The mob mentality that prevents things improving for Pakistan's minorities

While politicians shy away from watering down official discrimination, the situation isn't going to improve.

By any standards, the last few days have been bleak for Pakistan’s persecuted minority communities.

It started on Saturday, when a century-old Hindu temple in Karachi’s busy Soldier Bazaar area was demolished with the help of police. The Shri Rama Pir Mandir (temple) was razed to the ground along with three or four houses, by a private builder acting with the assistance of the local administration. This was despite the fact that a court stay order protecting the site had been granted. The bulldozers arrived in the morning, and people were told to get out of their houses. They watched as their homes and possessions were destroyed, unable to do anything about it. In this poverty-ridden cantonment, people live in cramped conditions. Around four families lived in each house that was destroyed, meaning that some 40 people have been made homeless.

Perhaps even more distressing for residents was the wanton destruction of their place of worship. The scene was devastating. Hindu deities sat among the rubble; families wept and screamed “if you don’t want us, we’ll go to India”. Astonishingly, despite the physical evidence, the authorities have continued to claim that the temple was not destroyed and that they were only acting against illegal occupants. This blatant dishonesty demonstrates the impunity with which the authorities can operate, confident that the disenfranchised Hindu community will be unable to do much about it.

The next incident took place in Lahore in the early hours of Monday morning. A group of 12-15 masked men entered an Ahmadi graveyard in the Model Town area, bearing weapons and excavation tools. They tied up the guards at the compound and desecrated 100 graves, removing and breaking tombstones, saying that they should not bear religious inscriptions because Ahmadis are “infidels”. The Ahmadiyya community is regarded as heretical because it does not believe that Mohammed was the last prophet to be sent to earth. To become a citizen of Pakistan, one must sign an oath declaring Ahmadis to be non-Muslims. Although the men who desecrated the graves are thought to have been members of the Taliban or another militant group, it is easy to see how the backdrop of officially-entrenched discrimination allows such views to flourish.

In an unrelated episode later that day, it emerged that Nadeem Yousuf, a 22-year-old man accused of blasphemy, had died in police custody. He had been detained seven days previously in Nankana Sahib town, Punjab, suspected of burning the Quran. According to his family, he suffered from mental health problems. The circumstances of his death are murky. Police claim he became seriously ill in custody, implying that he was a drug addict and could have died from withdrawal. His family allege that he was tortured to death. Regardless of the exact truth – and answers will be hard to come by – his case is just another sad example of blasphemy accusations being a death sentence. Even before the sentence is handed down, the majority of the accused die in custody or at the hands of an angry mob.

Taken together, these ostensibly unrelated incidents provide a disturbing snapshot of the fault line running through Pakistani society. From the extremists who desecrated the graveyard, to the local authority who demolished the Hindu temple, to the police who at worst tortured a young man and at best failed to get him medical assistance, there is a troubling disregard for safeguarding minority rights and freedom of religion. The solutions? They can only be long-term: education, community cohesion work, proper legal protection for minorities rather than just empty condemnations. Politicians shy away from watering down official discrimination such as the blasphemy law and the Ahmadi clause due to widespread support for these measures. But unless this mob mentality is tackled head on, there is very little hope for fighting extremist elements. After all, on the face of it, what is there really to separate the two?

Pakistani students protest in Lahore earlier this month demanding the re-opening of their school after it was set on fire by a crowd claiming a teacher had insulted the Prophed Mohammed. Photograph: Getty Images

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

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Erdogan’s purge was too big and too organised to be a mere reaction to the failed coup

There is a specific word for the melancholy of Istanbul. The city is suffering a mighty bout of something like hüzün at the moment. 

Even at the worst of times Istanbul is a beautiful city, and the Bosphorus is a remarkable stretch of sea. Turks get very irritated if you call it a river. They are right. The Bosphorus has a life and energy that a river could never equal. Spend five minutes watching the Bosphorus and you can understand why Orhan Pamuk, Turkey’s Nobel laureate for literature, became fixated by it as he grew up, tracking the movements of the ocean-going vessels, the warships and the freighters as they steamed between Asia and Europe.

I went to an Ottoman palace on the Asian side of the Bosphorus, waiting to interview the former prime minister Ahmet Davu­toglu. He was pushed out of office two months ago by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan when he appeared to be too wedded to the clauses in the Turkish constitution which say that the prime minister is the head of government and the president is a ceremonial head of state. Erdogan was happy with that when he was prime minister. But now he’s president, he wants to change the constitution. If Erdogan can win the vote in parliament he will, in effect, be rubber-stamping the reality he has created since he became president. In the days since the attempted coup, no one has had any doubt about who is the power in the land.

 

City of melancholy

The view from the Ottoman palace was magnificent. Beneath a luscious, pine-shaded garden an oil tanker plied its way towards the Black Sea. Small ferries dodged across the sea lanes. It was not, I hasten to add, Davutoglu’s private residence. It had just been borrowed, for the backdrop. But it reminded a Turkish friend of something she had heard once from the AKP, Erdogan’s ruling party: that they would not rest until they were living in the apartments with balconies and gardens overlooking the Bosphorus that had always been the preserve of the secular elite they wanted to replace.

Pamuk also writes about hüzün, the melancholy that afflicts the citizens of Istanbul. It comes, he says, from the city’s history and its decline, the foghorns on the Bosphorus, from tumbledown walls that have been ruins since the fall of the Byzantine empire, unemployed men in tea houses, covered women waiting for buses that never come, pelting rain and dark evenings: the city’s whole fabric and all the lives within it. “My starting point,” Pamuk wrote, “was the emotion that a child might feel while looking through a steamy window.”

Istanbul is suffering a mighty bout of something like hüzün at the moment. In Pamuk’s work the citizens of Istanbul take a perverse pride in hüzün. No one in Istanbul, or elsewhere in Turkey, can draw comfort from what is happening now. Erdogan’s opponents wonder what kind of future they can have in his Turkey. I think I sensed it, too, in the triumphalist crowds of Erdogan supporters that have been gathering day after day since the coup was defeated.

 

Down with the generals

Erdogan’s opponents are not downcast because the coup failed; a big reason why it did was that it had no public support. Turks know way too much about the authoritarian ways of military rule to want it back. The melancholy is because Erdogan is using the coup to entrench himself even more deeply in power. The purge looks too far-reaching, too organised and too big to have been a quick reaction to the attempt on his power. Instead it seems to be a plan that was waiting to be used.

Turkey is a deeply unhappy country. It is hard to imagine now, but when the Arab uprisings happened in 2011 it seemed to be a model for the Middle East. It had elections and an economy that worked and grew. When I asked Davutoglu around that time whether there would be a new Ottoman sphere of influence for the 21st century, he smiled modestly, denied any such ambition and went on to explain that the 2011 uprisings were the true succession to the Ottoman empire. A century of European, and then American, domination was ending. It had been a false start in Middle Eastern history. Now it was back on track. The people of the region were deciding their futures, and perhaps Turkey would have a role, almost like a big brother.

Turkey’s position – straddling east and west, facing Europe and Asia – is the key to its history and its future. It could be, should be, a rock of stability in a desperately un­stable part of the world. But it isn’t, and that is a problem for all of us.

 

Contagion of war

The coup did not come out of a clear sky. Turkey was in deep crisis before the attempt was made. Part of the problem has come from Erdogan’s divisive policies. He has led the AKP to successive election victories since it first won in 2002. But the policies of his governments have not been inclusive. As long as his supporters are happy, the president seems unconcerned about the resentment and opposition he is generating on the other side of politics.

Perhaps that was inevitable. His mission, as a political Islamist, was to change the country, to end the power of secular elites, including the army, which had been dominant since Mustafa Kemal Atatürk created modern Turkey after the collapse of the Ottoman empire. And there is also the influence of chaos and war in the Middle East. Turkey has borders with Iraq and Syria, and is deeply involved in their wars. The borders do not stop the contagion of violence. Hundreds of people have died in the past year in bomb attacks in Turkish cities, some carried out by the jihadists of so-called Islamic State, and some sent by Kurdish separatists working under the PKK.

It is a horrible mix. Erdogan might be able to deal with it better if he had used the attempted coup to try to unite Turkey. All the parliamentary parties condemned it. But instead, he has turned the power of the state against his opponents. More rough times lie ahead.

Jeremy Bowen is the BBC’s Middle East editor. He tweets @bowenbbc

This article first appeared in the 28 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Summer Double Issue