This past Monday, a student in Pakistan shot his high school principal dead after being reprimanded for skipping school to attend a sit-in organized by one of Pakistan’s Islamist parties. The killer argued that the principal had committed blasphemy by questioning his right to attend the sit-in condemning “blasphemers.”
The sit-in had been organized by Tehreek-e-Labaik-ya-Rasool-Allah (TLYR), or the Movement for the Call of Allah’s Prophet—only the latest addition to Pakistan’s pantheon of extremist groups. The party opposes any change in Pakistan’s stringent blasphemy laws, demands full implementation of sharia law, supports institutionalized discrimination against religious minorities, and describes vigilantes who kill those accused of dishonoring Islam’s prophet as heroes. It was created by clerics supporting the killer of a governor who had spoken up for a poor Christian woman condemned to death for blasphemy, and who had called for reform of the blasphemy laws. And along with the many other extremist groups which share its sympathies, it has morphed into the Frankenstein’s monster of Pakistan, fostering an environment that encourages violence in the name of Islam, exalts those acting against “blasphemers,” and uses the world’s harshest blasphemy laws to mistreat religious minorities, including Christians, Hindus, and Ahmadis.
Earlier this year, the U.S. State Department finally included Pakistan on a special watch list for “severe violations” of religious freedom, after years of ignoring recommendations by the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) that the country be listed among “Countries of Particular Concern” for its mistreatment of religious minorities. The decision is a step forward, albeit not far enough.
American diplomats have chosen in the past to ignore persecution on religious grounds by strategically important countries like Pakistan. But as the increasing U.S. disillusionment with Pakistan indicates, such concessions do not always advance American interests. When Washington overlooks its values to accommodate authoritarian or semi-authoritarian states, it only emboldens them in defying its strategic interests as well.
The American Congress created USCIRF under the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998 to report violations of religious freedom by other countries to the executive and legislative branches of government. Once designated a Country of Particular Concern (CPC) by the State Department, the U.S. government can deprive a country of foreign aid and other benefits of partnership with the United States.
Pakistan has repeatedly been found by USCIRF “to perpetrate and tolerate systematic, ongoing, and egregious religious freedom violations.” As this year’s report aptly notes, “Religiously discriminatory constitutional provisions and legislation, such as the country’s blasphemy and anti-Ahmadiyya laws, continue to result in prosecutions and imprisonments.”
The historic roots of this reality run deep. The word Pakistan literally means “the land of the pure.” In their effort to create a “purer” Islamic state, Pakistan’s leaders have allowed extremists to target different minorities at different times. Soon after the country’s creation in 1947, Hindus and Sikhs were driven out, reducing the population of Pakistan’s non-Muslims to around 3 percent. The two wings of the country, which until 1971 included East Pakistan (now Bangladesh), would have included 23 percent non-Muslims had there been no ethnic cleansing amidst communal riots during India’s brutal partition.
Pakistan declared itself an Islamic Republic when it belatedly adopted its first constitution in 1956. Since then, Christians have been victimized by the country’s blasphemy laws, with many of them ending up in prison on false charges. Rivals in property disputes and even spurned lovers have turned to blasphemy accusations to condemn their enemies. Blasphemy is often punishable by death, and attacks by Islamist vigilantes on judges who acquit those accused of blasphemy makes it virtually impossible for victims to secure bail or acquittal under the flawed laws.
Over the years, the ranks of Pakistan’s endangered minorities have only expanded. In 1974, Pakistan’s parliament amended the constitution to pronounce members of the Ahmadiyya movement—who consider themselves a sect within Islam—to be non-Muslims. That amendment created a religious dilemma for the Ahmadis: their faith required them to insist that they were Muslims, but the law would punish them if they did so. Ahmadis were barred from identifying as Muslims on government documents, while later decrees imposed by Islamist military dictator General Zia-ul-Haq further restricted Ahmadis’ use of Islamic symbols and their public practice of the faith.
These days, as several Christians and Ahmadis sit in Pakistani prisons facing blasphemy charges, terrorist groups have also attacked Shi‘a Muslims, who represent almost 20 percent of the populace. Jihadi groups created and trained to fight “infidel” communists in Afghanistan and “Hindu” India pose a growing a threat at home, but no one in a position of power has the will or courage to shut them down. And sectarian violence, including attacks on places of worship, continues to claim innocent lives. Just before Christmas last year, an attack on a Methodist Church in Quetta, Balochistan killed eight people. This came a few weeks after the TLYR sit-in, in which three thousand rabid Sufi-professing Sunni Muslim men—including the high schooler who would later kill his principal—took over Islamabad for almost three weeks, paralyzing the government.
Unfortunately, authorities’ response to this mounting radicalism has been conciliation, not confrontation. Instead of enforcing the law against the small number of protestors, the civilian government was forced to accept their demands. With the country’s army chief acting as negotiator, a truce was signed between the government and the extremists’ leader. Witnesses spotted military officers giving money to some of the protestors, raising suspicions that the protests had been engineered to further undermine the authority of the civilians.
Ironically, one of the protestors’ demands was not to allow Pakistani Ahmadi citizens to vote alongside the majority Muslim population. That reflects a tragic pattern in Pakistani history of political mobilization through intolerance for religious minorities.
In short, Pakistan’s dismal record on religious freedom is longstanding and deeply rooted. USCIRF and other advocates have spent years lamenting this state of affairs, and have repeatedly demanded that the U.S. government exert greater pressure on Islamabad over its lack of religious freedom. But the State Department has repeatedly overlooked these findings to avoid jeopardizing Pakistan’s cooperation on strategic matters.
In 2016, Congressman Frank Wolf (R-VA) added the “Special Watch List” option to the International Religious Freedom Act so that the State Department could protest a lack of religious freedom even when it is reluctant to trigger sanctions for a particular country. The Secretary of State seems to have taken advantage of this halfway house designation in his recent attempt to put Pakistan on notice.
The Special Watch List designation for Pakistan could help Pakistan’s religious minorities, who have received little support within their country. Such is the sway of extremist ideology in Pakistan that the cold-blooded murder of Ahmadis, Shi‘a, Christians, Hindus, and Sikhs barely registers within the country, let alone abroad. The State Department’s new designation will hopefully change that reality, by publicly recognizing Pakistan as a violator of the universal norms of religious freedom and raising awareness of the precarious situation of Pakistani citizens persecuted solely for their faith.
Yet the State Department can go beyond naming and shaming Pakistan on the Special Watch List. After the confirmation of former Senator Sam Brownback as the new U.S. Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom, the United States could include religious discrimination as an important plank in its diplomatic interaction with Pakistan. That might mean further relegating Pakistan to the list of Countries of Particular Concern, and thus triggering sanctions, unless Pakistan reforms its discriminatory and dangerous laws.
As U.S. Senator during the 1990s, Mr. Brownback wrote legislation that helped Pakistan partially overcome American sanctions resulting from pursuing a nuclear weapons program. He could use the goodwill he has with Pakistan’s civil and military leaders to remind them of their duties towards religious minorities under the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Prioritizing this issue is not simply the right thing to do for Pakistan’s beleaguered minorities. It is also a smart course correction for Washington at a time when the United States is finally reconsidering its strained alliance with Pakistan.