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.

Photo: Getty Images
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I'm far from convinced by Cameron's plans for Syria

The Prime Minister has a plan for when the bombs drop. But what about after?

In the House of Commons today, the Prime Minister set out a powerful case for Britain to join air strikes against Isil in Syria.  Isil, he argued, poses a direct threat to Britain and its people, and Britain should not be in the business of “outsourcing our security to our allies”. And while he conceded that further airstrikes alone would not be sufficient to beat Isil, he made the case for an “Isil first” strategy – attacking Isil now, while continuing to do what we can diplomatically to help secure a lasting settlement for Syria in which Assad (eventually) plays no part.

I agreed with much of David Cameron’s analysis. And no-one should doubt either the murderous barbarism of Isil in the region, or the barbarism they foment and inspire in others across the world.  But at the end of his lengthy Q&A session with MPs, I remained unconvinced that UK involvement in airstrikes in Syria was the right option. Because the case for action has to be a case for action that has a chance of succeeding.  And David Cameron’s case contained neither a plan for winning the war, nor a plan for winning the peace.

The Prime Minister, along with military experts and analysts across the world, concedes that air strikes alone will not defeat Isil, and that (as in Iraq) ground forces are essential if we want to rid Syria of Isil. But what is the plan to assemble these ground forces so necessary for a successful mission?  David Cameron’s answer today was more a hope than a plan. He referred to “70,000 Syrian opposition fighters - principally the Free Syrian Army (FSA) – with whom we can co-ordinate attacks on Isil”.

But it is an illusion to think that these fighters can provide the ground forces needed to complement aerial bombardment of Isil.  Many commentators have begun to doubt whether the FSA continues to exist as a coherent operational entity over the past few months. Coralling the myriad rebel groups into a disciplined force capable of fighting and occupying Isil territory is a heroic ambition, not a plan. And previous efforts to mobilize the rebels against Isil have been utter failures. Last month the Americans abandoned a $500m programme to train and turn 5,400 rebel fighters into a disciplined force to fight Isil. They succeeded in training just 60 fighters. And there have been incidents of American-trained fighters giving some of their US-provided equipment to the Nusra Front, an affiliate of Al Qaeda.

Why has it proven so hard to co-opt rebel forces in the fight against Isil? Because most of the various rebel groups are fighting a war against Assad, not against Isil.  Syria’s civil war is gruesome and complex, but it is fundamentally a Civil War between Assad’s forces and a variety of opponents of Assad’s regime. It would be a mistake for Britain to base a case for military action against Isil on the hope that thousands of disparate rebel forces can be persuaded to change their enemy – especially when the evidence so far is that they won’t.

This is a plan for military action that, at present, looks highly unlikely to succeed.  But what of the plan for peace? David Cameron today argued for the separation of the immediate task at hand - to strike against Isil in Syria – from the longer-term ambition of achieving a settlement in Syria and removing Assad.  But for Isil to be beaten, the two cannot be separated. Because it is only by making progress in developing a credible and internationally-backed plan for a post-Assad Syria that we will persuade Syrian Sunnis that fighting Isil will not end up helping Assad win the Civil War.  If we want not only to rely on rebel Sunnis to provide ground troops against Isil, but also provide stable governance in Isil-occupied areas when the bombing stops, progress on a settlement to Syria’s Civil War is more not less urgent.  Without it, the reluctance of Syrian Sunnis to think that our fight is their fight will undermine the chances of military efforts to beat Isil and bring basic order to the regions they control. 

This points us towards doubling down on the progress that has already been made in Vienna: working with the USA, France, Syria’s neighbours and the Gulf states, as well as Russia and Iran. We need not just a combined approach to ending the conflict, but the prospect of a post-war Syria that offers a place for those whose cooperation we seek to defeat Isil. No doubt this will strike some as insufficient in the face of the horrors perpetrated by Isil. But I fear that if we want not just to take action against Isil but to defeat them and prevent their return, it offers a better chance of succeeding than David Cameron’s proposal today. 

Stewart Wood is a former Shadow Cabinet minister and adviser to Ed Miliband. He tweets as @StewartWood.