By Farahnaz Isphahani
Pakistan, long described by human rights monitors and the Western media as one of the worst countries for religious minorities, is trying to improve its international image through what can only be described as symbolic gestures and public relations gimmicks.
Soon after the 2020 annual report of the United States Commission for International Religious Freedom listed Pakistan’s continued disregard for the religious freedom of its Christians, Hindus, Sikhs, and Ahmadis, the Pakistan government announced the decision to create a National Commission for Minorities.
The report noted, “The systematic enforcement of blasphemy and anti-Ahmadiyya laws, and authorities’ failure to address forced conversions of religious minorities — including Hindus, Christians, and Sikhs — to Islam, severely restricted freedom of religion or belief.”
The creation of the commission was obviously part of the Pakistani government’s effort to mitigate the reputational damage caused by Pakistan’s designation, year after year, as an egregious violator of religious freedoms.
Pakistan’s discrimination against its minorities is entrenched in its constitution and various laws and is supported by a powerful segment within Pakistani society.
Forced conversions of young Hindu and Christian underage girls are reported regularly. Pakistan’s pernicious blasphemy laws, often wielded against the Ahmadiyya and Christian communities in particular, continue to claim new victims.
The curricula of public and private schools, which demonize other faiths, reinforce in children a hatred or indifference toward children of other faiths. Anti-Semitic conspiracy theories are ubiquitous and are spread by clerics and politicians.
Mob violence against members of unarmed minority populations and attacks, including bombings, targeting places of worship have also been recorded through most of Pakistan’s history.
A commission that has no jurisdiction to amend the constitution and change inequitable laws is hardly a meaningful step toward improving the condition of religious minorities in Pakistan. Its formation was merely a formal response to a 2014 judgment by Pakistan’s Supreme Court that demanded a formal review of how minorities are treated in the country.
Former United Nations Rapporteur Hina Jilani pointed out that the minority commission had not been created like other national commissions through an act of parliament. Meanwhile, leaders of minority communities, including Christians, criticized the government’s decision, and Peter Jacob, chairperson of the Peoples Commission on Minority Rights, announced that the creation of the commission in its present form would be challenged in the Supreme Court.
The government agreed with hardline clerics that Ahmadis, who consider themselves Muslims but are designated non-Muslim by Pakistan’s constitution, would not be represented on the commission.
Even if the government had included an Ahmadi representative, the community would not have accepted being part of a commission on improving the condition of non-Muslims because Ahmadis consider themselves a sect within Islam.
From the Pakistan government’s point of view, the creation of a toothless, symbolic commission that is unlikely to reverse decades of institutionalized religious discrimination, has already achieved its desired goal.
The U.S. Commission for International Religious Freedom, which had listed Pakistan’s transgressions in its annual report released on April 28 and condemned the denial of coronavirus-related food aid to Hindus and Christians a few days earlier, welcomed the creation of the commission in a press release.
The press release described the creation of the commission as “an important step in Pakistan’s continuing journey towards the protection of religious freedom.”
In Pakistan’s media, those comments were portrayed as marking the end of U.S. criticism on the subject. It eroded the impact of the strong stand on religious freedom issues abroad manifested in Secretary of State Michael Pompeo’s muscular leadership and the day-to-day work done by the office of the U.S. ambassador-at-large for religious freedom, Sam Brownback.
The effectiveness of moral pressure on foreign governments requires sustained effort. Mixing praise for engagement and symbolic gestures weakens critical messages.
Pakistan has resisted U.S. pressure on a range of issues over the years, from nuclear weapons to terrorism, by stringing American officials along with deliberately crafted half measures.
It is trying to do the same with religious freedom, by substituting hospitality and public relations stunts for substantive policy change. For the sake of Pakistan’s minorities, and the principle of religious freedom, U.S. officials should not fall for that trap.
Author of ‘Purifying The land of the Pure: A History of Pakistan’s Religious Minorities’ (Oxford)