps coming back.”

***

Speaking of resilience, does she have any fellow feeling for Theresa May, humiliated by the electorate and, for now, kept in No 10 like a racoon in a trap by colleagues who are both power-hungry and biding their time? “At a human level, of course,” she says. “When you’ve got an insight into how rough and tough and, at times, downright unpleasant the trade of politics can be, it’s hard not to feel some personal sympathy. Her position must be pretty intolerable. It’s tempered, though, by the fact that nobody made her call an election and she did it for purely party-political interest.”

How does she get on with May – who is formal and restrained, even off-camera – in their semi-regular meetings? Sturgeon starts laughing. “The Theresa May that the country ended up seeing in the election was the one I’ve been dealing with for however long she’s been Prime Minister. This is a woman who sits in meetings where it’s just the two of you and reads from a script. I found it very frustrating because David Cameron, whose politics and mine are very far apart, always managed to have a personal rapport. You could sit with David and have a fairly frank discussion, agree the things you could agree on and accept you disagree on everything else, and have a bit of banter as well.

“I remember just after May came back from America [in January], when she’d held Trump’s hand [Sturgeon starts laughing again], she’d also been to Turkey and somewhere else. This was the Monday morning. We sit down, it’s literally just the two of us, and I say, ‘You must be knackered.’ She said, ‘No! I’m fine!’ And it was as if I’d insulted her. It was just impossible to get any human connection.”

Given this, and the weaknesses exposed during the election, Sturgeon is scathing about how the Conservatives fought the campaign, putting May’s character and competence front and centre. “The people around her must have known that vulnerability,” she says. “God, we all make mistakes and we all miscalculate things, so this is not me sitting on high, passing judgement on others, but don’t build a campaign entirely around your own personality when you know your personality’s not capable of carrying a campaign… Even if you can’t see that yourself, somebody somewhere around you should have.”

Sturgeon might not be in May’s beleaguered position but she has problems. Her demand in March, at a press conference at Bute House, Edinburgh, for a second independence referendum by spring 2019 was a serious mistake and it has left a dent in what had seemed her impermeable personal popularity. Polls show support for the SNP and independence now share a similar downward trajectory. Over the next three years, the First Minister must persuade a sceptical electorate that her party deserves a fourth consecutive term in government.

Does she regret demanding another vote on separation?

Here she gets as close as she will go to a mea culpa. “Obviously I’m thinking pretty deeply about it. I think Brexit is a complete and utter car crash – an unfolding disaster. I haven’t changed my views on that, and I think it’s deeply wrong for [Scotland] to be taken down that path without the ability to decide whether that’s right or not.

“I recognise, as well – and it’s obviously something I have reflected on – that understandably people feel very uncertain about everything just now, partly because the past few years have been one big decision after another. That’s why I said before recess that I will not consider any further the question of a second referendum at this stage. I’m saying, OK, people are not ready to decide we will do that, so we have to come back when things are clearer and decide whether we want to do it and in what timescale.”

Will she attempt to hold a second referendum? Could it be off?

“The honest answer to that is: I don’t know,” she says. Her expression of doubt is revealing.

Would she, however, support a second EU referendum, perhaps on the final separation package? “I think it probably gets more and more difficult to resist it,” she tells me. “I know people try to draw lots of analogies [between the EU and independence referendums], and there are some, but whatever you thought of the [Scottish] white paper, it was there and it was a fairly detailed proposition.

“One of the beautiful things about the independence referendum was the extent to which ordinary folk became experts on really technical, big, macro­economic positions. Standing on a street corner on a Friday morning, an ordinary working-class elderly gentleman was talking to me in great detail about lender of last resort and how that would work. You can say the white paper was crap, or whatever, but it was there, people were informed and they knew what they were voting for.

“That was not the case in the EU referendum. People did not know what they were voting for. There was no proposition put forward by anyone that could then be tested and that they could be held to account on. The very fact we have no idea what the final outcome might look like suggests there is a case for a second referendum that I think there wasn’t in 2014. It may become very hard to resist.”

Sturgeon hasn’t found the Brexit process “particularly easy”, especially when the government at Westminster is in the grip of what is becoming an increasingly vicious succession battle. The SNP administration has repeatedly clashed with the relevant ministers at Westminster, whom it says have given little care to Scotland’s particular needs. Sturgeon’s view of David Davis, Liam Fox and Boris Johnson is not rosy.

“Probably not a day goes by where I don’t look at them and think, ‘What the hell’s going on?’” she says. “That’s not meant as a personal comment on their abilities – although [with] some of them I would have personal question marks over their abilities. But they’re completely paralysed, and the election has left them in a position where you’ve got a Prime Minister who has no control over the direction of her government, and you have other senior ministers who are prepared to keep her there only because it’s in their short-term interests to do it. If you’re sitting on the European side of the table now, how can you have a negotiation with a government where you don’t actually know what their position is, or whether the position you’re being told across the table is one that can carry support back at home? It’s a shambles and it’s increasingly going to be the case that nothing other than Brexit gets any bandwidth at all. It’s really, really not in the interests of the country as a whole.”

***

This is an accusation that is directed at the SNP, too – that the national interest takes second place to its constitutional imperative. It is undoubtedly something that Sturgeon considered over the summer as she sought to rebalance her administration. As a result, the programme for government unveiled earlier this month was impressively long-term in places: for example, its promise to create a Scottish national investment bank, the setting of some ambitious goals on climate change and the commitment to fund research into a basic income.

Most striking, however, was Sturgeon’s decision to “open a discussion about… responsible and progressive use of our tax powers”. With the Scotland Act 2016, Westminster passed control over income tax to Holyrood, and Sturgeon intends to use this new power.

“For ten years,” she says, “we have done a pretty good job of protecting public services as best we can in a period of austerity, while keeping the taxes that we’ve been responsible for low. We’re now at a stage where austerity’s continued, we’re going to have economic consequences from Brexit, we all want good public services, we want the NHS to continue to have strong investment, we want our public-sector workers to be paid more, we want businesses to have the right infrastructure. How do we progressively and responsibly, with the interests of the economy taken strongly, fund our public services going forward? Most people would think right now that there is a case for those with the broadest shoulders paying a little bit more.”

I wonder whether the success of Jeremy Corbyn has influenced her thinking – many expect that a revival of Scottish Labour would force the SNP to veer left (it will also be interesting to see how Westminster reacts to Scotland raising the top rate of income tax). “It’s not particularly Corbyn that’s made me think that,” she insists, a little unconvincingly.

Isn’t Sturgeon concerned that making Scotland the highest-taxed part of the UK could undermine its competitiveness, its attraction as a place to live and as a destination for inward investment? “We should never be in a position where we don’t factor that kind of thing into our thinking, but you talk to businesses, and tax – yes, it’s important, but in terms of attracting investment to Scotland, the quality of your infrastructure matters. Businesses want good public services as well, so it’s the whole package that determines whether Scotland is an attractive place to live and invest in and work in,” she tells me. “It’s seeing it in the round. The competitiveness of your tax arrangements are part of what makes you attractive or not, but it’s not the only part.”

As for the immediate future, she is upbeat. She believes that Ruth Davidson, her main rival, is overrated. “I think Ruth, for all the many strengths people think she might have, often doesn’t do her homework very well,” she tells me. “From time to time, Ruth slips up on that… Quite a bit, actually. I know what I want to do over the next few years, and I’m in a very good place and feeling really up for it. After ten years in office, it’s inevitable you become a victim of your own success. What’s more remarkable is that, after ten years, the SNP still polls at least 10 and usually 10-15 points ahead of our nearest rivals.”

Author's note: Shortly after this interview went to print, the SNP got in touch to say that Nicola Sturgeon’s comment, ‘the honest answer to that is: I don’t know’, was about the timescale of the next independence referendum and not whether there would be one. The misinterpretation was mine.

Chris Deerin is the New Statesman's contributing editor (Scotland). 

This article first appeared in the 08 August 2011 issue of the New Statesman, Slum rule