A cornered Pakistan in denial mode over pitiable state of its minorities

Undergoing global criticism over treatment of religious minorities in the country, Pakistan government received a jolt in the form of latest designation by the United States under its International Religious Freedom Act. Pakistan was among the 12 nations which were identified as “countries of particular concern” for religious freedom on December 2, 2022. The countries were so designated for having engaged in or tolerated particularly severe violations of religious freedom.

This is not the first time that the United States has called out the role of Pak government and other institutions in suppressing the identity and curtailing the rights of minorities.  Earlier, through a report on Human Rights Practices for 2021, the US Department of State had raised serious questions on the treatment of minorities including Christians and Hindus. The report noted that the “violence, abuse, and social and religious intolerance by militant organizations and other non-state actors, both local and foreign, contributed to a culture of lawlessness”. The situation in Pakistan is particularly peculiar since not just the followers of religions other than Islam, people having faith in different sects within Islam are treated as religious minorities. Most prominent among them is the case of Ahmedi Muslims who were forced to abandon their religious identity under state dictate. The community counts upon 4 million members in Pakistan, but has been forbidden to call itself Muslim since 1974 as the country is more phobic of the sect and its interpretation of Islam than most other nations. It is the only country to put the label of non-Muslims on Ahmedis which means they are not even allowed to call their houses of prayer “mosques”. Other religious practices associated with Islam are also forbidden for them.

In line with the US State Department, individual US congressmen are often seen lending support to the cause of religious and civil rights of the Ahmedis in Pakistan. Recently, a congressman from Austin and a ranking member of House Foreign committee, Michael T McCaull raised the issue of continuous persecution of the vulnerable community. Writing to the Pak Ambassador to US, Michael highlighted the plight of Ahmedis in Pakistan and demanded protection of their human rights. He also condemned the discriminatory legislation, policies and the widespread use of anti-Ahmedi rhetoric, which often leads to religiously motivated violence.  

These developments signify global efforts particularly of the US to work with Islamabad to address the issues facing minorities in Pakistan. However, Pak government’s response till now has been of denial only. Rather than acknowledging the problems within, Pak Foreign Minister Bilawal Bhutto Zardari on December 9, 2022 chose to reject the United States’ terming his country as a state of “particular concern” over religious freedom. Accusing the US of bias, he questioned why India and Israel were not in the list. He further countered that Pakistan doesn’t need America to point out the problems like religious extremism and terrorism.

Similarly, Pak Embassy in Washington refuted the existence of religious hatred and discrimination in the country. Apparently, the indifference exhibited by the Pakistani leader and Embassy on the issue has not been taken well by the concerned Congressmen. Attempting a damage control, the Pak side offered to arrange a meeting of Bilawal Bhutto with a few Congressmen during his recent visit to the US. However, they reportedly declined to meet the Pak leader.  

Hiding behind a veil of assumed ignorance is a classic trait of Pakistani lawmakers, diplomats and institutions. Acting as victim of self generated problems like extremism ad terrorism has paid some dividends to the country in form of aids and roles in coalitions. However, the eventual casualty has been its own people who feel more alienated than ever in the Islamic republic of their dreams. The alienation is gradually emerging into fault lines, which may not be easy to obliterate.