Sergio Restelli

Religion and Democracy: The Pakistan example

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File picture of a protest against violence towards christians in Pakistan. Creative Commons license

No probe can undo the deep fear spread by fanaticism in today’s Pakistan. The attack and burning of five churches and several Christian residential premises in Faisalabad, Punjab, speak of a deeper malaise within Pakistan’s soul. The arson and looting was triggered on rumours of blasphemy but were fanned by radical extremist groups like Tehreek-e- Labbaik Pakistan (TLP), sponsored and supported by the Pakistan Army.

The state of Pakistan has only one answer to this problem–to remove the blasphemy laws as it exists in the statute. But there is no support for such a move–be it in the National Assembly or people or the army. In fact, the Shehbaz Sharif government, only a few days before its conclusion, was keen on bringing even harsher clauses to the draconian law. Fortunately, the bill was returned by the President and it will have to wait for the new government to take charge.

This is as big a threat to the democratic essence of Pakistan as is TTP or terrorism. People can be turned into weapons of destruction by vested extremist groups like TLP supported by the military. A democratic nation cannot hope to function as one if it were to promote militant extremism in any manner. In this case, the state has been singularly responsible for creating an atmosphere of hate and fear for reasons which are untenable in a civilized society.

Pakistans Army chief, General Asim Munir has, for a change, spoken out against the atrocity at an internship program at GHQ. But the question is whether he will order a similar crackdown on the culprits as those who attacked the military installations on May 9? Are not temples, churches and mosques an important pillar of a nation as the military is? Maybe Munir’s outburst is more tactical in nature-trying to demonstrate that he is really in command.

There cannot be more compelling proof that Pakistan has gone astray from the ideals of its founder Muhammad Ali Jinnah. On August 17, in 1947, Mr Jinnah made it a point to attend a Christian church service. His idea was to show that religious freedom and places of worship of all Pakistani citizens would be protected. Seventy six years later, burning Christian churches, damaging Ahmadi worship places and Hindu temples have become a normal occurrence in Pakistan.

For decades, people have been falsely accused, convicted, lynched, shot and knifed to death on charges of blasphemy. This year alone (till August 16, 2023) around 198 persons have been accused of blasphemy, 85 percent of them Muslims, 9% Ahmadis and 4.4% Christians. More than 2,120 persons were accused of committing blasphemy from 1987 to 2022. Punjab recorded the maximum–over 75% of the abuse of blasphemy laws cases in the past 36 years.

The state has been more of a complicit in these murderous assaults on its own citizens. The Supreme Court had suggested a deterrent punishment for falsely accusing anyone of blasphemy. Few media houses have sought a change of mindset and urged political leaders to find an immediate solution to this gruesome problem which has sharply divided the people. Ever since the Sunni mobs ran down Ahmadi communities in the early years of the country’s existence, no government has been courageous enough to safeguard the minorities against gross and violent misuse of blasphemy laws. Instead, successive governments have only introduced or modified clauses to make the laws even more draconian, encouraging radical elements to take law into their hands when a rumor of blasphemy is created often by vested interests. The elite have often used blasphemy laws to usurp properties, settle personal scores and terrorize minorities.

The Faisalabad attack on Christians is not going to be the last of such attacks because the state, especially its army, considers rabidly extremist elements like TLP as tools to manipulate politics and events. Pakistan should be an example to how quickly the use of religion escalates in a democracy and becomes a problem. Pakistan should be a warning to the Israeli far right. While there is a huge distance between the two countries, this is a slippery slope.

About the Author
Sergio Restelli is an Italian political advisor, author and geopolitical expert. He served in the Craxi government in the 1990's as the special assistant to the deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Justice Martelli and worked closely with anti-mafia magistrates Falcone and Borsellino. Over the past decades he has been involved in peace building and diplomacy efforts in the Middle East and North Africa. He has written for Geopolitica and several Italian online and print media. In 2020 his first fiction "Napoli sta bene" was published.
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