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Book Review: Pakistan’s Beleaguered Minorities

FILE: A Christian woman cries in the church where her son died in a suicide attack in the northwestern city of Peshawar in September 2013.
FILE: A Christian woman cries in the church where her son died in a suicide attack in the northwestern city of Peshawar in September 2013.

Countries adapted to celebrating their religious, racial, ethnic, and linguist diversity are typically stable and prosperous and face fewer domestic and external threats.

But states obsessed with imposing a militarized uniformity on their diverse societies are prone to instability, secessionism, mounting extremism, violence, external interference, and intolerance.

Former Pakistani lawmaker Farahnaz Ispahani’s book Purifying The Land Of The Pure: A History Of Pakistan’s Religious Minorities is an in-depth analysis of how Islamabad’s policies toward minorities have devastated their fortunes, exacerbated extremism, and hold the country back from realizing its full potential.

Seventy years ago, Pakistan was heralded as a safe haven for South Asia’s largest minority, Muslims. Since then, the country has proved itself to be anything but.

In 1971, a quarter-century after its creation, the numerical majority of Bengalis in Pakistan’s eastern wing seceded to form their new country, Bangladesh. Meanwhile, its other ethnic and religious minorities continue to languish.

Ispahani, a former journalist and current fellow at Washington’s Woodrow Wilson Center, masterfully captures how Pakistan’s small religious minorities -- now estimated to be only 3 percent of the country’s more than 200 million predominantly Muslim population -- continue to suffer from escalating violence and discrimination both from the government and private groups.

At the outset, Pakistan was warned of such an eventuality.

“Now you are raising the cry of Pakistan in danger for the purpose of arousing Muslim sentiments and binding them together in order to maintain you in power,” Huseyn Shaheed Suhrawardy, a Bengali politician who later became the prime minister of Pakistan, warned in 1948.

He called on Pakistan’s founding leaders “to be fair to the minorities” because intolerance and discrimination would boomerang on the new country’s Muslims majority.

“Those lawless elements that maybe turned today against non-Muslims will be turned later on, once those fratricidal tendencies have been aroused, against the Muslim gentry,” he predicted.

Sadly, his prophesies proved true. While Pakistan’s Hindus, Christians, Sikhs, and other non-Muslim minorities still face discriminatory laws, lynching mobs, and forced conversions, the country’s Shi’ite Muslims now bear the brunt of extremist violence. A plethora of jihadists and militant groups are now determined to purify the “land of the pure” (the literal meaning of the name Pakistan) from anyone deviating from their puritanical Sunni Muslim doctrines.

Within five years of Suhrawardy’s warning, two eminent jurists had a damning verdict. After riots against the Ahmadiyya sect, justices Muhammad Munir and Muhammad Rustam Kiyani noted in 1954 that after listening to scores of clerics in nearly 100 hearings they concluded that “no one who has given serious thought to the introduction of a religious state in Pakistan has failed to notice the tremendous difficulties with which any such scheme must be confronted.”

Farahnaz Ispahani
Farahnaz Ispahani

Indeed, the country’s subsequent history proved them right. After riots and a campaign in the eastern province of Punjab, the Pakistani Parliament enacted a law in September 1974 to declare the Ahmadiyya a non-Muslim minority.

Ispahani says the development was a tragedy as it undermined both secularism and tolerance in the country.

“It was a greater tragedy that this had happened under an otherwise progressive and pluralist government,” she wrote, referring to the administration of the Pakistan Peoples Party populist firebrand founder, Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto.

She notes that such intolerance toward religious minorities hastened after military dictator General Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq assumed power in 1977. His regime promoted hard-line Sunni Islam at the expense of other Muslim sects and religions. It also actively encouraged and bankrolled its proponents to militaries by forming militant factions.

Decades later, tens of thousands of Pakistanis are paying a heavy toll with their lives and properties while reeling from discriminatory laws. Every year, scores of Muslims and non-Muslim Pakistanis are lynched or imprisoned under the blasphemy laws under which people accused of insulting Islam or religious figures can be sentenced to death.

On September 16, a Christian man in eastern Pakistan was sentenced to death after being arrested in 2016 on blasphemy charges. While no one has officially been executed on blasphemy charges in Pakistan, blasphemy is an emotive issue, and outraged mobs often choose to take justice in their own hands against the accused, who are often from religious minorities.

Precise, well-researched, and eloquent, Ispahani’s Purifying The Land Of The Pure is a must read for policymakers, scholars, and general readers trying to understanding the roots of intolerance and violent extremism in Pakistan.

The views expressed in this book review do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL.