Pakistan: Laws regarding Minorities and the Future of its Religious Trajectory

The Pakistani Federal Minister for Human Rights, Shireen Mazari, while criticising the US’s decision of placing Pakistan on the black list of countries that violate religious freedom had stated, “In Pakistan, Minorities rights are very well protected by our constitution and there are precedence that our courts and government have favoured them in past on many occasions….”

It is worthwhile to know what Pakistan’s constitution says about minorities. It would suffice to reproduce below a short excerpt from the International Religious Freedom Report 2017. It says, “the [Pakistan] constitution establishes Islam as the State religion but states “subject to law, public order, and morality, every citizen shall have the right to profess, practice, and propagate his religion.”

But that is where this pseudo-secularism ends. The constitution defines “Muslim” as a person who “believes in the unity and oneness of Almighty Allah, in the absolute and unqualified finality of the Prophet hood of Muhammad … the last of the prophets, and does not believe in, or recognize as a prophet or religious reformer, any person who claimed or claims to be a prophet after Muhammad … ”. It also states “a person belonging to the Christian, Hindu, Sikh, Buddhist, or Parsi community, a person of the Qadiani group or the Lahori group (who call themselves Ahmadis), or a Bahai, and a person belonging to any of the scheduled castes is a non-Muslim.” According to the constitution and the penal code, Ahmadis are not Muslims and may not call themselves Muslims or assert they are adherents of Islam. The constitution establishes Islam as the State’s religion, and requires all provisions of the law to be consistent with Islam. The constitution states no person shall be required to take part in any religious ceremony or attend religious worship relating to a religion other than the person’s own. Resultantly, leaders and constitutional authorities from the majority Sunni community are not able to integrate the people they are supposed to lead or administer. A courageous administrator like the Punjab Governor Salman Taseer who tried to take a nuanced view was killed by a fundamentalist—Mumtaz Qadri—in 2015, who was his own bodyguard. It is to the credit of the Pakistani State that Qadri was given the death sentence, however, it is to its discredit that it permitted the fundamentalists to eulogise him and based on a protest movement against the hanging, even form on August 1, 2015 in Karachi, a new ultra-right political party the “Tehreek-e-Laibak”.

According to the constitution, every citizen also shall have the right to freedom of speech, subject to “reasonable restrictions in the interest of the glory of Islam,” as stipulated in the penal code. However, in regard to the religious rights of the minorities, there is gross contradiction between what the Constitutions says and what is the reality on the ground. A 1984 amendment to the penal code severely restricted the rights of members of the Ahmadiyya community to propagate their faith. If they called themselves “Muslim” it was blasphemy. According to the penal code, the punishments for persons convicted of blasphemy include the death sentence for “defiling Prophet Muhammad,” life imprisonment for “defiling, damaging, or desecrating the Quran,” and 10 years’ imprisonment for “insulting another’s religious feelings.” Speech or action intended to incite religious hatred is punishable by up to seven years’ imprisonment. The penal code bans them from preaching or propagating their religious beliefs, proselytizing, or “insulting the religious feelings of Muslims.” The punishment for violation of these provisions is imprisonment for up to three years and a fine. The penal code criminalizes “deliberate and malicious acts intended to outrage religious feelings of any class by insulting its religion or religious beliefs” and provides for a sentence of up to 10 years in prison. A 2015 constitutional amendment allows military courts to try civilians for terrorism, sectarian violence, and other charges; this authority expires in March 2019. A summary for extension has been sent to the Federal cabinet in January 2019 for an additional two years or lesser period. Contravening blasphemy laws would naturally fall in the ambit of abetting ‘sectarian violence’. The government may also use special civilian terrorism courts to try cases involving violent crimes, terrorist activities, and acts or speech deemed by the government to foment religious hatred, including blasphemy.

The difficulty is that in Pakistan the Army and some elements in the society have been patronizing religious extremists, especially of the Sunni faction who have taken upon themselves the implementation of Quranic injunctions of their interpretation. The fanatics have formed armed groups and have spread fear among the people, assigning to themselves the role of final arbiter of Quranic injunctions. They have become powerful owing to the patronage from army and have targeted the religious minorities like the Christians, Ahmadis, Hindus, Shia, Bahais, Parsis, Sikhs and others. They fabricated use of the law which prohibits publishing any criticism of Islam, or its prophets, or insults to others’ religious beliefs. The acquittal of the Christian woman Asia Bibi’s, is a case in point. She was sentenced to death for blasphemy in 2010 on the basis of unproven evidence. The act itself occurred in a squabble among women picking berries. The apparently courageous stance that the Pakistani government now took appears to be more of an appeasement of the Christian West dominated World Bank from which Pakistan is seeking a bailout then anything else.

The result of the squeeze on religious minorities is that they are shrinking and many of them are leaving the country. Pakistan is on the way to become another Sunni bastion like Saudi Arabia. Those between these two boulders are bound to feel the squeeze. The situation above will lead to strategic realignments. This may be long in coming, but is inevitable if Pakistan continues on its present religious trajectory.


@Padma Shri Prof Kashi Nath Pandita, is the former Director of the Centre for Central Asian Studies, University of Kashmir.


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