Monday April 23, 2018

Pakistani Christians’ predicament

can the victimization end or the power game will continue?

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a Pakistani Christian mob
BY RABIA MEHMOOD
AL Jazeera

It was midnight in Youhanabad – a neighbourhood of majorly Pakistani Christians in Lahore. Men and women, both young and old, were keeping watch. Some sat on charpoys and wooden benches, while others walked about patrolling the streets.

The songs of prayers intermingled with the thump of the dholak – or drum – through the haunting darkness of downtrodden streets.

The residents of Youhanabad were protecting their men from the police – three weeks after a faction of the Pakistani Taliban, the Jamaat-ul-Ahrar, had executed twin blasts, the very state institutions that were supposed to protect them were the ones that they feared.

“We trust you. Believe me, we do. But please, do not photograph us,” the woman singing hymns said to me when I approached her with my camera. Despite seeing me with the neighbourhood’s senior priest – who had vouched for me – they were too afraid to let anyone know about their night watch, or let anyone see their faces in photographs. This was in 2015.

The fear of abandonment

Today, fear and a sense of abandonment by the state resides in the collective consciousness of the Pakistani Christians. While Christians poured on to the streets following the last twin bombings against their community, this time they remained indoors.

The community and several rights activists think that the silence of Christians after last week’s bombings in Lahore’s Gulshan-e-Iqbal park is not only out of fear of militants.

Unlike the recent suicide blast by the Pakistani Taliban, which intended to target Easter celebrations at a park in Lahore, the blasts in Youhanabad last year prompted local Christians to come out of their homes in droves to call for justice. In the heat of the moment, two Muslims were killed.

By the time I visited the neighbourhood in April 2015, more than 150 men and boys had been arbitrarily detained by the police for murder and vandalism.

Families and rights groups did not know about the locations of their loved ones for at least a month and a half after the detentions.

The state’s “picking up” of Christian men from their streets and beds in the middle of the night continued till October 2015. Today, 43 Christians remain in jail on murder charges of two Muslims, according to the lawyers, rights activists and members of the community I spoke with.

Flawed system

On the face of it, arresting and charging a group of men for murder looks legal and reasonable. But, Christians in Pakistan are among some of the poorest and most marginalised populations in the country.

This marginalisation manifests itself most violently through the ill-application of a justice system, and legal redress is tenuous at best.

The widespread detentions during the protests in Youhanabad were not the first experience that Christians had with especially heavy-handed law enforcement.

In 2013, after twin bombings at the All Saints Church in Peshawar which killed at least 80 people, a large number of young Christians agitated in Lahore and Karachi.

Multiple arrests by the Punjab police followed, resulting in a heightened sense of insecurity and vulnerability among Pakistani Christians. Some even applied for asylum abroad, citing state persecution alongside militant violence.

Anger expressed by the community in demonstrations represents its pleas for justice and security.

Protests by the Christian community that were never so destructive as to harm the lives of Muslims, turned aggressive and then subsequently violent in the past few years only.

In addition to becoming victims of militancy, these protests were also consequences of years of abuse faced by the community through blasphemy cases and arson attacks by Muslim protesters on Christian settlements and villages.

Like African and Hispanic Americans in the United States, Christians in Pakistan are victims of an unjust system and structural violence.

Christians are not only “soft targets” for the militancy, but also victims of socioeconomic and political exclusion.

Historically, many Christians are said to be former members of Hindu communities who converted to escape systematic caste oppression in colonial India.

They have since inherited the socioeconomic marginalisation of their former caste, and continue to work as janitorial and domestic workers. Politically, many remain vulnerable to Pakistan’s notorious blasphemy laws. They are also not fully integrated in the political process in Pakistan.

From the biases in school textbooks to everyday poverty, Christians eke out a living on the edge of our world, the world of a Sunni Islam majority.

Deepening disempowerment

This marginalisation of the Christians means protesting against brutal attacks by militants or the insecurity becomes nearly impossible. In fact, the violence against this community indicates that the operation launched by the state against militants in the Punjab province will not make much of a dent in the lives of ordinary Christians.

Tough crackdowns on disempowered Christian people after the protests in the wake of attacks on their community have pushed Pakistani Christians up against the wall. This year, they barely brought out demonstrations after the suicide attacks.

Back in Youhanabad I had met 60-year-old Javed Hidayat, a Christian mechanic. In the aftermath of the protests, the police had raided his home in the middle of the night and taken his son away without an arrest warrant.

When I spoke with him, he told me that the police charged his son not just with murder, but terrorism. In his desperate attempt to reclaim his son, he lost hours and days of work to solely focus on his son’s bail.

Bilqees, his wife, is so sick with grief and depression that she cannot visit their son in prison for the bi-weekly meetings that are permitted. Their other 15-year-old son left school to earn enough money to feed his family at least twice a day.

After the Easter blasts in Lahore’s Gulshan-e-Iqbal Park last week, I thought of Javed. When I dialled his number, his words to me were, “On Easter after the blasts, Bilqees cried for hours. I feel like we are marked by the cruelties and violence inflicted upon us forever, and we will never be able to take off this mark.”

Rabia Mehmood is an independent journalist and researcher based out of Pakistan, with interest in religious persecution, gender and human rights.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.

Next Story

In The Name Of The Father: Honour Killing And Blasphemy In South Asia

Is there any lesson for India to learn from the occurrence and fallouts of cases related to Honour Killings and Blasphemy in Pakistan?

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Honor Killing Protest in Pakistan.

By Tania Bhattacharya

Taniya Bhattacharya
Ms. Tania Bhattacharya

There was once a girl from the rural areas of Pakistan, South Asia. At the young age of 16, she was forcibly married off by her parents. Her husband turned out to be an inebriated womanizer. She tried to live with him, producing a son, and tried to put up with his infractions. When it became too much to ignore, she would complain. He then silenced her by using brute force, punches and kicks. Unable to bear the toll her marriage was taking on her mental and physical well-being, she deserted her man and her child, and left the village. Arriving in the metropolis of Lahore, she decided to make it big in the entertainment industry. To her mind, the simplest way to achieve this was to use a pseudonym and social media as the medium of exposure. So she went on the offensive with her frequent uploads which soon went viral; dressing provocatively, gyrating and singing sensuously; recording video messages for Pakistani male celebrities; and even proposing marriage to cricketer turned
politician Imran Khan. People began to notice her. Gradually this woman, once a victim of domestic abuse, evolved into Pakistan’s Kim Kardashian. Employing a ruse as a whistleblower in one instance, she inadvertently exposed a Mufti and created a furore in the wake of the incident. But everyone watching her videos, was not a fan. There was something dark lurking beyond the pale of adulation, that she was finally able to sense and wake up to. Calling an urgent press conference one day, she begged for the media to leave her alone or to provide her with protection. They had had the temerity to fish out her passport details and her birth name and hold it up for the world to see. It was the last time the public saw her speak. Weeks later, on the 15th of July 2016, she was found dead
in the home she had bought for her parents and siblings; strangled to death in her sleep, by her own brother who had grown irate by reading the lecherous comments of her fans and thought that she had brought dishonour to her family.

Only, this is not the script of a film. It is the biography of Pakistani internet celebrity Qandeel Baloch. Now, her life has been immortalized into a television drama named ‘Baaghi’, or ‘Rebel’. Qandeel’s homicidal brother Waseem Azeem, confessed to the crime, saying that his sister’s licentious moves, had brought disrepute to their clan. The shocking incident was condemned by a number of Paki public figures who bear a liberal image among the masses. Two of these were the late human rights activist Ms. Asma Jahangir, and chairperson of the Pakistan Peoples Party, Mr. Bilawal Bhutto Zardari.

Qandeel’s tragedy is not an exception. She joins a long list of victims in Pakistan, who have paid with their lives for either dishonouring filial ties, or for committing Blasphemy, a crime punishable by death. As far as the latter goes, there have been at least two famous cases of women who were accused of blaspheming; Asia Bibi, and more recently, Rimsha Masih.

Asia Bibi, during a private conversation in a fruit orchard, seemingly made certain deprecatory comments about Islam’s Prophet Muhammad. Someone – in all probability one of the women participants in the said conversation – then reported her to the authorities. She was arrested for the alleged crime, that had occurred on the 14th of June 2009. Section 295-C of the Pakistan Penal Code, carries the death penalty for blasphemy. Merely being reported on the flimsiest instance of supposedly speaking ill about Muhammad, can earn someone the noose in that country.

Also Read: Pakistani Christians Not Feeling Safe After The IS Attack

In order to indict her, the prosecution from its end, had brought forth seven witnesses, two of whom were women; Mafia Bibi, and Asma Bibi. The women claimed that after they refused to drink the water Asia had brought for them – on the grounds that she was a Christian – Asia had proceeded to lampoon Islam’s prophet. As the Pakistani media has pointed out, it is not improbable, that Afia and Asma were in a dispute over potable water with the accused, and may have used the opportunity to get rid of her. In the end, following an infirmed defence, Asia Bibi was sentenced to be hanged. The year was 2010.

Rimsha Maasih, another Christian, was accused of Blasphemy at the mere age of 14. Khalid Jadoon, a Muslim cleric, had complained to law enforcement, that Rimsha had burnt pages from the Holy Quran. Rimsha, who suffers from learning disabilities, was framed by Jadoon, but even after the courts had established this, Jadoon was let off the hook, lightly, with all charges against him being dropped. Rimsha fled to Canada with her family in tow, after she was released from gaol. The year was 2012.

Pakistan’s Blasphemy Laws are unforgiving of its minorities, who face arraignment and a death sentence upon being convicted.

Honour Killing is by no means peculiar to Pakistan. It is a pan Afro-Asian epidemic, that affects women and girls who are defenceless. Sometimes, powerless men become victims too, if the perpetrators are wealthy, and connected, as India witnessed in the case of Nitish Katara’s murder. In Jordan, the parliament has long been trying to pass laws to counterbalance its record of the honour killing of girls. In the African continent, the practice is rampant, as it is in India, where caste concerns and family dictates tend to govern the lives of couples who wish to turn their relationships into a lifelong commitment.

Also Read: How Honorable is Honor Killing?

However, even if honour killing is not restricted to Pakistan, Blasphemy is the most pronounced there, out of the entire swathe of the Indian sub-continent, which includes Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Nepal, and Bhutan. For the committing of blasphemy, the necessary requirement is of a religion that has a founding father, whose words are written in stone. Islam is not the only religion with a founding father. So are Judaism and Christianity. However, blaspheming does not appear to scar societies with a majority Christian or Jewish population. The reason is not these religions, but the watering down of their original ethics at the hands of the European Enlightenment and the Renaissance. Islam on the other hand, did not experience any internal change on the scale of the two, and continues to remain unrepentant of its Blasphemy pogroms.

Nor is this to say, that there are no freethinkers within the Paki establishment and larger society who condemn the Blasphemy Law and are highly critical of it. Prominent humanist the late Salman Taseer, who was a long time beau of Indian journalist Tavleen Singh and the father of their son, the author Aatish Taseer, was gunned down outside his home, due to his defence of Asia Bibi, against the court’s verdict. He had been appealing for mercy on Asia’s behalf.

As case after case has revealed, inflicting a prison term or a death sentence on unsuspecting members of Pakistan’s minorities, coupled with instances where the opportunity is used for settling personal scores, have become the hallmark of the implementation of its Blasphemy Law.

Perhaps the most infamous instance of this law being in flagrant violation of basic human rights, is in the case of Mashal Khan. Mashal Khan was a medical student at the Abdul Wali Khan University in Mardan, in the northern Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province of Pakistan. He had been a journalist previously and had spend many years working and studying in Russia. Mashal had Leftist leanings, and took great pains to describe himself as a Humanist, above everything else. His twitter and facebook accounts, frequently dropped bombs about how the Pakistani military establishment was responsible for mind control and collateral damage and how its propaganda tactics were causing more harm to its people than good. Mashal has spoken on several occasions, about the persecution of the minorities of his country, with special focus on its Hindus. Time and again, he had advocated that his country’s problems were its own, and that it was a fruitless exercise to pin the blame on
India and its Hindus.

Also Read: Christian Blasphemy Suspect in Pakistan Jumps from Building to Escape Torture

It is not difficult to surmise as to why he was targeted for assassination. On the fateful day of the 13th of April 2017, a large group of students from the Abdul Wali Khan University who were Mashal’s own peers, attacked him furiously inside the campus. He was lynched and shot at, being left mortally wounded. When the ambulance was called, it was already too late. Mashal’s mother later recounted, that when she kissed his hand for the last time before his burial, she found that even the bones of his fingers, were broken.

Just as there are regressive forces within Pakistan that are preventing the nation from thinking along humanist lines by riding on the coattails of its Blasphemy Laws and its ethics over Honour Killing, there is also a handful of right-minded activists, students, and leaders there, who are straining to make themselves heard. One of them had been the late Mashal.

Is there any lesson for India to learn from the occurrence and fallouts of cases related to Honour Killings and Blasphemy in Pakistan?

Let us not emulate. Blasphemy will never be a popular idea among the majority Hindus of this country, since Hinduism does not have a founding father, the religion being a conglomeration of branches of varying lengths and sizes. But freethinkers have faced the heat in recent times in this country. The murder of a Gauri Lankesh, a Narendra Dabholkar, or an M.M. Kalburgi, are proof enough, that sections of Hindus are no longer tolerant of dissent.

This is tragic. Hinduism’s many schools of philosophy, include one that deals exclusively with Atheism. Known as the Charvaka reservoir of critical analysis, this system of beliefs relies entirely on rationalism and empirical evaluation.

One can only hope, that Charvaka’s unhindered existence in the millennia of Hinduism’s history, will
prove a point to Hindus, and prevent them from going Pakistan’s way, in the realm of Blasphemy.

Tania is a freelance writer with a Masters in Defence and Strategic Studies who has a wide range of interests.