Muslims Debate

Irfan Husain    |   28 Jan 2012
Muslims and minorities

IMAGINE the following scenario: a complex housing a mosque, a madressah, a girls` school and a home for the elderly being run by a Muslim charity is broken into at dawn and bulldozed by officials. No notice is served, and no documents challenging ownership are produced.

Yet, within hours, the buildings are reduced to rubble, residents are made homeless, and copies of religious texts destroyed. Supervising this operation is the top local bureaucrat who pays no heed to the protests of the ulema in charge of the complex. Think of the outcry across the entire Muslim world. Demonstrations outside the embassies of the country that allowed this injustice to happen would have broken out instantly.

But when the Punjab government recently carried out a similar operation against Gosha-i-Aman, a Christian charity in Lahore, everybody in and out of Pakistan stood by silently. The chief minister, no doubt eyeing the two acres of land his minions had so brutally seized from the Catholic church, had nothing to say.

In the wider context of our vile treatment of our minorities, I suppose this incident fades into insignificance.

The hapless residents of Gosha-i-Aman should count themselves lucky that they weren`t killed by the Punjab government goons. Had there been any bloodshed, possibly no action would have been taken against the killers: Pakistan has an appalling record of not convicting zealots who have killed so many non-Muslims in the past.

Let me declare a personal interest here: I was educated by the good priests of St Patrick`s school in Karachi, and have nothing but respect for them. I counted Christians, Hindus and Parsis among my friends. Granted, we have descended into a hell of our own making; but surely, civilised values must count for something, even with the ruling party in Punjab.

However, this is probably wishful thinking: judging by the level of religion-fuelled madness we witness everyday in Pakistan, our leaders are incapable of human feelings, except that of greed.

At the Galle Literary Festival in Sri Lanka last week, I had the good fortune to meet a very wise old Muslim lawyer. When I asked him if the present government would ever accord the Tamils equal rights, he posed me another question: “Which majority in the world treats a minority as equals?”

I racked my brain, and tentatively suggested Canada. “Ah,” he replied. “But do the white majority treat Native Canadians fairly or equally?” On reflection, I had to concede it was the former. Frankly, I had never thought much about the distinction between `equally` and `fairly`, but clearly, there is one.

However, we treat our minorities neither equally nor fairly. Indeed, we don`t even pretend to. Almost every other day, I get some fresh evidence of our prejudiced attitudes towards non-Muslims. Even within the dominant religion, there is persecution. Shias are regularly targeted: just the other day, three Shia lawyers were gunned down in Karachi.

According to human rights organisations, Pakistan is among the most brutal countries when it comes to the treatment of minorities. Year after year, the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan issues reports highlighting a wide range of crimes committed against non-Muslims by individuals and the state.

In the recent Punjab government action against Gosha-i-Aman, no functionary has explained why this extreme step was taken without warning, especially when the church has documents proving its ownership of the property since 1887. But when the state is itself a party to what comes across as a blatant land grab, there is little ordinary citizens can do to resist, especially when they belong to a minority community.

Across the Muslim world, Christians are under attack from Muslims. In Nigeria, an extremist Muslim organisation calling itself Boko Haram has killed hundreds of Christians and attacked dozens of churches. In Iraq, nearly half a million Christians have been forced to leave their homes, and scores have been killed. In Egypt, the ancient community of Christian Copts has suffered repeated attacks by Salafists.

And yet when these appalling acts of violent intolerance occur, there is scarcely any protest from either our clerics or our politicians. Nevertheless, we are constantly and deeply sensitive to all real and perceived wrongs meted out to Muslims in the West. `Islamophobia` is regularly trotted out in our criticism of foreign countries Muslims have opted to settle in.

But the reality is that Muslim immigrants in the West don`t face a fraction of the injustice and intolerance native non-Muslims have to put up with in Muslim countries. In almost every western country, laws protect minorities from open racism. In the Islamic world, even where anti-discrimination laws exist, they provide scant protection, as show our daily acts of open discrimination and violence against our minorities.

I still recall a TV programme in which a Pakistani Sikh recounted how he was sitting by a stream, cooling his feet on a hot day, when a passing Muslim insisted he pull them out of the water because he was polluting it. Similarly, for generations, Christians and Hindus have been served in separate cups and plates at roadside eating-places across the country. Sweepers in homes are always given water in glasses nobody else uses.

We don`t think twice about these nasty acts of daily discrimination, having grown up with them as part of life`s rituals. But consider for a moment how deeply insulting and wounding they must be. If Muslims were similarly treated in the West, imagine the outcry, not least among citizens of the country concerned.

The level of civilisation a country has achieved must be judged by its treatment of the most vulnerable sections of society. By this standard, we earn the reputation of barbarians incapable of living with people of different beliefs. And yet we demand more than equal status when we build our mosques and spread Islam abroad.

At a time of increased judicial activism is it too much to demand that our higher judiciary pay our hapless minorities some attention? I recall an article I wrote about the apparently forcible conversion of three Hindu sisters some years ago. As a result, the chief justice took suo moto notice of the incident and called for an investigation.

Surely the case of the wanton destruction of church property in Lahore, and the seizure of its land warrants similar action.

The writer is the author of Fatal Faultlines: Pakistan, Islam and the West .

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