The country’s problems go much deeper than the shelter in provided Osama bin Laden.
The president is trying to reset his earlier reset of America’s relationship with the Muslim world. But any genuine transformation requires action by both sides. Unfortunately, there is little evidence that Muslim states like Pakistan want to change their hostile behavior.
As a modern Western republic, Washington focuses on geopolitical issues while assuming all religions can reason together. Not so most Islamic states.
About the only Muslim nations that can be described as anything vaguely resembling a modern republic might be Turkey and Indonesia. Unfortunately, the Islamic world features medieval monarchies, militarized autocracies, democratic quasi-theocracies, brutal dictatorships, and a couple nations, like Egypt, in transition. Most Islamic states flavor their political repression with religious persecution.
So it is with Pakistan, perhaps America’s most dangerous “frenemy.” Islamabad’s problems are many. Perhaps most fundamental is a dangerous intolerance that pervades this self-proclaimed Islamic republic. Individual life is cheap if one is anything other than a professing Muslim.
The latest State Department report on religious liberty observed: “the number and severity of reported high-profile cases against minorities increased during the reporting period.” Not only did “organized violence against minorities” rise, but “there were instances in which law enforcement personnel abused religious minorities in custody.” The government failed to adequately respond to attacks on Christians, Ahmadis, and others.
The United States Commission on International Religious Freedom was even blunter in its new survey: The status of religious liberty had deteriorated “greatly.” Overall, “Pakistan continues to be responsible for systematic, ongoing, and egregious violations of freedom of religion or belief.” The state is complicit in brutal persecution: “Sectarian and religiously-motivated violence is chronic, and the government has failed to protect members of the majority faith and religious minorities. Pakistani authorities have not consistently brought perpetrators to justice or taken action against societal leaders who incite violence.”
However, the government’s failure included commission. Added State: “Discriminatory legislation and the government’s failure or delay in addressing religious hostility by societal actors fostered religious intolerance, acts of violence, and intimidation against religious minorities.” Among Islamabad’s worst practices are “the blasphemy laws which provided the death penalty for defiling Islam or its prophets.”
The latter is not just an esoteric administrative matter. Noted the Commission: “Blasphemy laws are used against members of religious minority communities and dissenters within the majority Muslim community, and frequently result in imprisonment on account of religion or belief and/or vigilante violence.” These and other statutes “have created an atmosphere of violent extremism and vigilantism.”
International Christian Concern includes Pakistan among the 11 members of its “Hall of Shame.” ICC highlights the impact of the blasphemy laws, which are routinely used to silence and oppress: “Several Christians were killed in 2010 as a direct consequence of these laws and many more have been imprisoned.”
THE BLASPHEMY LAWS originally were instituted by colonial overlord Great Britain. People were prohibited from interfering with religious services and hurting religious feelings. The occupiers wanted to maintain social peace.
Unfortunately, over the years the laws were Islamacized and expanded, more for political than religious reasons. In particular, military dictator Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq used Islamic fundamentalism to his political advantage. He expanded the law to include desecration of the Koran and later added death as a penalty for blasphemy. The Federal Sharia Court then ruled that the punishment “is death and nothing else.”
Moreover, there are no procedural safeguards. The law is vague, penalizing anyone who through word or visual depiction “by any imputation, innuendo, or insinuation, directly or indirectly, defiles the sacred name of the Holy Prophet Muhammad.” No warrant or preliminary investigation is required before an arrest is made. Pastor Zulfikar from Gojra explained: “The injustice is that if two people get together and accuse one of us, we are sentenced to death. There’s no need for any proof, just one person’s testimony.”
Thankfully, “only” 40 to 50 people a year are typically charged and no one has yet been executed under the law. Still, that is small comfort. The majority of those prosecuted are Muslims, but Christians suffer disproportionately. They are much more likely to be arrested for blasphemy and, if charged, much more likely to be murdered. At least 35 have suffered deadly vigilante injustice since 1986. “Many others have endured brutal rapes and beatings, while churches, homes and businesses have been ransacked, looted and burned,” wrote author Lela Gilbert.
Mounting a defense is not easy, since lawyers and judges often are intimidated. Christian Solidarity Worldwide noted that “[t]his has an impact on the impartiality of local court rulings — convictions are likely in the first instance.” Nor is the testimony of Christians typically accorded the same weight as that of Muslims. Thankfully, more distant appeals courts often overturn convictions and the government usually commutes any death sentences.
However, those charged can spend many years in jail awaiting trial. There they are vulnerable to retaliation. Earlier this year Qamar David, a Pakistan Christian sentenced to life imprisonment and jailed since 2002. mysteriously died in a Karachi jail. The government claimed it was a natural death; his family said David had no known health problems. Like so many other cases, his prosecution arose from business disputes.
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