Perfumes of Arabia

By Priya Ravichandran

The idea of Pakistan being a secular republic with citizenship rights accorded to all minorities was a brief one that never stood a chance against the more orthodox followers of Jinnah, who at the declaration of the Lahore resolution on March 23rd 1940, "dreamt of a state representing the purity of a pristine Islam". The country today, torn apart by sectarian strife and minority persecution, stands as a dark shadow of what was once envisioned and created by Jinnah. It took Pakistan only 9 years to convert from Jinnah's idea of a model republic, where the Muslim majority and other minorities live in peace, into the Islamic Republic of Pakistan, with Islam as the official religion and a declaration that no laws offensive to Islam would be passed and a provision to Islamise laws within the Republic.

Pakistan has slowly and steadily been moving towards a purer form of an Islamic Republic with measures and actions that aid in the Islamisation of its laws and by striking strategic alliances that would help fund its many radical Islamist movements.

The constitutional powers accorded to the Council of Islamic Ideology, has pushed the state towards laws and decrees that demand a stricter interpretation of Sharia than the common laws enshrined in the Constitution. Most of the sectarian and radical outfits owe their genesis and funding to the orthodox leaning of General Zia ul Haq, Pakistan's first military dictator. His embrace of Wahhabi and Deobandi interpretations of Islam brought him closer to Sunni dominated Arab countries like Saudi Arabia and pushed Pakistan further away from the idea of a secular republic. During his decade long rule (1978 - 1988) he imposed stricter Islamic interpretation of laws, Sharia benches, Islamisation of the economy and ordinances that collectively used religion as the basis to dictate life in Pakistan. Coming at a time of upheavals in the region, including the Iranian revolution, Soviet occupation of Afghanistan and the Iran-Iraq conflict, the move towards an Islamic republic was welcomed both by the Sunni majority within its borders, and by the external interests looking to clamp down upon a rising Shia movement. Pakistan's military alliances with Saudi Arabia during this period, and the patronage that Sunni clerics, orthodox outfits and radical movements received in turn from the kingdom, were just the beginning.

The number of religious minorities that have been vilified and murdered since the passing of the Sharia laws has often gone unnoticed by the western nations amidst the greater upheavals in the region. Pakistan has also managed to divert attention away from the repression and genocide it brought upon its own people. One of the more depraved laws that was amended and used extensively during Zia Ul Haq's Islamisation drives, included The Blasphemy Laws that moved from being a penal code to an ordinance, more in line with the Sharia laws. The law gave the state powers to punish and even accord the death sentence for people committing religious offences and violence. It has since its inception been used primarily for targeting minorities, especially Hindus and Christians. Known reports puts the number of people charged with Blasphemy Law at 1,274 (1986 - 2010), with 51 people murdered even before the completion of their trial. Human rights Watch reports that as of January 2014, 16 people remained on death row and 20 serving life sentences. They have taken the lives of a Punjab Governor and Pakistan's Minister of Minorities in 2011. The laws have also made victims out of girls as young as 11 and 14 and have served as a free ticket to radical mobs that go on rampages, torching entire villages and burning people alive.

Fundamentalist organisations have also used the Blasphemy Laws to target other minorities. The law along with the second amendment to the Constitution and the Ordinance drawn up by Zia ul Haq prohibits Ahmadis from practicing their religion, calling themselves Muslims or professing their faith publicly. These laws have granted the state, control over defining Muslims and persecuting those who it believes are in violation.

The persecution of Shiite Muslims, and Hindus have also taken a gruesome turn in the last few years with outfits like LeJ and Ahi Sunnat Wal Jannat (ASWJ) publicly calling for their execution and the need to ‘purify' Islam by cleansing off the people who do not follow the path of true Islam. The number of people who have been killed through targeted attacks, suicide bombing, execution, and torture has gone up dramatically in the last decade with over 3000 people falling victim to religious persecution. 2013 alone saw over 595 killed with over a 1000 injured. 2014 so far has resulted in 70 deaths with doctors, scholars, journalists, and politicians being specifically targeted. What makes matters worse in Pakistan is the open support and patronage that fundamentalist groups receive from the government directly and from aid flowing through other governments with a stake in the sectarian conflict.

Saudi Arabia has been one of the biggest supporters of Pakistan through generous donations of aid for economic recovery and support. It has in the last few months given more than $750 million in aid with the most recent being a $1.5 billion dollar ‘gift' and another $1.5 billion promised. The gift of a billion dollars has been questioned by various sources and with good reason. To not see this "gift camel" in the mouth would be extremely naive and dangerous. Saudi Arabia has a history of funding organisations that have served as a front for organisations like the Lashkar-e-Taiba and other militant groups responsible for the majority of the attacks against minorities and against India. The donation also comes from a Saudi Arabia that is determined to maintain its relevance at a time when the US-Iran relations are thawing.

Pakistan in turn has given military support to both Saudi Arabia and more recently, to Bahrain to quell a Shia uprising. Retired and serving military personnel have been used in both the countries for internal security issues. The kingdom has also recently been promised nuclear technology and security arsenal from Pakistan. The fact that the kingdom of Saudi Arabia and the Sunni minority rulers in Bahrain are determined to make the fullest use of Pakistan's most successful export has to be obvious. The strenghth of the alliance and its impact in an increasingly volatile region, remains to be seen.

The worry that it will grow into a regional conflict pitting Sunnis against Shias is high. The greater fear is that the violence will push the condition of the besieged minorities even further with a spillover into regional countries. There have already been reports of Al Qaeda militants from Pakistan seeking support and a base in Syria. A Pakistan waiting in the wings, ready to offer more support militarily and more men fueled in the ideologies that inflame sectarian violence has become increasingly real.

An escalation of the sectarian violence can already be seen in the sudden explosion of violence after years of conflict that had been building on the Iranian-Pakistan border. Last week after Pakistani gunmen killed 14 Iranian border guards, Iran retaliated by killing 16 Pakistani rebels and has threatened to send troops into Pakistan to recover any hostages. To dissociate this event from Saudi Arabia's anonymous donation and the Saudi displeasure with the US would be foolish. A greater threat to the lives and livelihoods of minorities living in Pakistan cannot be ruled out under the circumstances. The Pakistani government has not shown any indications of reconciliation with the minorities or acted seriously against the perpetrators. The push for talks with the TTP and the Taliban and the increased veering towards more Sharia based laws does not offer any hope either. The deals with Saudi Arabia and Bahrain might just be the final push. All the perfumes of Arabia have sweetened Pakistan's hand in this case.

India will suffer the results of the conflict and the country's crack down on minorities. The greater influx of refugees seeking shelter and aid, cross border terrorism and the threat to our own national security will increase. More attention needs to be paid to the issue and to the long drawn war in Syria. India also needs to seriously take stock of its own internal security and border security. India needs to use its leverage in the region and take the initiative to defuse the conflict now. Any further delay could only result in further donations and an unstable subcontinent.

Priya Ravichandran is Programme Manager for the GCPP programme at the Takshashila Institution.

Originally published on Pragati. Republished under a Creative Commons license.

(AP Photo)

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