State Must Combat Intolerance To Save Pakistanis From Violence

State Must Combat Intolerance To Save Pakistanis From Violence
International Day for Tolerance is observed on November 16 every year. It was designated by the UN in 1996 to encourage mindfulness of various faiths/creeds and the fundamental human rights of each person to observe their own religion, beliefs and to encourage equality and diversity across the world.

The observance of the day provides an opportunity to reflect, analyse and be empathetic and insightful about various forms of injustice, repression, subjugation, racism, prejudice, and discrimination against those who are considered as ‘weak’ or ‘vulnerable’  due to their gender, religion, ethnicity, race, faith and political ideologies.

The Day of Tolerance is designated to protect those whose belief, opinion, culture and faith is different from the mainstream and the dominant. Sometimes it happens that a small and powerful group of people try to impose their extremist views on the majority.  Therefore this day gives people an opportunity to discuss and debate ways and strategies to fight extremism, fear, oppression and discrimination. Using peaceful tools of dialogue and civil communication one can encourage a culture of discourse, respect and space for different opinions.

Intolerance of “other” social norms, political and religious beliefs has become a global threat. It is not country or region specific. A culture of intolerance festers where either the state is too weak to control a dominant belief system or too complacent about protecting the rights of minorities. When the state is complicit in allowing one groups political motives and ambitions against another specific group, minority, or political ideology, it engenders intolerance.

When we look back at the history of Pakistan, we see clearly how the seeds of intolerance, hatred, extremism, repression were sown and nurtured by the infamous dictator General Zia-UlHaq during his long rule of 11 years. We see how religious minorities, women, civil society, human right groups and democratic political parties were systemically oppressed and persecuted through discriminatory laws and the misuse of the state apparatus. Since then we have seen an incessant rise in religious extremism, human rights violations, crimes against women and children. Political dissent, difference of opinion, respect for women’s rights and disdain for religious and ethnic minorities have became the “new normal”. These narrow , mean trends were spawned,  sponsored and patronized by the regime and that practice is now being followed by civil governments that continue to bow down to the forces of bigotry and intolerance instead of curbing them.

Unfortunately, our civilian governments, significantly that of Prime Minister Imran Khan and his ministers, have been engaged in hurling abuses at their political opponents. Mockery and personal verbal attacks have become the order of the day. This “policy” gives a green signal to PTI supporters to let loose a volley of insults and name calling on their opponents on social media. The space for political and religious diversity and dissent has been drastically reduced by the incumbent government.

It is being fast forgotten by PTI supporters that Pakistan comprises of different nations which have their own history, culture, language, political history and religious diversity. Instead of respecting and valuing diversity a culture of suspicion, mistrust, disrespect and belittling has evolved and taken root. This trend is promoted and patronized by civil and military regimes for political opponents and for civil society dissidents.

Discrimination against women, minorities and various sects over a period of 4 decades has helped build a narrative of intolerance and extremism. Systematic persecution of minorities, religious sects is now rampant. It has become stronger under the garb of a quasi democratic /civil government.

Religious freedom is under constant threat. Abduction of young Hindu, Christian and Sikh girls and their forced conversions and marriage is a blot on society and state inspire of the fact that our constitution guarantees fair treatment towards all its citizens, regardless of faith.

Discrimination based on religion, gender, faith, sect and political affiliation and a gross misuse of anti-blasphemy laws, include attacks on Ahmadiya places of worship, Hindu temples, and Christian churches. The fundamental fabric of society and even the writ of the state has weakened in the process.  More than 509 Shia Hazaras have been killed since 2012 and there have been 25 blasphemy related cases filed against minorities. A group of people can vandalize the construction site of a temple in the capital city of Islamabad in broad daylight without any fear that the rule of law may be invoked.

This patriarchal, feudal, autocratic culture and mindset have promoted lawlessness, extremism and a  culture of intolerance which have put peace loving and law abiding citizens in constant fear. Our recent history is replete with many cases which show how intolerant our society has become. Mashal Khan, a university student of journalism was brutally tortured to death by a mob at the university campus in April 2017. A sitting Governor of Punjab, Salman Taseer, who defended the proposed amendments to the blasphemy law in wake of Asia Bibi case, was assassinated by his bodyguard in January 2011. The Federal Minister for Minorities Affairs was killed in March 2011 by gunmen in Islamabad because of his efforts to reform blasphemy law. Asia Bibi had to leave her country owing to threats to her life soon after being convicted of blasphemy by the Court. In a most recent case a security guard of a bank in Sargodha shot at and critically injured the branch manager over allegations of blasphemy and the victim later died at Hospital in Lahore.

The UN International Declaration of Human Rights (to which Pakistan is signatory) and our country’s own constitution enshrine political rights to all groups which is the foundation of a democratic society. Our 1973 Constitution guarantees in Article 25 (1) that all citizens are equal before law and are entitled to equal protection of law. Article 25(2) says that there shall be no discrimination on the basis of sex alone.  Article 5 provides that “adequate provision shall be made for the minorities to freely profess and practice their religions and develop their cultures,” and article 33 declares that it is the state’s responsibility to discourage parochial, racial, tribal, sectarian, and provincial prejudices among citizens. Sadly, these constitutional provisions have been violated time and again, without any recourse to justice.

It is the state and its main organs that are primarily responsible for its citizens’ rights and to combat intolerance in any form against any peaceful group or community so that they can practice their religion or follow their political ideology. The State needs to urgently take measures to promote tolerance, respect and acceptance of the diversity of different cultures, religion, ethnic communities and genders. A Pakistani society free from the poison of intolerance and accepting of all its citizens is today a distant dream. The state must immediately embark on redressing this situation on a war footing.