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Behind the assassination

11 March, 2011

By M.A. Niazi


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There has been consternation at the assassination of Federal Minorities Affairs Minister Shahbaz Bhatti, but much has been focused on the fact that the Interior Minister, as the politician in charge of the Islamabad Police, failed to prevent the assassination, and not enough attention paid to the PPP government thinking it necessary to have a Minorities Affairs Minister, to which it named the only Christian, or for that matter only minority member, in the Cabinet. Indeed, not since Rana Chandar Singh held the Anti-Narcotics portfolio in Nawaz Sharifs first ministry, has a minority member held a portfolio other than Minority Affairs. True, minority members have been Ministers of State for Religious Affairs, but in charge of Minority Affairs.

The majority in Pakistan is Muslim, just as in many more countries, while the majority in others is Christian, Hindu or Buddhist. However, in Pakistan, there are also, as in many other Muslim countries, religious minorities. But while the minorities in the Arab Muslim world are mostly Christian, in Pakistan there is a significant Hindu minority. Indeed, most Pakistanis converted to Islam from Hinduism. The Christian minority was also created by conversion from Hinduism during the Raj, when low-caste Hindus tried converting to the rulers religion to achieve social advancement. However, the Raj did not concede this. The British were as racist as the Hindus, who had made the caste division an integral part of their religion, and so they proceeded to keep the new Christians away from them by creating the division between Native Christians and European Christians, not just in terms of services in the Anglican Church, which are still in either English (as for the Europeans) or Urdu (as for the Natives). While the major consequence of separate electorates was having separate Muslim seats, a minor consequence was the European Christians having seats separately from the Native Christians.

While the government was careful to seem even-handed by not encouraging the missionaries, the Christian community at the time of partition had established themselves in teaching and nursing. This was a way out of the traditional occupation, of cleaning, which they still practised. Christians only assumed primacy as a minority after the secession of East Pakistan, which took away a significant Hindu minority. While there has been a revival of the religious right in Pakistan, it remains informed by pre-partition, or rather Hindu, attitudes towards minorities. It must be noted that India has faced mainly a Muslim issue among its minority problems, and does not count the Christians as creating much of a national difficulty, and any anti-Christian activity is seen as anti-missionary, and thus anti-foreigner. However, with the departure of the Eurasian community, created not by conversion but by British-local intermarriage and a privileged community which suddenly faced pressures at partition, through migration to the UK and other white countries, and with the withdrawal of the racism inherent in Hinduism, the Pakistani Christians found that many new opportunities opened for them, but at the same time there was a closing of doors once thought open.

This was because the model of tolerance in Pakistan should have been Islamic, and Muslims relied on it, but minorities demanded tolerance in accordance with the Western models. The major difference is that the Muslim model of tolerance is based on the incorrectness of all religions other than Islam, while the Western model is based on the incorrectness of all religions. The suspicion of missionaries, which has translated into attacks on churches. It is based on their perceived role as agents of imperialist powers, which are known to have used missionary identities as cover. This has earned the label of anti-minority for terrorists, or rather anti-Christian, which is indeed an odd position for a Muslim to find himself in.

The main reason for kindness to the minorities is supposedly to preserve Pakistans image abroad, which is why the parameters of tolerance have been Western, rather than Islamic. As a result, they have not been internalised as belonging inherently to the population here. Further, there has been insufficient distancing from Hindu discrimination, which is caste-ist and thus racist.

Another result of the ruling classes retaining the mindset of the Raj has been to view the minorities as a problem, to be given a ministry (but only one) to show the world how tolerant (by Western standards) Pakistanis are, and try and forget the problem. The missionary element would allow the problem to be changed into one of security, but the minorities are supposed to remain a problem. And the problem has become one of international dimensions not just because the Christians share the Americans religion, as because the (Muslim) ruling elite concedes that opinion as mattering. This attitude had led to the blasphemy laws being considered an issue of public order, not a religious duty. Whether or not the law works against minorities does not matter. Even if repealed, the relatively rich, powerful and influential would find another law to apply against members of the minority, already disadvantaged in so many ways.

This is particularly true in the case of the current government, which kowtows to the US. And the US is interested in the Pakistani Christian community not just because of its affinity to it, seen in the nationalisation of missionary institutions, which were mainly American Protestant ones. The US is also interested because of its own Religious Right, which has been increasingly influential in politics. This intervention is the reason the government thought of amending the blasphemy laws, an idea it gave up after the Punjab Governors murder, and before Bhattis. This has been one of the reasons why Pakistani Christians, especially those acculturated to the US, not just because it is the cultural vanguard of the world, but because of links created either through church ties or migration, are identified by extremists as agents of influence.

That is a reason neither the Raj model, followed by the ruling elite so far, nor any Islamic model, has been able to accommodate or tolerate. While the Christians are entitled to follow their religion freely, it is too much to expect any division of allegiance to be tolerated.

However, it could be argued that the Christian minority is merely following the example of the Muslim majority. When the Christian community invoked the US to get back nationalised institutions, it did so not just because of the original nationalisations, but also because the government acceded to the American interference. Indeed, this interference has now gone so far that the US wants its CIA contractors, who shoot up Pakistani citizens or run them over, to be given freedom on the pretext of diplomatic immunity. However, this American interference invites suspicions of the kind of divided loyalty that India tries to put onto its Muslim citizens.

The Arab Christians do not provide the correct example for Pakistan, for they are the descendants of those who were Christian at the time of the Muslims opening up those lands for Islam, while many of todays Arab Muslims converted from Christianity. But there has been little conversion from Islam to Christianity or vice versa in Pakistan, both Muslims (by and large) and Christians comprising converts from Hinduism. The Arab Christians were extensively involved in Pan-Arab movements not involving Islam, such as Arab nationalism and Arab socialism. There is no equivalent for the Pakistani Christians.

However, though one of the fruits of freedom has been the increased integration of the Christians, the rightist resurgence threatening them is also ascribable to outside interference. At one level, it is not easy to blame the Christians for bringing in interference, which the government allows. Thus, the coming of outside forces through the Christian community, and in their support, is because of the rulers weakness, not because of any force the Christians here have exerted upon them. Apart from allowing these forces in, it is the government that has displayed the weakness, which has led to incidents involving Christians attaining an international dimension, even though they are purely domestic. It should stop displaying such weakness, and should punish the killers of one of its ministers, rather than wait for the demand to be raised elsewhere.

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