Pakistan's Constitution Must Be Amended To Remove Sectarian Clauses

The murders of over 90 Pakistani citizens last week because of their religious beliefs makes clear that Pakistan’s parliament must amend the Constitution to remove sectarian clauses that in part incite such violence.

Section 260(3) of Pakistan’s constitution defines whom the law considers a Muslim. This is exceedingly important because the constitution restricts certain government offices to Muslims. For example, Section 41(2) requires that the President be “a Muslim of not less than forty-five years of age.”

But more than simply disenfranchising some citizens, the sectarian clauses in the constitution have created second-class citizens of religious minorities, and given fodder for the hateful rhetoric of extremists that encourages such violence as was witnessed last Friday.

In fact, the massacre of the Ahmadis was not the first time that a religious minority has suffered violent attack in recent months. Last August, religious extremists attacked a community of Christians in Gojra, killing many and burning down several dozen homes.

Pakistan’s parliament and President Zardari were quick to condemn the attacks in Gojra and provide funding to compensate victims, but until the government purges the aberrant laws that extremists use to justify these attacks, future violence is all but inevitable.

Cornell doctoral student Basit Riaz Sheikh, agrees. Writing for English-language daily, Express Tribune, Sheikh notes that the sectarian tensions that increasingly flare up today are rooted in the regime of dictator Zia-ul-Haq.

Until 1977, when Bhutto’s government was toppled, Pakistan was free of any major sectarian and ethnic tensions. The ten years of Zia-ul-Haq’s dictatorial regime would transform Pakistan from a tolerant society into one marred with ethnic and sectarian divisions and hate-driven politics. He fully crippled the religious freedom of minorities by imposing draconian laws in the name of the Anti-Islamic-Activity Act. Zia vanished, but we continue to pay for his sins.

The remnants of his era, in the shape of many in our media now and others, continue to insinuate hatred against minorities, the West, and all others who disagree with them. It goes beyond my imagination that we let these hate-mongers freely express their extremist sentiments on TV channels under the pretext of freedom of speech. Freedom of speech doesn’t mean freedom to spread hate.

To build a stronger and a united Pakistan, we need to cleanse our constitution of the provisions that continue to divide us.

The US Commission on International Religious Freedom has recognized the Zardari government’s progress in the area of religious freedom in Pakistan, but points out that until discriminatory legislation promulgated by previous administrations is removed, religious minorities will continue to suffer.

The Zardari government has taken some positive steps regarding religious freedom. In November 2008, the government appointed prominent minority-rights advocate Shahbaz Bhatti as Federal Minister for Minorities with cabinet rank. Mr. Bhatti has publicly promised that the Zardari government will review Pakistan’s blasphemy laws and that the government is committed to protecting the rights of minority religious communities, including by implementing a five percent quota for religious minorities in federal government employment. In March 2009, the government appointed a Christian jurist as a judge in the Lahore High Court. It is not yet clear what impact these developments will have on religious freedom, which has been severely violated by successive Pakistani governments in the past. Discriminatory legislation, promulgated in previous decades and persistently enforced, has fostered an atmosphere of religious intolerance and eroded the social and legal status of members of religious minorities, including Shi’a Muslims, Ahmadis, Hindus, and Christians.*

Article 33 of Pakistan’s constitution requires the state to “discourage parochial, racial, tribal, sectarian and provincial prejudices among the citizens.” This vital mission of the government cannot be achieved while sectarian prejudice is codified in the nation’s laws. In order to protect the rights and the safety of all citizens, Pakistan’s Parliament should immediately move to amend the constitution by removing Section 260(3) and other sectarian laws.


*Emphasis added

One thought on “Pakistan's Constitution Must Be Amended To Remove Sectarian Clauses

  1. Daily Times Monday, June 07, 2010
    COMMENT: A fight we must win —Dr Syed Mansoor Hussain
    Perhaps the secularists’ anguish is tinged by a sense of overwhelming guilt for never having come out openly against the officially tolerated discrimination that the Ahmedis have suffered for all the years that they have been viciously persecuted

    The recent massacre of Ahmedis in Lahore has brought forth a predictable spate of condemnation. And as time has gone by more people have come out to condemn this atrocity both in the media as well as in the ‘blogosphere’. This rising tide of sympathy and support for the Ahmedi community is perhaps an unintended consequence of the massacre. However, it has also exposed the intrinsic differences in the response of those that condemned the incidents.

    Predictably the religious extremists and their fellow travellers remained silent. Among them those in political positions of power in Punjab did make some appropriate noises but could not find the gumption to condemn the actual perpetrators. The most bizarre point of view expressed by some of them is that both the victims and the attackers were not Muslims and as such it was not really a sectarian problem at all!

    Most Pakistanis it seems were however truly anguished by what had happened. Of these there are two broad categories The first is the majority point of view that seems to suggest that even if the Ahmedis are not accepted as ‘true’ Muslims they still deserve full protection under the law and respect of their beliefs as do all other Pakistanis.

    The ‘secularists’ of the Left though seemed to be the most upset and as the days went by increasingly found their voice. Perhaps their anguish is tinged by a sense of overwhelming guilt for never having come out openly against the officially tolerated discrimination that the Ahmedis have suffered for all the years that they have been viciously persecuted.

    Politics in Pakistan is a mess — the liberals, the secularists and the mainstream Muslims are all lost. They talk of individual rights but none have mustered the requisite courage to confront head on the cancer of religious extremism that is threatening the very existence of our country. Religiously motivated terrorism is obviously the greatest threat but it has its roots in the extremism that has slowly crept up and is now difficult to get rid of.

    The two people who were responsible for starting Pakistan down this ‘slippery slope’ of extremism and legal discrimination against minorities are both dead and have been for decades, yet their legacy survives and has become a part of our constitution and our system of laws. It seems that even the most unjust laws, if based on religion, not only are allowed to exist but seem immune to change.

    Interestingly, after the passage of the 18th Amendment to the constitution our apex court seems willing to examine whether it deserves to exist as an amendment yet no attempt has been made by this independent court to examine the laws that have made a mockery of the very concept of equality under the law for all citizens of Pakistan.

    Whether we like it or not, Pakistan is an overwhelmingly Muslim country and as such Muslim sensibilities must be considered in most matters. But then we have enough examples from the past and the much more glorious days in the history of Muslims where considerable freedom existed within the framework of Islam.

    At the height of their magnificence, the Abbasids in Iraq, the Umayyads in Spain, the Ottomans in half the known world and the Mughals in India practiced a multiculturalism that would be exemplary for even the most secular European country today. Many pious Muslims believe that the fall of those empires occurred because they became separated from Islamic orthodoxy. The truth is quite the opposite. When these empires started to disintegrate that is when religious extremism took over, accelerating their decay and eventual destruction.

    Pakistan is in trouble and unless religious extremism can be controlled, things may spin out of control completely. Already our armed forces are fighting against the purveyors of extremism and terrorism on our western borders but ordinary people need to come out openly and help them win this war.

    In this perhaps the massacre of the Ahmedis can contribute. It has the potential of uniting disparate elements of Pakistani society that oppose such violence. I realise that it is virtually impossible to even consider the question whether Ahmedis are Muslims without running afoul of the existing law but they are Pakistanis and as such have the right to practice their faith without fear of persecution and definitely without fear of violence.

    It is imperative for all right minded people to come together and proclaim again and again that the Ahmedis must be protected. If once we create the environment where the Ahmedis can practice their faith freely and without fear then only can we hope that the Shias, followers of different Sufi systems, the Christians, the Hindus and eventually even the mainstream Barelvi-Hanafis will also be fully protected.

    As far as who is a Muslim is concerned, I have great difficulty answering that question since I am not an expert on religious matters. Frankly, if somebody asks me if I am a Muslim I will of course reflexively say yes, but on further introspection I might wonder if that is true. We all say that we are Muslims, but when it comes to our actions more often than not they are contrary to the spirit of Islam.

    I have never espoused ‘tolerance’ for I believe that tolerance is a sham. What is needed is acceptance. In the US, for all the years I lived there, I was always accepted as an equal. Yes, different forms of bigotry existed but it was well suppressed by the law as well as public opprobrium attached to such attitudes.

    When somebody said, I am a Christian or a Jew or a Muslim, few people — if any — felt the need to ask them to prove it. And that is what I wish we as a people in Pakistan will some day be able to do. May the spirit of Ali Hajweri, the patron saint of Lahore, guide us in these dark times.

    Syed Mansoor Hussain has practised and taught medicine in the US. He can be reached at smhmbbs70@yahoo.com

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