RELIGION is central to the identity of the vast majority of Pakistanis, regardless of which faith or sect they belong to. But while the principle of freedom of religion is enshrined in the Constitution, contradictions abound, and Pakistan’s minorities often live under a cloud of fear and insecurity, particularly if they belong to disadvantaged classes or castes, or are continuously scapegoated and demonised by the powerful. Instead of receiving protection, vulnerable groups are ignored or thrown under the bus, over and over again, as they navigate layers of systemic discrimination and deeply rooted cultural biases, making some feel like lesser citizens in their country of birth. To ensure minorities receive their due rights and protections, the cabinet recently approved the reconstitution of the National Commission for Minorities, but the move has already met with a series of setbacks and controversies. First, the federal government withdrew the decision to include Ahmadis in the list of religious minorities — a decision vociferously defended by the minister for religious affairs — further denying the community any form of representation. In a country where people define themselves (and others) by their religious beliefs, where does this leave an already marginalised community? What exactly is their status?
Then, in a five-page report to the Supreme Court, the one-man commission of Dr Shoaib Suddle detailed further obstacles created by the Ministry of Religious Affairs in the setting up of the NMC. The problems surrounding the formation of the body simply reflects how far we are from becoming a truly equitable society in letter and spirit. While we rightfully condemn the cruel treatment that minorities — particularly Muslim minorities — in many other parts of the world are subjected to, we turn a blind eye to the abuse taking place under our watch or go into denial and get defensive about our own poor track record. The father of this nation said that religion is not the business of the state, but throughout Pakistan’s history, the state has made religion its business at every turn. Unfortunately, to distract from their failings and weaknesses, or to fulfil their own strategic and worldly ambitions, the powerful make opportunistic choices, while the ‘silent majority’ unthinkingly become accomplices to oppression. If nobody stands up for what is right, or wants for others the same freedom and security they seek for themselves, we will keep spiralling down a very dangerous path.