Farahnaz Ispahani is a Pakistani politician affiliated with the Pakistan People’s Party who advocates minority and women’s rights. Her forthcoming book is on Pakistan’s religious minorities.
In India recently to deliver a series of talks on Pakistan, she spoke to Gayatri Rangachari Shah:
The title of your forthcoming book, Waiting to Die, reflects the growing despair of Pakistan’s Muslim and non-Muslim minority. Why has there been an increase in sectarian violence over the past few years, especially after a civilian government has come to power?
The state has just not played its role in protecting minorities. Its support for jihadi extremism is the main cause of the worsening situation. The increase in sectarian violence over the past decade is due to the increased radicalisation of Pakistan and Pakistani society.
When Pakistan is under direct military rule, our military and intelligence establishment manage the jihadi groups closely. Under civilian governments, the hold loosens and the civilian structure has few means to reel them in. The jihadis have struck inside the country, at sectarian rivals and minorities, when their activities outside Pakistan are somewhat limited.
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There is an argument that Pakistan is witnessing greater sectarianism because Saudi Arabia and Iran are fighting a proxy war there. You, however, seem unconvinced that external forces have influenced the country’s direction. Why?
Riots and killings of Ahmadi and Shia Muslims and of Hindus, Sikhs and Christians in Pakistan started soon after Partition and have picked up speed, but were not an imported idea. They were deeply rooted in the ideas, writings and speeches of some Pakistani clerics and ideologues.
The Saudis can be blamed for funding madrasas and religious groups that share Wahhabi beliefs and Iran also helps Pakistani Shias with their religious education and pilgrimages. But to shift blame away from Pakistanis’ errors by describing sectarian and religious violence as a proxy war is incorrect. The fire is local, even if it gets external fuel sometimes.
Why did Pakistan move to become a “citadel of Islam” so soon after its creation, given Jinnah’s speeches on July 14 and August 11, 1947, extolling a separation of church and state? Why were Jinnah’s views on religious tolerance so quickly jettisoned after his death?
Jinnah’s successors found it expedient and far easier to use what they described as “the ideology of Pakistan” to forge national unity and identity. A Pandora’s box was opened soon after the death of Jinnah, with the Objectives Resolution that defined the establishment of an Islamic state as the objective of Pakistan.
Politicians had hoped to use Islam to ensure the longevity of their own power base, but once they had agreed to the idea of a religious state, there was no way religious arguments offered by clerics could be ignored. There were calls for cleansing Pakistan of minorities.
Violence appears to have become endemic to Pakistan. It appears that not just religious minorities but all civilians are under threat from acts of terror. How will Pakistan eliminate this culture of violence?
No one can say, “I will eliminate Pakistan’s culture of violence”. We can only point to how this culture is destroying our nation and hope that we will mobilise the support of a critical mass of people who will then act for change. Pakistan’s current culture of violence affects every citizen of our country, from the most famous and powerful like Benazir Bhutto to
a schoolteacher’s daughter, young Malala Yousafzai.
The desire and will to end violence must come from within our society. The world has started to isolate Pakistan, but our establishment will not give up its games of interference in domestic politics and its obsessions with fighting India and seeking strategic depth in Afghanistan. For all of this, they need the jihadi groups. If the emphasis on ideology is not replaced with an emphasis on human dignity and prosperity, Pakistan’s future will remain like its present.
From textbooks perpetuating myths and propaganda to religious and political leaders preaching intolerance, ordinary Pakistanis are exposed from a young age to an exclusivist worldview instead of a pluralistic one. Why, then, should they care about the persecution of religious minorities?
It is only a matter of time before the Pakistani people figure out that the real world is not what they are taught about in textbooks. Pakistan still has many voices that point out the falsehood of the intolerant doctrine fed to our population as its daily diet. There has always been resistance within Pakistan to the intolerant worldview and the voices supporting pluralism in Pakistan may sometimes appear weak but they are not dead.