Speech at Faith Matters Launch in Pakistan

Delivered on November 4th 2012 at Avari Hotel

I’d like to begin by thanking Faith Matters and its leadership, for inviting me to speak on this very important topic of interfaith harmony in Pakistan, and in particular between the Christian and Muslim communities. The work that is being done on this platform is commendable because we’ve got far too many examples of groups attempting to dehumanize the “other,” and very few that work on the premise that change is possible in civil society in Pakistan.

I feel Pakistan is moving in diametrically opposite ways.

On one hand we have the fact that we offer to the world a huge opportunity. We are the 26th largest economy in the world with a 40 million middle class and GDP per capita in Karachi of 7000 US dollars. We have 131 million cell phone users and over 100+ cable channels and 300,000 plus players in the retail market alone. Our fashion industry has matured and parallels leading countries.

Yet, on the other there is a complete and utter breakdown.

Just a few weeks ago, Washington based think tank, Middle East Media Research Institute (MERI) said Pakistan should be put on the genocide watch list. The reason for these were many among which were:

Imprisonment of Christians and Ahmadi Muslims on charges of blasphemy

Abduction of Hindu and Christian girls and their forced conversion to Islam

Demolition and desecration of houses of worship

Denial of food relief to non-Muslim flood victims by both government officials and wealthy philanthropists

Denigration of and attacks on Christians

And the deliberate and systematic killing of members of all these minority communities[1]

What is tragic is that we are living in times where these communities have no option but to convert and become Muslims. The reason this is a tragedy of gargantuan proportions is because Islam is based on the principle of freedom of choice and the Quran says that “There is no compulsion in religion.” Surah 2 verse 256.

This violence against minority communities is not just carried out by pockets of extremists but in a way it is imposed by the entire society through its silence over these attacks. The absence of outrage from civil society symbolized the deep rooted prejudice and exclusivisim that has now become an intrinsic part of what it means to be Pakistani today. And in the ghastly shadow of this silence, the attacks against minorities spreads, becoming more extreme, more shocking, more shameful.

The most recent example is the case of a girl child, Rimsha Masih who despite being down syndrome and a minor, was imprisoned like a common criminal under charges of blasphemy. For days her fate was unclear and the general argument from clerics was that if she had not allegedly burned Quranic qaida and committed blasphemy then of course she should be released. Very few were vocal about the absurdity of the blasphemy law and its most common use as a weapon of persecution to wrongly convict people one doesn’t get along with. The lethal abuse of the law finds its victims in Muslims above all other communities but also there are hundreds of Ahmedis, Christians, Hindus and mentally challenged are suffering jail sentences under this law.

Thankfully Rimsha was released, but Asia Bibi was not that lucky, and many like her remain in jail.

History is replete with the examples of absolute tyranny of the majority over the minority. But make no mistake, Pakistan is one of those examples.

Why do I mourn this?

I mourn this for two reasons: One, I don’t have an England or America to go back to. I returned from the US to be rooted in my own country, and therefore my children and their children’s children are going to live through the society we allow to develop today. And I am frankly very afraid. Afraid that soon enough, despite being of mainstream Sunni Islam faith it is only a matter of time that the all-pervasiveness of this hegemonic ideology will turn on them too.

And two, this is not what we were set out to become. The idea of Pakistan was not what the “Nazariati” idea that is now flaunted. This idea was manufactured after the objectives resolution was passed and after Zia-ul-Haq fueled the concept of an Islamic state through the Afghan war in the 1970s.

The idea that this land was for Muslims by Muslims and the other communities neither had a role to play nor will they be considered as equal citizens of the state, barring them from holding the office of the President or Prime Minster.

Muhammad Ali Jinnah wanted a secular democratic Pakistan, and though there are constant attempts to revise history there are numerous statements that outline his clear demand for Pakistan and I quote to not become “A theocratic state ruled by priests with a divine mission.” He wanted the state to have nothing to do with religion: His 11th August 1948 speech spells that out. “You are free. You are free to go to your mosques. You are free to go to your temples or any other places of worship. You may belong to any religion, cast or creed. That has nothing to do with the business of the state.”

After the Gojrah incident, where Six Christians including a child were killed and more than a dozen were injured when 40 houses and a church were set ablaze by an angry mob of Muslims claiming to avenge a blasphemy[2], there was more blood.

On March 2nd 2011, Shahbaz Bhatti, the federal minister of minorities from the Christian community was murdered. He was shot 25 times[3].

This is a recent example of the many church attacks in the past few years. On October 18th, armed men vandalized the Philadelphia Pentecostal Church of Pakistan in Karachi during a blackout. The attackers broke the windows of the church, located in Karachi’s Essa Nagri area, threw copies of the Bible on the floor.

The Christian community has been consistently targeted and led to a corner in a country Jinnah promised them was theirs as much as anyone else’s.

These experiences are appalling for Pakistan, not just because of the blood, which has its own spiritual loss, but the utter shamelessness with which the state has stood by and watched this carnage, seemingly incapable of stopping it, unabashedly distanced and more or less ambivalent.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

It is what you DO with experiences that matter.

When Daniel Pearl was brutally murdered in Karachi, Judea Pearl, his father chose to use that experience as a means to bring the Muslims and the Jewish communities together. Today the Daniel Pearl foundation does just that to promote interfaith harmony.

Horrid though these experiences are, let us cry halt here using their destruction to caution the country. We do not want to go down that path.

We need to address the real issues that give rise to religious intolerance. These are:

  1. Educational Curriculum that teach exclusivism and inculcate superiority
  2. Lack of rule of law
  3. Weak judicial system leaving no recourse to justice for wrongly accused Christians
  4. Religious clergy who promote hate speech in Friday sermons

The onus lies on Muslims to change the way they have looked at the Christian community. There must be an urgent appeal to protect them against this constant threat from extremism.

The only way to bring about change is through the political process. Pakistanis need to vote intelligently and put pressure on their political leadership to speak up against religious intolerance.

I would like to once again thank Faith Matters for being there as a light in such dark times.

To end I’d like to quote Khalil Jibran.

“I love you when you bow in your mosque, kneel in your temple, pray in your church. For you and I are sons of one religion, and it is the spirit. ”

 Thank you.

 AISHA FAYYAZI SARWARI

 Communication professional who has had experience in the private sector, with the Punjab Government, the Federal government and USAID. Previously in the US she has worked with CNN and National Public Radio. She writes for the Daily Times and is on twitter @AishaFSarwari

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