Pakistan, a place where non-Muslims also live
A lot has been written about the plight of minorities in Pakistan – some by minorities themselves but mostly by the majority.
In most such reports, analyses and blogs, the focus has been on the aggressive tactics used by a violent and regressive few to intimidate and persecute the middle to lower-middle class of Christians and Hindus. I speak not of Ahmadis, as the persecution they face is a more severe one resulting in death and legislation-led despair. Theirs is a plight I pray for daily.
In this piece, however, I want to focus on another aspect of the issue that minorities face in this self-proclaimed yet ill-implemented citadel of Islam: intellectual discrimination.
The episode I am about to relate to you has happened to me four times already since March, and countless times in my travels around the world.
Yesterday, I got into a taxi in Dubai to take me home from the office where I work. The driver was a lovely chap from Karachi, who would have been no more than 40 years of age. While engaging in small talk, as is usual with taxi-travels, I asked him his name to which he replied “Akmal.” After the cliched ‘dropped catches’ jokes ended, he asked me what my name was, which I gladly gave him. His next question didn’t catch me off-guard, as I was used to it by now:
“Which part of India are you from? Goa?”
I replied by telling him I was from Pakistan, which he could not believe. He gave me an incredulous stare, and said:
“Nahi nahi, Pakistan se? Acha phir kahan Pakistan mai?” (No, really? Where from Pakistan?)
I replied by saying “Karachi,” to which he asked in a very obvious sarcastic tone of disbelief:
“Karachi mai kis jaga?” (Where in Karachi?)
Once I convinced him I was from Pakistan, I asked him why he was so surprised. His reply shocked me only because he was a Karachiite, where countless Christians have lived for centuries:
“Aap ke naam se tau lag hi nahi raha tha.” (Couldn’t tell at all by your name)
One can argue that this episode is based on one man’s testimony, but then I would point out to the countless other nationals in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) (the world’s melting pot, if I may) who have never once gathered that I may be from Pakistan. From Indians to Australians, Englishmen to Americans and even Germans, the moment they heard my name, it was understood that I must be Indian or at the least Sri Lankan. Upon informing them of my nationality – especially considering I puff my chest out in pride when I say it – they respond with the usual surprised comment:
“There are Christians in Pakistan?”
Pakistani taxi drivers in Canada, the UK and Australia have all asked me the same thing.
And this is what I mean by intellectual discrimination.
Why does the world have a picture of Pakistan as a strictly Muslim state devoid of anyone other than Muslims?
Why is it that our own people abroad – who definitely must have had non-Muslims somewhere in their vicinity while growing up – seem so oblivious to any other in their theocracy?
The answer is quite simple really. From the constitution to the halls of education, from the science sector to the cricket fields, religion (read: Islam) is not just a part of your identity, it is your only identity. In Ramazan, non-Muslims are not allowed to even smell food in front of their fellow Pakistanis who are fasting, and no Pakistani will ever in his lifetime see a non-Muslim head of state or head of the armed forces.
Our entire societal structure is based on the illusion that everything which surrounds you is Muslim by creation, by nature and by ideology.
Simply ask the people who renamed Elphinston Street to Zaibunissa Street, or who prefer to call Dayaram Jethmal College as DJ Sindh College. Even our history is repainted with the ‘true’ ideology. Our Urdu text books begin with a Hamd and have the Na’ats somewhere in the middle, making it compulsory to study in primary schools; never mind the Christians and Hindus who must study the same text book as it is part of their orovincial syllabus for that subject. In the boards of secondary education, a non-Muslim can only study Pakistan Studies or ‘Ethics’, not his own religion. Yet, Islamiat is mandatory for every single Pakistani Muslim in a non-Muslim school. Again, zero exposure to anything other than Islam.
Society as a whole has been moulded into a facade where unless you’ve lived next to, or known a non-Muslim, they don’t exist here. This is why everything ground to a halt with Shaheed Salmaan Taseer and Shaheed Shahbaz Bhatti’s assasinations. People couldn’t believe that this could happen, but it did.
When Afia Siddiqui was arrested, the entire ghairat-brigade of Pakistan went up in arms and called America the great Satan. Yet when Asia Bibi was arrested, Pakistan was seen as the upholder of faith by our honourable masses. No protests, no rallies, no justice-call for the oppressed. In fact, suddenly we were seeing blogs posts and Twitter streams going crazy with supporters of Qadri. Apparently, non-Muslims are out to get Islam, and are not patriotic Pakistanis if they support Asia Bibi or if they pray for the soul of Shaheed Salmaan Taseer. Come to think of it, this last accusation has been levelled against quite a few Muslims too!
I hear many supporters of minority rights in Pakistan call for a revamp of the constitution, a revamp of educational systems and a proper judicial look at our rights and their implementation, but I feel this is all for nought until and unless a typical non-Muslim Pakistani is first accepted as a Pakistani even if his name is not Ahmad or Ali.
The views expressed by the writer and the reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of The Express Tribune.