- The Washington Times - Tuesday, November 14, 2000

Few Americans are aware that Pakistan today resembles rogue states such as Iran and Sudan in terms of brutal treatment of its minorities. Some U.S. decision-makers still pin hopes on Gen. Pervez Musharraf, who took control of Pakistan last year. But Gen. Musharraf does little to convince the world of his sincerity in wishing to change things.

This became evident at a recent hearing in Washington on religious freedom in South Asia, which revealed a dismal picture. Even Muslim sects are the object of severe persecution by extremists who can count on the connivance of the state authorities.

Among the various religious groups in Pakistan, Ahmadi Muslims rank highest in education. One member of this little sect, Zafrullah Khan, became foreign minister of Pakistan, president of the U.N. General Assembly, and later president of the International Court of Justice. Envious fundamentalists repeatedly instigated riots against the Ahmadis, and in 1974 the sect was expelled from Islam, though many Islamic scholars insist that their religion does not know such a thing as excommunication.

Fundamentalists declared Ahmadis as apostates who are to be killed. Under military dictator Zia ul-Haq, who ruled until 1988, daily newspapers wrote that anyone wishing to kill an Ahmadi could do so without fear of prosecution. Thousands of Ahmadis were murdered and almost 100,000 fled the country.

Ever since they were declared a non-Muslim minority, Ahmadis are no longer allowed to call their houses of worship mosques and to display Islamic insignia. They wish to be extra-strict Muslims but are not allowed even to use the greeting, "Peace be upon you" because that means assuming a Muslim identity.

One would have to imagine Episcopalians or Methodists in the United States prohibited from calling themselves Christians. Imagine their churches prohibited from celebrating Christmas and Easter, from singing Christmas carols or from using crosses or hanging pictures of Jesus. In cases of violations of these prohibitions their churches would be burned down and they themselves put to death.

Christians represent about 2 percent of Pakistan's roughly 140 million population. Yet they suffer under a blasphemy law according to which anyone insulting anything that is sacred to Muslims is liable to capital punishment. Christians are often accused of desecrating the Koran or writing abuses against the prophet on house walls accusations that camouflage disputes over land or simply provide easy targets on which to release stored-up aggressiveness. If a Christian can be made to repent and convert to Islam, so much the better. Two Christians acquitted of such "crimes" had to be flown to safety in Germany where they were granted political asylum. The mob almost lynched the judge.

In one instance the judge did not have the courage to risk his own life by acquitting an unjustly accused Christian. The conviction prompted Catholic Bishop John Joseph to resort to self-immolation. Few in Pakistan's educated class dispute that this is a deadly game. According to a prominent Muslim religious authority, the blasphemy law is a disgrace and goes against the basic principles of Islam.

But the more the world protests, the more the extremists rejoice. For them this is an opportunity to demonstrate their bold resistance to attacks against Islam. Outsiders rarely realize that most of this is orchestrated by Jihad organizations. Their aim is to gain influence by making themselves appear as defenders of the faith. The frenzy they create helps them to recruit followers and eliminate opponents. Muslims who protest against the blasphemy law are labeled traitors and run the danger of suffering the same fate as the accused.

Gen. Musharraf, the new military ruler, spoke out against the blasphemy law, only to retract his statements a little later. His giving in to fundamentalist pressures has caused disillusion among Pakistani intellectuals. On Sept. 28, a group of prominent university professors and professionals appealed to him to put an end to the system of separate electorate, according to which a Christian can only vote for a Christian, a Muslim only for a Muslim. This group of Pakistani dissidents expressed their outrage that such a division of citizens into classes according to their religion is still being continued.

When Congress outlined the mandate for the Commission on International Religious Freedom, it codified as part of U.S. foreign policy a respect for the notion of religious tolerance. With an array of diplomatic and economic sanctions at its disposal, the Commission has the opportunity to place such religious persecution on par with Pakistan's record on terrorism and the drug trade.

Khalid Duran is a Middle East and South Asian specialist and the editor of the journal TransIslam.

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