In its annual report on international religious freedom, the US State Department painted a bleak — but true — picture of how religious freedom in Pakistan is deteriorating. The report says: “Violence against religious minorities and between Muslim sects continued. While a small number of persons were involved in violent attacks, discriminatory laws and lack of reform of these laws, the teaching of religious intolerance, and the lack of police protection of minorities and prosecution of perpetrators created a permissive environment for such attacks … Forced and coerced conversions of religious minorities to Islam occurred at the hands of societal actors. Media, particularly the vernacular press, published derogatory reports of minorities.”
The intolerant role played by both the Pakistani state and society is indeed shameful. Add to it the media’s race for ratings and it becomes a combustible mix. Recently, a private television channel (ARY Digital) aired a Ramazan transmission where a Hindu boy converted to Islam on live television. One of the anchorpersons, Maya Khan, beamed with pride as she announced that Sunil would now be a Muslim. Ms Khan is not new to controversy. She was fired from another private channel a few months ago when she went around public parks in order to ‘out’ dating couples in one of her programmes. After Sunil’s ‘conversion’, Ansar Burney — a human rights activist who runs the Ansar Burney Trust where Sunil works — tweeted: “Anchor Maya Khan again created dirty drama by inviting my office worker Sunil to her show without my permission to convert him Muslim.” Mr Burney has sued Maya Khan for her actions. The fault does not solely lie with Ms Khan or other anchors for their shenanigans; the television channels that allow them to go this far are equally to blame. Some of our television anchors and televangelists are fast becoming a menace to society. When Aamir Liaquat, a televangelist, ranted against the Ahmadiyya community and declared them wajib-ul-qatl (worthy of murder) on his show, it led to the deaths of three members of the Ahmadiyya community. Despite that, Mr Liaquat is still hogging the airwaves on our country’s number 1 private channel (Geo). Barring a few exceptions, most of our media propagates intolerance. It might be all about high ratings but it also reflects upon those who watch this sort of ‘entertainment’ and boost such programmes’ ratings.
Now, more than ever, we need a secular constitution; a constitution that does not discriminate against the religious minorities, a constitution that does not dictate who is or isn’t a Muslim, a constitution that should have no laws pertaining to a certain religion, a constitution that does not give protection to those who incite violence against others. State institutions have failed us — our military has used Islamic zealots and terrorists to further its own vested interests, our governments have not done enough to curb fanaticism in society and our judiciary becomes toothless when it comes to terrorists and mass murderers. When the state itself is supporting and protecting murderers, it is inevitable that society will also start to behave the same way.
No wonder our minorities do not feel secure in this so-called ‘land of the pure’. There is nothing pure about a land whose soil is drenched in the blood of its own people. Unless there is a clear separation of religion and state, nothing will change. In fact, things will only get worse. For this reason, it is all the more important that the citizens of Pakistan raise their voice in unison and demand a secular constitution.
The writer is a Pakistani journalist. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org