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Ben Rogers: On the 60th anniversary of Pakistan’s creation it’s make your mind up time, President Musharraf

Benedict Rogers is a human rights activist specialising in South Asia. He works for the human rights organisation Christian Solidarity Worldwide, serves as Deputy Chairman of the Conservative Party Human Rights Commission and was Conservative Parliamentary Candidate for the City of Durham in the 2005 General Election. In 2005 he visited Pakistan with Labour MP David Drew, and met Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz and other senior Pakistani political leaders.

Between 50,000 and 100,000 people are expected to gather today in Lahore, Pakistan, to mark the 60th anniversary of a speech by the nation’s founder, Mohammad Ali Jinnah.

In that speech, on 11 August 1947, just three days before Pakistan was born, Jinnah told the first constituent assembly:

“You are free. You are free to go to your temples, you are free to go to your mosques or any other places of worship in this state of Pakistan. You may belong to any religion, caste or creed – that has nothing to do with the business of the State … We are starting with this fundamental principal, that we are all citizens and citizens of one state.”

Today, thousands of people from throughout the country, from different religious groups – Christians, Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists and Parsees, as well as sympathetic moderate Muslims – will participate in a rally at the Minar-e-Pakistan, or “National Monument”, a minaret on the site where the Lahore Declaration was passed in 1940 calling for a separate state of Pakistan. The event, organised by the All Pakistan Minorities Alliance (APMA), has one purpose: to remind the nation, and the world, of Jinnah’s vision.

Jinnah never intended for Pakistan to be founded on religious grounds. Of course, the founding fathers wanted a homeland for Muslims after India received independence from Britain, because they saw India as two nations, Hindu and Muslim. But it was not as clear-cut as that. Jinnah’s vision was for a free society in which citizens of all religious backgrounds were equal, a constitution free of religious discrimination, and a modern progressive democracy with an independent judiciary and electoral commission.

So much has gone wrong in Pakistan in the past 60 years. According to APMA, “Christians and other religious minorities are made second class citizens” as extremist Islamism has taken root. As the influence of groups like Jamaat-e-Islami, founded by Maulana Mawdudi, and the pro-Taliban pro-al Qaeda coalition the Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal (MMA), has risen, minorities’ rights have been “negated” and religious freedom “curtailed”. Their places of worship are increasingly subject to violent attack, and in some parts of the country they face threats to convert to Islam or be killed. Religious minorities in Pakistan today are, says APMA, “persecuted, victimised, terrorised and hated due to their faith”. APMA’s Executive Secretary Group Captain Cecil Chaudhry says that “in 60 years we have drifted in the opposite direction from what Jinnah envisaged”. Chaudhry should know – despite being a highly decorated fighter pilot and war veteran in the Pakistan Air Force, he was denied promotion simply because he is a Christian.

The rise of extremism has crept up. During the 1970s Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, Benazir’s father and a moderate, began to pander to the extremists. Although known to like his drink, Bhutto made Pakistan a dry state, declared Friday as the weekly holiday and banned gambling including horse-racing. But it was the man who deposed him, General Zia ul-Haq, who fanned the flames of hatred and intolerance and turned Pakistan into the tinder-box it is today. By introducing a host of so-called Islamic Laws including the blasphemy law, which requires no evidence, no proof of intent, and has no definition, but relies simply on the accusation of one person against another, he handed the extremists a weapon with which to attack minorities, and indeed fellow Muslims.

These days the blasphemy law is used often by Muslims against each other to settle personal scores. Once accused, a person can be arrested, put on trial, and the ultimate penalty is death. In prison, blasphemy suspects are shackled in solitary confinement. They are at grave risk of being killed in jail, before or during trial. Even if acquitted, in the eyes of extremists they are marked for life and have to live in hiding, or in exile. And in true Alice in Wonderland style, when the accuser is asked in court what the accused actually said about Islam or the Prophet, he can refuse to say – for, the argument goes, by repeating the alleged blasphemy, he would himself be blaspheming.

I have written on this site before about the violence and discrimination faced by religious minorities in Pakistan. Since I last wrote, President Musharraf has finally taken action against the extremists who occupied the Lal Masjid mosque. I welcome this, but he needs to do more. As Joseph Loconte and I argued in the National Review Online recently, Musharraf needs to use not just military means but institutional reform to establish a true democracy which respects human rights for all, in line with Jinnah’s vision. He should continue with the boldness he has shown, albeit belatedly, in dealing with the Lal Masjid mosque, by repealing the blasphemy laws and scrapping the separate electoral lists for religious minorities (a hangover from the previous separate electoral system – religious apartheid – which he abolished a few years ago). He should ask himself today whether he wants Jinnah’s Pakistan or a Talibanised Pakistan. For too long he had tried to pander to extremists and progressives alike, and that has been the cause of his current problems. He needs to make a clear, brave break with the extremists and pursue “enlightened moderation” in practice as well as rhetoric. And the international community should put pressure on him to deliver. It’s make-your-mind-up time, President Musharraf.


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