IA Rehman Interview in The Friday Times
“The government is afraid of the mullahs”
– IA Rehman, Director Human Rights Commission of Pakistan
By Syed Hussain
IA Rehman, director of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, is a veteran journalist and human rights activist. A former editor-in-chief of the Pakistan Times, he has been at the forefront of the struggle for greater human rights and is also a well-known peace activist. He has authored several papers and reports on the state of human rights in Pakistan.
In an exclusive interview with The Friday Times, Mr Rehman speaks about the problems facing minorities in Pakistan and the many factors that have contributed to the situation we see today. Excerpts follow:
The Friday Times: Pakistan is regularly criticised by the international community for its treatment of minorities. What are the roots of this problem?
IA Rehman: The misery of minorities, unfortunately, begins when we say Pakistan is an Islamic state. They are some who are ‘protected’ citizens and even [in the] Objectives Resolution, only Muslims are allowed to live freely according to their faith while minorities are promised protection. Minorities are denied high offices; for instance, a non-Muslim cannot become the President of Pakistan. While there is no condition in the 1973 Constitution for the prime minister to be a Muslim, he has to take an Islamic oath. The issue is that [the minorities’] rights are recognised and acknowledged, but there is no integration. A joint electorate is not an end in itself; its implementation is required in letter and spirit. Minorities are discriminated against in politics, education and services… Even their names are not in proper order in the electoral lists: their names are given on separate sheets. They have no full rights to have graveyards, houses of worship etc. For example, Hindus have not been given a shamshan ghat [a place for funeral rituals] in Lahore for years.
Has there been any improvement over the years?
The situation [condition of the minorities] seems to have improved in the last six decades, but only marginally. There were separate electorates for them, then there were joint electorates, but these efforts have yet to bear fruit. Also, Ahmedis, a declared minority, are not included in [the joint electorates]; they are still discriminated against, and are even constitutionally termed as non-Muslims. There has been some improvement as minorities have been given representation in the national and provincial assemblies. But even then, current levels of social intolerance and disintegration have not been seen in the past. I remember the times when minority children used to play with Muslim children. Minorities were socially accepted and respected. Now, intolerance has increased by an alarming extent. Ahmedis cannot buy a piece of land from the government; they cannot achieve high ranks in the army and they cannot hold high office. They cannot even breathe without the permission of the mullahs. Hate literature against them is being spread on a large scale. The laws are there, but they are misused. For example, blasphemy cases are registered against everyone for the sake of Islam and the Holy Prophet [PBUH], but there is no example of a case that has been registered against people speaking against prophets or important figures of religions other than Islam, despite the fact that laws provide for this. Even some laws like Section 298 of the Pakistan Penal Code are totally discriminatory against the Ahmedis. Such laws are also used to settle personal scores, or to serve other motives in business/property issues etc.
What has been the role of the state?
The state has a big role in creating this situation which has led to intense extremism. There have been long efforts to impose sharia through the state. The injection of sharia began in 1956. In 1973, Islam was made the religion of the state. In 1974, Ahmedis were ousted from Islam. In the late 1980s, Zia-ul Haq established the Federal Shariat Court with legislative powers, despite the presence of an assembly that should have had the right to legislate. And there was the 9th Amendment in the Constitution. Nawaz Sharif has been trying to impose sharia, and tried to pass the Sharia Act and the 15th Amendment. Religion is so entrenched that you have to mention it on the computerised national ID cards and passports. While filling passport forms, one not only has to mention one’s religion, but also has to condemn the Ahmedis.
Jinnah said that there will be no discrimination, but we do not accept it. Every government is afraid of the mullahs, and Islam is used to meet political objectives. The more religious you become, the more discriminatory you are in dealing with minorities.
How can we improve the state of minorities in Pakistan?
The state and society get foreign aid in the name of religion; terrorism is spread in the name of religion; courts are afraid of declaring any verdict against clerics; the police are afraid to take action against Islamic extremists. First, the state must withdraw its support to any religion and stop religious discrimination with immediate effect. People must be educated about tolerance, and madrassas stopped from preaching hate. Lal Masjid is a classic example, where the government had been protecting the extremists and preachers of hate. We turn people who kill others in the name of religion into heroes; the media praises them and there is no punitive action. The issue of minorities is also directly related to jihadi culture: Lashkar-e Jhangvi has been killing Shias for the sake of jannat [heaven], and these incidents are on record. There should be an effective minority commission like the one in India. In the Pakistan People’s Party government, at least there are people who speak against these issues, which is not the case with other parties. But we are at a dead-end, and this issue will take a lot of time. We need to take the first steps, at least. But there are no short cuts.