Benedict Rogers is a human rights activist specialising in South Asia. He works for the human rights organisation Christian Solidarity Worldwide, focusing on Burma, Sri Lanka and Pakistan, serves as Deputy Chairman of the Conservative Party Human Rights Commission and was Conservative Parliamentary Candidate for the City of Durham in the 2005 General Election.
The rise of extremism in Pakistan is close to reaching crisis point. In North-West Frontier Province, Christians have received ultimatums to convert to Islam or face "dire consequences". Last week, a Christian was sentenced to death for "blasphemy". On Easter Sunday, a 12 year-old Christian girl was kidnapped and repeatedly gang-raped. One of her attackers told his accomplices: "Don’t hesitate to rape a Christian girl. Even if she dies, no one will get us. Her poor parents cannot pursue us."
Earlier in the year, a 14 year-old Christian girl was abducted at gunpoint, raped and beaten. Her attacker, believed to be connected to extremist groups, told her to convert to Islam.
And last Friday, four female Christian student nurses at the Pakistan Institute of Medical Sciences nursing school in Rawalpindi were suspended, along with the Principal and a member of staff, both Christians, suspected of having desecrated a verse from the Koran. There is absolutely no evidence against them, and they deny the charge – yet only the six Christians have been suspended. A Muslim mob, armed with batons and believed to have been orchestrated by the Lal Masjid mosque and Jamia Hafsa madrassa, staged a protest at the nursing school designed to intimidate the Christians.
And yet some Pakistani-born Muslims in the United Kingdom complain that they are suffering human rights abuses in this country?
Musharraf: What happened to "enlightened moderation"?
Pakistan’s President Pervez Musharraf is regarded by the West as a key ally in the war against terrorism, and as Pakistan’s best hope for defeating extremism. His favourite phrase is "enlightened moderation", and he likes to present his government as the most minority-friendly government in Pakistan ever. But the events described above suggest that there is a large gap between his fine rhetoric and the reality.
It is true that Musharraf personally is a moderate. It is also true that he has publicly sided with the West against al-Qaeda. Pakistan has helped track down and arrest some terrorists. And Musharraf has himself been the target of several terrorist assassination attempts.
Yet Musharraf has also courted the extremists and, as a result, enabled extremism to escalate. Dependent on the support of the Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal (MMA), a coalition of pro-Taliban parties, he has failed to condemn their proposed apostasy bill currently being presented in the National Assembly – even though the bill would impose the death penalty on anyone who converts from Islam to another religion. He has retreated from any significant reform, or repeal, of the notorious blasphemy law, and when a modest reform bill was proposed recently by a minority MP, the Government led the effort to defeat it. Musharraf’s own Parliamentary Affairs Minister described any attempt to change the blasphemy laws as un-Islamic. "Islam is our religion and such bills hurt our feelings. This is not a secular state but the Islamic Republic of Pakistan," he said. What happened to "enlightened moderation"?
When 500 Christians in Charsadda, North-West Frontier Province, received a letter giving them 10 days to convert to Islam or face death, the authorities did almost nothing to protect the community. One policeman was stationed at the door of the church – and that was all. Threats were repeated in messages written on a wall opposite the church – and in several other towns in North-West Frontier Province. After some international attention, the local police launched a farcical attempt to catch the culprits. They summoned the Christian community together, and presented a young Muslim schoolboy as the perpetrator. When the Christians asked if they could test his handwriting, to compare it with the letters they had received, the police refused.
Human rights activists call for action
I am accompanying one of Pakistan’s leading human rights activists, Group Captain (Rtd) Cecil Chaudhry, on an advocacy visit to raise awareness about the escalating persecution of religious minorities in his country. We will be meeting Members of Parliament and the Foreign Office, and visiting Brussels. He will be speaking at a meeting chaired by John Bercow MP on 6 June in Parliament (please contact Christian Solidarity Worldwide for details). But he believes that Charsadda was a test case for the extremists, and that the Pakistani authorities’ failure to act strongly to protect the Christian community will be taken by the extremists as a green light to escalate their activities.
Cecil Chaudhry has himself experienced religious discrimination. As a highly decorated fighter pilot and war veteran in the Pakistan Air Force, he was denied promotion – despite being awarded the highest medals for gallantry in the India-Pakistan wars – simply because he is a Christian. He resigned in protest , and became a voice for Christians and other minorities in Pakistan (see this 18 Doughty Street interview).
Blasphemy: a law undefined and wide open to abuse
One of the biggest tools in the hands of the extremists in Pakistan is the blasphemy law. Introduced by the former dictator General Zia ul-Haq in 1986 as Section 295C of the Pakistan Penal Code, the law relates to blasphemy against the Prophet Mohammed, and carries the death penalty. Although no one has actually been executed by the State, anyone accused of blasphemy is marked for life in the eyes of the extremists. Even if they are acquitted, they can never live in freedom again – they either have to live in hiding, or flee the country. Some have been murdered. The law has a vague definition, requires no evidence – simply an accusation by one man is enough – and no proof of intent. In addition to being used to target religious minorities, the blasphemy law is frequently used by Muslims against each other to settle personal scores. If there are two shops side by side, and one is making more profit than the other, the fastest way to drive him out of business is for the other shopkeeper to accuse him of saying something against the Prophet – and he can be arrested, charged and imprisoned. His life – and his business – is ruined.
The blasphemy law is also a cause of mob frenzy. In many cases, as soon as someone is accused of blasphemy, the mullahs announce it over the mosque loudspeakers – and either explicitly or implicitly incite the crowds to violence. Without any investigation, any proof, any clarification a person can be lynched and murdered on hearsay.
Four years before introducing Section 295C, Zia ul-Haq introduced a law against the desecration of the Koran, known as Section 295B. This carries a ten year prison sentence. The six Christians from the nursing school in Rawalpindi could await this fate if the international community does not act now to put pressure on the Pakistani authorities to rein the extremists in.
Musharraf talks the talk, but he needs now to put enlightened moderation into action and stop pandering to the extremists. The few meaningful reforms he has actually implemented, such as the abolition of "religious apartheid" in the electoral system, have only been taken under intense pressure from groups within Pakistan such as the All Pakistan Minorities Alliance.
Musharraf has done virtually nothing, for example, to control the madrasas – many of which are incubators for extremism. In a chapter titled "Nursery for Jihad" in his excellent book Frontline Pakistan: The struggle with militant Islam, journalist Zahid Hussain writes:
"In his new role as a key ally in the US-led war on terror, Musharraf toned down many policies that had previously fostered militancy and religious extremism. But most of the measures, particularly against the home-grown jihadists, were taken under external pressure and lacked conviction. Very little was done to rein in the militant madrasas, despite their continuing involvement in jihadist politics."
According to Hussain,
"Muslims in Britain had been one of the largest donors to the Pakistani Islamic institutions and Muslim militant groups, some of whom had been declared terrorists …. Pakistan’s failure to curb extremism owed less to the difficulty of implementing reforms than to the administration’s own unwillingness."
If Musharraf is to continue to receive the West’s support, he should show more willingness now to curb extremism – and we should put pressure on him to do so.