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.