Religious fundamentalism shapes Pakistan's state policies towards minorities. Photo: Khalid Mahmood via Wikimedia Commons
Religious fundamentalism shapes Pakistan's state policies towards minorities. Photo: Khalid Mahmood via Wikimedia Commons

The purity question

In conversation with author and activist, Farahnaz Ispahani.

Author, activist, journalist, politician, scholar – these are some of the many hats that Farahnaz Ispahani wears. But it is her close proximity to the Pakistan People's Party (PPP) and her journalistic perspective that provided the mooring for her just published book Purifying the land of the pure, which she says is her attempt at explaining why Pakistan's minorities feel insecure. The book, which some would say was long overdue, is about the systematic and institutionalised marginalisation of Pakistan's many religious minorities. Ispahani, who was in India in January-February 2016 to promote her book after Harper Collins India published it in Southasia, says that it was the time spent with Benazir Bhutto, when she served as the Spokesperson of the PPP, that she saw how minorities were being discriminated against, and the assassination of Bhutto herself followed by that of Punjab governor, Salman Taseer, and later of Ispahani's colleague, Shahbaz Bhatti (Pakistan's first Christian federal minister), that the seeds for this book were sown. But there is also a personal angle.  As her surname reveals, Ispahani is also a Shia Muslim, a sect that is increasingly being targeted in Pakistan, albeit being part of the larger Muslim community. Ironically, her grandfather Mirza Abol Hassan Ispahani had been a veteran of the Muslim League, which founded the new state of Pakistan. Even Mohamed Ali Jinnah, who led the Muslim League and is regarded as the 'founding father' of Pakistan, was a Shia. Purifying the land of the pure starts with these lines: "When Pakistan was born on 14 August 1947, the azan that day was issued five times on loudspeakers by Shias, Sunnis, and Ahmadis in the new country's capital, Karachi."

Yet, today the Shias have become a persecuted minority. In 2012-2013, Shias were subjected to 77 attacks! But during the same period 54 lethal attacks were also perpetrated against Ahmadis, 37 against Christians, 16 against Hindus and 3 against Sikhs in Pakistan. These attacks have to be contextualised in the light of uncomfortable statistics – in 1947, the non-Muslim minorities comprised 23 percent of Pakistan's population, which, at present, has shrunk to 3-5 percent of the population. I asked the uncomfortable question – wasn't this inevitable for a state whose raison d'etre was religion? "No," replied Ispahani, stating emphatically that the founding father had a different vision for Pakistan. There is a difference between politics and statesmanship, is her contention. Religion is often used in political mobilisation, but Jinnah's speech of 11 August 1947, regarding minorities, proves that he did not envision a theocratic state. His commitment to secularism can be judged based on how he nominated a Hindu, several Shias and an Ahmadi to Pakistan's first cabinet. The tragedy is that the vision outlined in that speech was suppressed during his lifetime and the secular agenda hijacked. "It was a combination of clergy, politicians from India who migrated from East Punjab (like Chaudhry Muhammad Ali), bureaucrats, politicians with no real bases and constituencies of their own within the Pakistan landmass, who felt compelled to turn to religion to garner support," Ispahani explained.

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