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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

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Why Tehran hates Isis: how religious rifts are fueling conflict

Above all, the Islamic republic wants stability – and to fight back against a group that despises Shia Muslims.

The alliance between Iran and Syria might seem an unlikely one. As Iran is an Islamic republic, one might not expect its closest ally to be a dictatorship that grew out of the political doctrine of Baathism, a secular Arab nationalist movement that originated in the 1930s and 1940s. But politics – and perhaps especially the politics of relations between states – develops its own logic, which often has little to do with ideology. Baathism advocated Arab unity but two of its founding fathers, Michel Aflaq and Zaki al-Arsuzi, both Syrians, disliked each other and would not be members of
the same party.

Projects to fuse Syria and Egypt and, later, Syria and Iraq foundered, creating in the latter case a personal bitterness between Bashar al-Assad’s father, Hafez, and Saddam Hussein, though both were Baathists, at least nominally. That led to the two states breaking off diplomatic relations with each other at the end of 1979. When Iraq invaded Iran the following year, Syria and Iran became allies against Iraq. Syria cut off an oil pipeline that had allowed Iraq to export its oil from a Mediterranean port and Iran supplied Syria with cheap oil.

Iran and Syria had other things in common, including resistance to the US in the region, opposition to Israel and a supportive relationship with the Shia Muslims of Lebanon, which led to the creation, with Iranian help, of Hezbollah after the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982. Since then, Syria has been of value to Iran as a reliable ally but also as a bridge to Hezbollah.

How does all that affect the present desperate situation in Syria and in the Middle East more widely? The first point to deal with is Iran’s position towards Islamic State, or Isis. Some commentators would have you believe that Iran and Isis, as so-called Muslim fundamentalists or Islamists, have something in common, or that Iran’s Islamic Revolution had something to do with the origins of Islamic State.

That is wholly misleading. The extreme Wahhabi/Salafi form of Sunni Islam that underpins Islamic State regards Shia Iranians – and, indeed, all Shia Muslims – as heretics and apostates. This hostility is not somehow theoretical or theologically abstract: it is visceral, bitter and deep. It inspires frequent suicide bombings of Shia mosques and other targets in Iraq, Pakistan, Afghanistan and (more recently) Saudi Arabia. It is a major threat to Iran and to all Shia Muslims – a greater threat to them than the Isis threat to us, because they are geographically closer. The Iranians are supporting the fight against Isis in Syria and Iraq in self-defence and supporting the self-defence of those they are sympathetic to in those countries (the Iranians back the Alawite Assads in Syria because of their long-standing alliance but also for sectarian reasons). They are not acting, as the Saudis and some other Gulf Arabs would have us believe, because they have hegemonic ambitions in the region. That view arises from the insecurity and paranoia of the ruling elites in those states and their dislike of Shia Muslims.

The Iranian regime has many faults. We may deplore the repressive policies of the regime internally, its treatment of women and the unacceptably high level of executions there. But on most of those points, there are others in the region that are worse; and in our thinking about what to do in Syria, Iraq and the region more widely, we have to consider Iran’s record as a force for stability or instability. In both Iraq and Afghanistan, the Iranians helped to establish the proto-democratic governments we backed and, like us, have consistently supported them since, despite their weaknesses and failings. With the exception of its policy towards Israel, Iran has acted to favour stability elsewhere in the region, too. (Recent reports suggest that the Iranians have stopped funding Hamas.) Considering the actions of the Saudis towards Shias in Bahrain and Yemen, the Iranians have responded with restraint.

Iran’s acceptance of greater Russian involvement in Syria has to be seen in the context of the wider instability in the Middle East. Again, we should not misjudge it. It seems that the latest, more intensive Russian intervention came at a point when the Assad regime was coming close to collapse. The Iranians were therefore bound to welcome the intervention; but the history of relations between Iran and Russia is not a happy one and a greater Russian military presence in the Iranians’ near abroad must be making some of them uneasy. When Russian ships launched cruise missiles from the Caspian Sea that tracked across Iranian territory on their way to targets in Syria (announcing at the time that this territory was “unoccupied”), “uneasy” was probably an inadequate word.

After the settlement of the Iranian nuclear question in July (when Iran agreed to limit its nuclear programme in return for the lifting of economic sanctions), hopes for further immediate co-operation between Iran and the West have been disappointed – in particular by the apparent ban of the supreme leader, Ali Khamenei, on bilateral discussions with the US. Nonetheless, there have been discussions, notably in the margins of the recent multilateral talks on Syria.

Just as there was opposition to the nuclear deal within the US, there was strong opposition in Iran. Khamenei’s ban is best understood as reassurance to those hardliners that, apart from the nuclear deal, it will be business as usual.

The nuclear deal is a major event in Iran’s foreign policy but if the Iranians are cautious in developing their relationship with the West, that may be no bad thing. The multi­lateral talks on Syria could be a good place for that to begin – those talks are, in any case, the best hope available for a solution to the carnage in that country. There are models for that in what was done recently in Somalia; one fruitful avenue to explore for the Middle East as a whole could be a multi­lateral negotiation culminating in a treaty guaranteed by outside powers, along the lines of the Westphalia Treaty that brought the Thirty Years War to an end in Germany in the mid-17th century.

Lurking in the background to all this, however, and behind the shocking massacres in Paris on 13 November, is our queasy position towards Isis and the troubles of the Middle East. Some Iranians believe that western countries secretly support Isis. That is wrong, of course – it is a view based on conspiracy theories and misleading propaganda – but not as wrong as we might like to think.

Since 1979, when the Saudi royal family got a scare from religious radicals briefly occupying the sacred precincts in Mecca, it has appeased extreme Wahhabi clergy within Saudi Arabia and has supported the application of their doctrines within and without the country. Outside Saudi Arabia, it has funded mosques preaching Wahhabism throughout the Islamic world, to the point that their brand of Sunni Islam is now becoming dominant in many communities where previously it was quite alien, symbolised by the practice of those British Pakistanis who have begun to adopt dress codes from the Arabian Peninsula, such as the wearing of the niqab.

Al-Qaeda, Isis and their sympathisers are the result of those 30 years of preaching hatred (along with other contributory factors such as the collapse into civil war in countries such as Iraq and Syria and the alienation of young men of immigrant origin in western countries). Isis does no more than put into practice the doctrines of puritanical intolerance advocated by Saudi Wahhabism. Our too-uncritical support for Saudi Arabia puts us in a shameful position.

The debate over whether or not to send RAF warplanes to bomb Isis positions in Syria is secondary to the need for the bombing to be done in close, effective support of ground forces. We may have to swallow our misgivings and accept that we bomb in support of Iran’s troops, or Assad’s, in addition to those of the Kurds or others.

We also urgently need to re-examine our relations with the Saudis and the other Gulf Arab States that have supported and encouraged the spread of extreme Wahhabism. The Saudis have belatedly realised that Isis is as much a threat to them as to everyone else (it may actually be more of a threat to Saudi Arabia because the jihadis’ dearest wish is to establish their caliphate in Mecca and Medina).

Yet that is not enough. We need to make clear that our continued friendship towards the Saudis cannot simply be bought with the weapons we sell them but has to be conditional upon taking a more responsible attitude in their religious policies – not so much for human rights reasons, as Jeremy Corbyn and others have suggested (although those reasons have their place) but for our security and for the stability of the Middle East region.

If that preaching of hatred is not stopped – as the preaching of the Catholic Counter-Reformation eventually came to an end – then even if we, the Iranians, Russians and others succeed in defeating Isis, we will only find ourselves confronted in a few years by yet another generation of murderous jihadis, recruiting from another bunch of foolish, ignorant and disaffected young men, just as Isis followed on from al-Qaeda

Michael Axworthy is senior lecturer at the Institute of Arab and Islamic Studies at the University of Exeter and the author of “Revolutionary Iran”

This article first appeared in the 26 November 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Terror vs the State