Written July 22, 2010. Re-posted from the Oct/Nov edition of the NY Catholic Worker Newspaper.
A rosary hangs from the mirror of Yusef Amir’s (1)taxi cab. In Islamabad, the capital city of the Islamic Republic of Pakistan, openly displaying Christian iconography is not unheard of, but it is still a bold identification with a minority that has been the target of significant discrimination and persecution within the past several years. Attacks on Christians are not frequent in Islamabad itself, but according to a recent report put out by the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, at least 117 Christian houses were burned to the ground by Islamic fundamentalists in the residential areas of Gorja, Korianwala and other parts of Pakistan. Christians in Pakistan also suffered hardships last year, such as being threatened to convert to Islam, prosecution under blasphemy laws and social ostracization.
Despite these troubling considerations, Yusef’s eyes beamed with pride as he told us about his faith, his family and his ability to drive us to any destination in Pakistan. Because Kathy Kelly, my colleague on this Voices for Creative Nonviolence delegation, and I are from the United States, I think Yusef assumed that we were Christians and this would be a cultural connection that would not only be a point of shared faith, but might also help him receive a generous wage for his taxi services. Yusef drove us to several appointments that day, one being a meeting with young men from North and South Waziristan about the consequences of drone warfare. After our meetings were finished, Yusef was adamant that we came with him to meet his family to “see how poor people are living in Islamabad.” We could see that Yusef was a trustworthy man and that there was potential there for a more lasting friendship, so we agreed.
Yusef’s home is tucked in the middle of Islamabad in a katchi abadi, a slum or squatter colony. There are more than 20 katchi abadis in Islamabad inhabited by over 70,000 people dwelling in very difficult conditions. Having few rooms, amenities and modern comforts, Yusef’s tin-roofed home was kept spotless and well ordered, and the photos on the wall conveyed the stories of a close knit and loving family. It was a special day for Yusef because his daughter, her husband and their grandchild were visiting, so he was very eager for us to meet them as well as his wife. We were greeted with cold drinks and offered tea, snacks and dinner.
Kathy and I visited for an hour or so, and received a humbling amount of hospitality. We exchanged stories and heard about the joys and struggles of this poor Christian family living in Pakistan. With the odds stacked against her, Yusef’s daughter managed to receive a good education and was now working at a foreign consulate, the place where she met her husband. Their child looked healthy and a number of other children, who were not looking so healthy, came in and out of the house gazing with curiosity at these odd strangers. The children played with two large dogs that roamed in the concrete yard and a young cousin arrived in a frenzy of excitement, roaring in on his motorbike. After meeting the cousin, we thanked Yusef and his family for their kindness and promised to visit again if at all possible.
On the way back to our host family’s house, Yusef told us about the logistics behind being a cab driver. My recollection is that he said, on a good day, a taxi driver could expect to pull in around 1,000 rupees per day. This amounts to around 12 dollars a day, but after fuel, maintenance for the vehicle, taxes and registration fees are paid, little is left to rent a house or purchase food for a whole family. We parted ways when we made it to our destination, but that would not be the last time we would meet with our new friend.
Christians are not the only minority group facing discrimination in Pakistan. On May 28th, shortly after we returned from Lahore, militant groups attacked two Ahmadi mosques in Lahore, leaving at least 82 dead. Fundamentalists have targeted the Ahmadi sect because its interpretation of Islam differs from that of many Muslims. Fozia Tanveer and Arshed Bhatti, our hosts for much of our stay in Pakistan, were shocked to hear about these attacks. The next day, they organized a candlelight vigil at their café, ‘Civil Junction’, a place known for non-violent protests, in remembrance of the lives lost and to advocate that Pakistan move towards becoming a secular state where each person is free to choose their religious (or nonreligious) identification and practice accordingly.
In another recent tragedy in Lahore, Data Darbar, an important and popular Sufi Muslim shrine, was the target of a suicide bomb blast that killed 43 people and injured 175. Back home in the United States, Kathy and I were severely distressed when reading of the attacks in the New York Times. When we were in Lahore, we met with a group of students who were extremely enthusiastic about the Thursday night melas, or religious festivals, happening at the Sufi Shrine. The students showed us a video taken of a mela where Muslim spirituals were sung and accompanied by dancing and the captivating drums of Pappu Sain. Being an avid drummer and attracted to music’s spiritual elements, I was very drawn to the Sufi traditions. I made it a goal, though I failed in the goal, to visit the Sufi shrine before leaving Pakistan. After checking in with our friends and colleagues in Lahore, we were relieved to hear that none of the students we met were hurt in the blasts, but still saddened to think of what a horrific loss of life occurred there that day.
Fozia and Arshed explained to us how these attacks against minorities are not isolated events and how they fit into a much larger piece of the puzzle in Pakistan’s history. As with many societies, Pakistan’s discrimination and fundamentalism has gradually been increasingly institutionalized through law. For instance, under mounting pressure and riots from conservative elements in the country, the Pakistani parliament passed a constitutional amendment in 1974, during the Zulfikar Ali Bhutto administration, which explicitly deprived Ahmadis of their identity as Muslims and forcibly defined the religious group as a minority.
This legal distinction led to other ordinances passed throughout General Mohammad Zia-ul-Haq’s rule which provided for the prohibition of Ahmadis to practice Islam and allowed them to be punished for “indirectly or directly posing as a Muslim.” In 1978, parliament pushed through a series of laws that created a separate electorate system for non-Muslims in Pakistan, which include approximately four million Christians, four million Hindus, Jews, Sikhs, Zoroastrians and Bahais, and four million Ahmadis.(2)
This two-tiered system of law continued from Zia’ul-Huq’s time and did not change until president and military dictator General Pervez Musharraf declared the policy of joint electorate in 2002. This was a step forward and a highly praised move in the United States and western countries, but in many ways the joint electorate existed on paper alone.(3)Specific clauses were added to the legislation that continued to separate Ahmadis onto different voting lists (4)and large numbers of Christians boycotted the 2002 and 2008 general elections because they felt the joint electorate had still not sufficiently provided for and adequate representation of their political voice.(5)And even with the return of the civilian government in 2008, the situation on the ground has not changed much for minority groups.(6)Fundamentalists are still able to blame minorities, using them as scapegoats for Pakistan’s problems, and they are often able to get away with encouraging and carrying out terrorist attacks like the burning of the Christian homes or the bombing of the Ahmadi mosques and Sufi shrines(7)without much expectation of accountability or prosecution from the government.
It seems important to me that peace and justice advocates take note of these discriminations and lend their solidarity and support to minorities struggling for equal rights in Pakistan. Though obviously different in many ways, the two-tiered system of “religious apartheid”(8) in Pakistan affects disenfranchised Pakistanis in ways that are comparable to consequences of the apartheid systems in South Africa and now in Israel/Palestine. It’s also important to note how the United States armed and strongly supported Pakistan’s military dictators and the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) as laws discriminating against Pakistan’s minorities became more and more entrenched. Meanwhile, religious fundamentalism matured in Pakistani society, making Pakistan’s minorities more vulnerable.
The Reagan administration was eager to give General Zia-ul-Huq forty F16 fighter planes, plus over 1 billion dollars to fight the Soviets in Afghanistan. Under Reagan, the U.S. turned a blind eye, or possibly collaborated, with plans to develop Pakistan’s nuclear weapons. The Bush administrations pumped 8 billion of dollars of military aid into the Pervez Musharraf regime. Though pretending to cooperate with United States’ War on Terror after 9/11, Musharraf, the Pakistani military and the ISI consistently took U.S. money and weapons and used them for their own agenda. Musharraf himself had years of military experience in fighting with India and re-opened the Kashmir conflict by leading armed Sunni extremists in a campaign of anti-Shiite violence in Kashmir in 1995.(9)
Intelligence estimates by the U.S.(10), the United Kingdom and European Intelligence agencies have long drawn connections between these Sunni militants fighting in Kashmir and Taliban and Al Qaeda groups fighting the United States in Afghanistan.(11) Many people we spoke with in Pakistan believed that, like Musharraf, the Pakistani government is still playing games with the United States by taking its money and weapons and secretly supporting Islamists to de-stabilize Afghanistan. The allegations are based on the argument that conservative elements in Pakistan are doing all they can to assure that the United States will not win the war in Afghanistan so that, when the war is over and the U.S. leaves, Pakistan will see a government in Afghanistan that shares the common bond of Islam, favoring Pakistan over India.
The Pakistani government is not monolithic in its intentions or makeup, and some officials are advocating for new policies towards India, Afghanistan and the United States. But behind all the opinions, confusion and politics, more weapons and more militarization of Pakistani society has not been beneficial for minorities or democracy in Pakistan. The military has become more and more dominant, while extremism has increased and minorities and civilians have suffered the consequences. The Obama administration has continued to flood billions of dollars in military aid to Pakistan, meanwhile increasing its reliance on the highly controversial C.I.A drone program.
Since 2007, the United States has pressured the Pakistani military to carry out several major military operations(12)to clear out the Taliban and al Qaeda from Pakistan’s North West Frontier Province (NWFP), The Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) and the Swat Valley. These operations, undertaken with very little accountability and making around 4 million Pakistanis homeless, led to the death of over 1,300 civilians and left another 2,500 people indefinitely incarcerated without trial. Around 1 million people are still living as refugees.(13)(Most of the major offensives have occurred during the Obama administration.) Furthermore, people in FATA have faced their own special sort of discrimination by being excluded from the legal, judicial and parliamentary system of Pakistan. Bans on collective punishment that theoretically extend to the rest of the population, don’t apply in FATA. These appalling atrocities by the Pakistani military and the increased civilian casualties from United States’ drone attacks have served as a very potent recruitment tool for militants who have carried out the terrorists attacks against minorities in Pakistan’s populated areas.
It’s time that people in the United States recognize our own brand of militant fundamentalism, a rigid philosophy that sees force as the solution to every problem, is only making things worse. Our almost religious reliance on technological advances, such as drone warfare, and the arming of unaccountable proxy forces will never bring a sustainable peace. These strategies have already ruined the lives of millions who meant us no harm and they have not helped the plight of struggling minority families like Yusef Amir’s. We have not democratized Pakistani society nor increased respect and tolerance for different traditions such as the Sufis, Ahmadis and Christians. We certainly have not made the United States any safer. Instead, we have consistently bolstered, radicalized and even armed the very conservative elements we proclaim to be working against. For a new direction and a mutually beneficial outcome, I would suggest that we demand an end to U.S. military aid and operations in Pakistan and start dialogue with Pakistani-led grassroots movements that are working for equal rights and open society, the very groups which have been the backbone of improvements in Pakistan.
Here are a few organizations and individuals working for interfaith dialogue and concrete change in Pakistan with whom it would be worthwhile for social justice advocates to connect:
Civil Junction, Islamabad, Pakistan: Arshed Bhatti and Fozia Tanveer -– firstname.lastname@example.org
Just Peace International, Peshawar, Pakistan: Ali Gohar — email@example.com
PakMove, Pakistani movement in the U.S. : Imam Abdul Malik Mujahid — firstname.lastname@example.org
Christian Study Centre, Rawalpindi, Pakistan: Francis Mehboob Sada— email@example.com
Human Rights Commission of Pakistan: Mr. Mohammad Asif— firstname.lastname@example.org
Joshua Brollier () is a co-coordinator with Voices for Creative Nonviolence. He was part of a May/June VCNV delegation to Pakistan which researched the effects of U.S. military intervention in the region.
(1)The name Yusef Amir has been altered from the original for security reasons.
(3)“Against the Current” by Kamila Hyat— http://www.jang.com.pk/thenews/apr2010-weekly/nos-18-04-2010/spr.htm
(4)“Joint electorate? Not quite” By I. A. Rehman—http://www.thepersecution.org/news/dawn020917.html
(5)The Christian Minority in Pakistan: Issues and Options, By Shaun Gregory—spaces.brad.ac.uk:8080/download/attachments/748/Brief+37.pdf
(6)Minorities at Risk, Assessment for Ahmadis in Pakistan: http://www.cidcm.umd.edu/mar/assessment.asp?groupId=77001
(7)In March 2009, militants attacked the Rahman Baba Sufi shrine in Peshawar: http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/south_asia/7925867.stm
(13)For a detailed look at the operations in NWFP, FATA and SWAT, read Amnesty International’s report at: http://www.eyesonpakistan.org/PakistanNorthwestviolationsAIReport_03062010.pdf