Free the minorities

In Pakistan there seems to be a belief among the majority that the cruelties committed against the minority communities in the country are nothing unique or specific, but instead part of a broader trend of violence that affects the entire country

A few years ago, during an interview with a foreign journalist, I was asked what I thought of the claim often made by some Pakistanis that the nation was a ‘heaven for minorities’. At the time, the country was in the midst of a highly destructive terrorist insurgency and people were dying almost every day. I replied that Pakistan was no longer a heaven for its majority population, let alone anyone else. He nodded in acknowledgement and we moved on to the next question.

Looking back now, my answer inadvertently supported another popular viewpoint about the situation of minorities in Pakistan: that the cruelties committed against them are nothing unique or specific, but instead part of a broader trend of violence that affects the entire country. This is a narrative that is couched in terms of majority victimhood and relies on large-scale atrocities to sustain itself, as though suggesting that for suffering to be of any consequence, it must entail death and be of a size and measure that is visibly horrifying. As the refrain goes: if Christians, Hindus and Ahmadis are being slaughtered by fanatics, then so are the Muslims themselves.

In its simplest form, this is of course true. Without getting into the finer details of the numbers, percentages, sample sizes, etc. — the majority of people who have been killed in terror attacks in Pakistan since 2001 — are Muslims themselves. No one denies that or wishes to downplay it. But violence is not the only context within which the oppression of minorities in Pakistan should be understood, and doing so means to ignore and erase the foundational realities of everyday life for those who exist outside of the mainstream.

One of the great ways majorities exercise their tyranny is by failing to see the suffering they inflict, or by appropriating that suffering as their own. A prime example of this would be the reaction of many whites in the United States to Black Lives Matter. The movement, which ostensibly began with the purpose of highlighting police brutality against blacks in America and showing that black lives count just as much as anyone else’s, is framed as something else entirely when met with the force of white privilege. This angry response, which bears the counter slogan All Lives Matter, represents a refusal to acknowledge that yes, while all lives do indeed matter; black lives have yet to be included in this universal equation.

The burning down of an Ahmadi mosque is seen not as a violent assault against the community, but a ‘dispute between two parties’. Similarly, forced marriages of Christian girls are regarded as a ‘personal matter’ and attacks against Hindus are batted away with a list of examples of atrocities committed against Muslims in India

Enter here a world-class Pakistani economist, who many have tipped to claim a Nobel Prize in the years ahead. One would think that a nation facing a critical economic crisis would turn to this distinguished son of the soil to help it out of the doldrums. But no. The reaction against the recent appointment of Atif Mian, the economist in question, to an economic advisory board established by the newly formed PTI government, and then his subsequent removal from it simply on account of the fact that he was an Ahmadi shows that in Pakistan too, not all lives are equal and not everyone is a fully woven part of the national fabric. The incident is a perfect example of how violence is not the only source of oppression in Pakistan, nor is it the true measure of equal standing in the nation.

Unlike the majority Muslim population, minorities rely on peace as more than just the absence of terror; it is about acceptance, it is about being able to define the space around them, and it is about establishing agency in the wider world. Yet, if a member of a minority cannot hope to rise through society through the force of their merit, none of that holds true and they are cut away from the social structure as something lesser and unworthy.

Another great tyranny of majorities is that when they cannot assume victimhood for themselves, they reconfigure the context within which it exists. So we see that whenever the spectre of systematic inequality reveals itself, aggressive counter-narratives emerge which insidiously seek to devalue the particular perils faced by minorities by attempting to bring them under a more general framework. As a result, the burning down of an Ahmadi mosque is seen not as a violent assault against the community, but a ‘dispute between two parties’. Similarly, forced marriages of Christian girls are regarded as a ‘personal matter’ and attacks against Hindus are batted away with a list of examples of atrocities committed against Muslims in India.

None of this serves the interests of minorities or enables them to become a fully integrated part of the nation. But more than that, it does not serve the interests of Pakistan as a whole, for as long as the country fails to recognise the oppression of minorities where it exists, it will always be held back in its progress — forever limited to a certain threshold of stability, harmony, tolerance and pluralism beyond which it will never be able to pass.

One would think that the sorry saga of Atif Mian’s removal would, at the very least, force Pakistan to recognise what sort of world it now inhabits and the extremities of the ideological conflicts that shape it. The unfortunate likelihood, however, is that it won’t, for one other great tyranny of majorities is that too often they fail to act against injustice until it is already too late.

The writer is a freelance columnist and can be reached at usmanhotspur@gmail.com

Published in Daily Times, September 13th 2018.