Silent majority’s complicity in war on minorities

Non-Muslims as well as members of minority Muslim sects are under attack throughout the Muslim world. Muslim majority nations seem to have assimilated or normalised hatred

Silent majority’s complicity in war on minorities


The Egyptian cities of Alexandria and Tanta are still reeling from shock after Islamic State (ISIS) suicide bombers killed 45 people attending Palm Sunday services last week. Last Thursday, a frenzied mob lynched a student accused of blasphemy at a university in Pakistan’s northwestern city of Mardan. Thousands of miles apart, one was an act of well-planned terrorism and the other an instance of mob violence. But both represented growing intolerance and, in some cases, indifference towards religious minorities in majority-Muslim countries.

The victims of the Palm Sunday massacre in Egypt were Coptic Christians, an ancient sect established by St. Mark the Apostle. Easter is their most sacred holiday and their holiest feast. In recent years, Copts have been targeted with considerable frequency in Egypt. In late March, a bomb had been defused at the same Tanta church where 28 people died on April 9. In December, 30 churchgoers had been killed in Cairo.

The victim of the Mardan University lynching was beaten to death after a debate on religion. As is common in Pakistan, accusations of blasphemy had followed allegedly because he questioned corruption of university officials. Although the deceased in this instance came from a mainstream Muslim family, many blasphemy cases involve Christians and members of the Ahmadiyya community. The latter consider themselves a sect of Islam but they are deemed non-Muslim in Pakistan. The sect was defined outside the pale of Islam by an amendment to Pakistan’s constitution in 1974 and has consistently faced persecution and mob violence with little protection from the state machinery. Since 1990, at least 65 people have been murdered in Pakistan over unproved allegations of blasphemy.

What ties the two seemingly unrelated incidents — one in Egypt and the other in Pakistan — is the apathy of most Muslims to the ethnic cleansing of religious minorities within their countries. Few Muslim Egyptians expressed horror over the Palm Sunday church attacks. In Pakistan, no one tried to save the victim under attack. Those who did not join the attacking mob just made videos of the lynching with their smartphones.

Pakistan had witnessed an attack on Easter festivities last year. A suicide bomber had targeted Christian families gathered at a park in Lahore, capital of the Punjab province. The killer exploded ten kilograms of explosives and metal ball bearings in the area between two rides designed for use of children. The attack was claimed by Jamaat-ul-Ahrar, an offshoot of the Pakistani Taliban. The attack killed 73 people, including 29 children. The youngest of these children was merely two-years old and the eldest was 16.

Other similar attacks reflect a pattern of ‘purifying’ majority-Muslim countries of minorities. In 2015, ISIS had beheaded 21 Copts in Libya and warned that it would target the “crusaders” — a reference to Christians — and the Coptic Church. ISIS claimed responsibility for the December 2016 bombings in Cairo and vowed to “continue war against the apostates.” In February 2017, ISIS murdered seven Christians in Sinai and described Copts as its favourite “prey,” calling for further killings.

In its statement claiming the Palm Sunday attacks, ISIS again spoke of Egyptian Christians as ‘crusaders’ even though the Copts are a community that predates any conflict between Europeans and Middle Eastern Muslims. After last year’s Easter attack in Pakistan, a Jamaat-ul-Ahrar spokesperson had said that the motive of the attack was to convey a message to Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif ‘that we have entered Lahore’ — the prime minister’s hometown.

Why attack an ancient indigenous community if the intended target is European ‘crusaders?’ What is the justification of killing Christian women and children to deliver a harsh message to the country’s prime minister?

That the stated objectives of terrorist attacks against religious minorities have little to do with their actual targets reflects how Islamist extremists view religious minorities as sub-human. Terrorists and orchestrators of mob violence alike know that at least within their own countries very few people will even raise a voice at violence against minority communities.

Non-Muslims as well as members of minority Muslim sects are under attack throughout the Muslim world. Muslim majority nations seem to have assimilated or normalised hatred. Islamist extremist groups operate with sympathy and support of extremist citizens, as others acquiesce in the resolve to eliminate religious minorities through their silence.

One measure of the rising tide of intolerance towards non-Muslims in the Muslim world is the declining Christian population in Arab as well as some non-Arab majority-Muslim countries. Before 2003, there were around 1.2 million Christians in Iraq. Within ten years, their number halved to around 500,000. The story is not very different in several other countries.

Attacks on Christians in Egypt or on Ahmadis in Pakistan do not prompt large scale protests by Muslims disassociating themselves from such intolerance.

The media in Muslim-majority countries does not go beyond a few critical comments and we do not hear parliaments resounding with impassioned speeches about the need to protect minority citizens.

There is a great need for Muslims in the West, who are feeling the effects of Islamophobia, to stand up and take on those in the Muslim world who attack those of minority faiths. It is not enough to demand protection in nations where laws protect Muslims thus far. There must be greater moral authority exerted by Muslims in non-Muslim majority states. These Muslims should lend their voice to the plight of minority communities in Muslim-majority countries.

And by far greater lies the responsibility of the governments in the Muslim world. They must take responsibility and stop hiding behind the excuse of public opinion while refusing to change or amend discriminatory laws. The promotion of religious bigotry through school curriculum and media must be put to an end as well. Recognising the precarious position of religious minorities would be the first step towards addressing the issue effectively.

 

The writer is author of Purifying the Land of the Pure: A History of Pakistan’s Religious Minorities (Oxford, 2017)

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