Growing Extremism in Pakistan

In yet another episode of violence against religious minorities in Pakistan - that has become a regular affair in this country - Muslims in a Punjab village burned down a church and forced a mass exodus of Christians from that area. The apparent reason behind this carnage was the same accusation of blasphemy that has marred the image of the Muslim world. Pakistani Muslims, in specific, have become the driving force behind this blasphemy drama.

People still have bloody memories of the carnage that ensued after the publication of caricatures in European newspapers in 2006. At the time, the anger was driven against European products and financial institutions. Now, it is poor Christians who have always lived under the fears of exploitation and death at the hands of their Muslim neighbors.

Violence against religious minorities is not new in Pakistan although it has never reached the magnanimous proportions that one can see in its neighbor; the lack of major bloodshed, however, is 'compensated for' by regular attacks on religious minorities and the desecration of their religious and personal assets. Last month, there was a major attack on Christians in Gojra, another town of the Punjab province, that resulted in the loss of life and property. (Punjab hosts the majority of Pakistan's 3 million impoverished Christians.) Many of the affected people are still living in camps as they are afraid to return back to their homes and face another backlash from the Muslims.

Another religious minority that is badly affected by the violence is the Ahmedi sect (they also mostly live in Punjab). They have been stripped of their Muslim status through a 1974 law and are now considered a religious minority. Although they have a sizable presence in the civil and military bureaucracy, they still face many troubles in their real lives. This is particularly true for common Ahmedi who live alongside Muslims in villages and small towns. Those living in cities also face religious discrimination and are often barred from institutions of professional learning. Religious intolerance has become a part of the social fabric in these areas. The typical ploy to instigate violence against Ahmedis is to level an accusation of blasphemy; the rest of the work is done by the frenzied mob that is charged up by the inflammatory hate speeches of the mosque leaders.

Unfortunately, there is no legal protection for these poor souls. The Pakistani constitution does allow for a complete freedom of expression and religion for minorities but it is hardly implemented. Although minorities enjoy relative freedom in major metropolitan areas, they do not in small towns and villages. Those who've lived in small towns for decades are now considering packing up their belongings and moving to bigger cities.

The tyrannical blasphemy laws are the major reason behind the growing violence against religious minorities. These laws, promulgated during the dictatorial rule of General Zia, stripped minorities of their basic rights. Simply put, the punishment for any blasphemous action against Islamic figures is death by hanging. There are no means of ascertaining the actual, blasphemous offense, and people are regularly rounded up on charges of speaking against any Islamic figure or desecrating the Holy Quran. These laws have provided an easy excuse to instigate violence against minorities. Interestingly, many Muslims have also become victims of these laws, as anyone can exploit them for personal gains.

The only solution to this problem is an immediate repeal of these draconian laws and an increased vigilance by the international human rights organizations. Pakistanis love to extract dollars from American and European aid agencies but they should also prove that there is a rule of law and equal opportunities for every Pakistani. A repeal of laws and international scrutiny will bring at least some sigh of relief for the religious minorities in Pakistan.