Monday, August 24, 2009

Minority Report: Changing Pakistan's Minority Experience

I didn’t know I was different from anyone else until I was seven. It was during lunchtime that one of my classmates began to make strange wailing noises and proceeded to beat her chest mockingly while telling everyone that this was what the “kaffir” Shiites did. I joined in the laughter only to realize later that she was talking about me. From that point on I was aware that I was an outsider. The fact that I was religiously curious from a young age didn’t help either. When I was nine, I decided that I was going to go to attend mass at my catholic school church just to see what it was like. The most interesting part of this wasn’t the mass; to be honest I couldn’t understand a word. It was everyone else’s reaction. Upon my return, my Islamiat teacher declared that I had converted to Christianity. It wasn’t very soon after that all of my classmates started to ignore me. This was also the year that graffiti began to appear on the walls on my way to school; “Shia kaffir, Shia kutta” (Shiites are infidels, Shiites are dogs). It boggled my mind that people I did not even know hated me.

Soon after I moved to Canada and forgot everything. But all these experiences came back when I heard about the attacks in Gojra. As all of us know quite well, attacks on minorities in Pakistan are all too common. Despite the fact that some 3-10 million minorities; both Muslim and non-Muslim live in Pakistan, since 2000 there have been several large scale attacks leaving scores dead and hundreds injured. Minorities in Pakistan do not only face violence and intolerance, but also discrimination at both a social and political level. As the Minorities Watch’s report on Pakistan points out, the average literacy rate for Christian’s in Punjab is 34 percent, eight percent less than the national average of 46.56%. The average literacy rates among Hindus and Sikhs, Parsis and Buddhists is 34% and 17% respectively. According to Human rights commission on Pakistan (HRCP) suicide rates are high among impoverished Christian and Hindu communities. Among the approximately 1000 suicides committed in Sindh in the year 2000, 25 were committed by Christians and Hindus. For minority women, the situation is much more dangerous. The HRCP notes that Hindu and Christian minority women are much more likely to be raped than their counterparts for supposed religious and political outrage. And the list goes on…

While it is true that discrimination against minorities is institutional, it is not fair to only place blame on the legal and political spheres. The societal attitudes about minorities must change. The resounding condemnation following the Gojra attacks provides hope for a changed future, but condemnation is simply not enough. Genuine efforts must be made to integrate minorities into the public sphere on their own terms. This can only happen when there is a separation between the mosque and the state. The problem with Pakistan as an Islamic republic is that anyone not embracing the state sanctioned belief (Sunni Islam) cannot be an equal citizen to those that do. Elevating a religion to the state level not only provides it with both legitimacy and protection not available to other beliefs (aka Blasphemy Law). And as long as this is the case, attacks on minorities similar to Gojra will continue.

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