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Samia Khan Bambrah

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The Courage To Redefine Pakistan

Posted: 07/26/11 06:09 PM ET

Growing up as a member of the privileged class of Karachi, I was blinded to many of the realities of my city. My friends and I were what the average Pakistani would call "burgers," an affectionately derogatory term to describe the Westernized brats of the wealthy.

In our bubble, it didn't matter that we were Shiite, Parsi and Christian. But beyond our walls, these differences mattered. The 1990s were marred in Karachi by communal violence. Though the violence
occurred beyond our physical boundaries, it often entered our subconscious through the callus remarks of our parents about "those pesky Muhajirs." But then we would return to our school bubble and dismiss the notion of difference over a game of foosball.

Minorities in Pakistan no longer have the luxury of dismissing their difference. Since 2001, 80 holy sites have been desecrated, killing more than 1,200 worshippers, most of them religious minorities. This year, two prominent political leaders, Governor Salman Taseer and Minister Shahbaz Bhatti, were killed for advocating a review of the blasphemy law, a law that is misused to persecute minorities.

By far the most vilified of groups has been the Ahmadis, a minority Muslim sect who were declared non-Muslims in Pakistan in 1974. In early June, the All-Pakistan Students Khatm-e-Nubuwat Federation in Faisalabad openly distributed pamphlets calling for the murder of 36 Ahmadi industrialist families. The students, so confident of their impunity, put their phone numbers on the pamphlets.

In August 2010, the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) sent a letter of concern to the government, warning it that targeted killings of Ahmadis were on the rise. According to the HRCP, 99 Ahmadis were killed in 2010 and 64 were accused of blasphemy.

The self-proclaimed guardians of Pakistan's morality, the ulema (i.e. religious right), has been silent on these atrocities. They've defined other moral priorities for the country. This year, they have organized protests against the review of the blasphemy law, the drone attacks and the proposed burning of the Quran by a Florida pastor. Apparently, the ulema's moral compass points strictly West -- it will only condemn issues linked to a foreign boogeyman.

Pakistanis have increasingly come under attack for not doing enough to fight extremism in their own country. While it can certainly be argued that the Pakistani military has been incompetent or complicit, many Pakistanis have sought innovative ways to challenge the indoctrination of hate.

On July 5, two activists debated a member of the ulema on national TV on tolerance. They berated the ulema's tolerance of violence in its own community and questioned its position as the country's moral guardians. Citizens for Democracy, a Karachi-based organization, has conducted arts festivals, rallies and seminars for tolerance throughout the city. It has lodged police reports against the clerics who incited violence against slain Governor Taseer. The pop group Laal has dedicated itself to producing music of resistance. Even some political parties have demonstrated their commitment to tolerance. The MQM, the majority party of Karachi, sent its party workers to mosques around the city with cameraphones to document hate-inciting sermons, according to one party worker.

This movement is important, but will not alone be enough to mitigate the spread of intolerance. As the United States rethinks its strategy in Pakistan, it must prioritize facilitating the review of the blasphemy law. In a surprising turn-face, Maulana Fazlur-Rehman, the leader of the extremist party JUI, said he would be willing to discuss its review. The United States must pressure the government to enter a dialogue on the blasphemy law. Without the support of the United States, the political parties lack the incentive and the courage to work together on this issue.

And courage is what we need in Pakistan right now. My last trip home was in January, just days before the murder of Governor Taseer. Many poured into the streets to celebrate his assassination and the blasphemy law he defended. Many others, like me, wondered how we got so far from the Founder's vision of a country where religion was "no business of the state." We wondered how we moved so far from our faith, in which only God can decipher the sinners from the faithful. We wondered how we gave our power to men who have defined an Islam -- and indeed a Pakistan -- so alien to the subcontinent itself, which received Islam not by the sword but by the dhol and the beautiful music of the Sufi poets. We wondered how long it would take them to create this bizarre new Islamic Republic, one in which the loss of 1,200 lives is mere collateral damage, and justice is reserved for those who swallow their gospel whole.

In a few years, my Pakistani passport will expire and I will choose whether to renew it. For years, I have skimmed over the fact that I have to sign a declaration depriving Ahmadis of their identity as Muslims. But in a small act of resistance, granted by a great amount of privilege, I will question this declaration and refuse a passport if I have to sign it. I won't be alone. At least one Pakistani activist, a friend, refused to sign the declaration and still got a passport. If millions of Pakistanis around the world joined us, we might together shake the foundation of intolerance that this declaration imbues in our identity. It will not take just the U.S., or the brave activists and leaders of Pakistan to make this change. It will take us all to say that we no longer accept intolerance as part of our national character.