Religious freedom in 21st century Pakistan

Pakistan can be allowed to become radicalised or it can be salvaged as a large Muslim majority, democratic nation state

Pakistan’s current political reality makes the scope of constitutional action very limited, if internally initiated. Religious freedom is just not on the priority list. It is not that they are bigots — in most cases they are not — but the political elite is deathly afraid of the mullahs and too self-serving to take up this issue. Same is the case with our friends in the US, European Union (EU) and other western nations, normally the champions of liberty and religious freedom. When Pakistan was granted the GSP Plus status by the EU, many notable human rights activists expressed optimism that this would mean that Pakistan would be forced to improve the situation for religious minorities in the country. Pakistan is too important strategically for these western powers to bother about religious freedom. After all, General Ziaul Haq, who pretty much read out the freedom of religion clause from the Constitution through his ordinances, was the blue-eyed boy of these nations. A US legislator from the Democratic Party even called him the “Winston Churchill of our time” for his role in the war against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan. Similarly, the main culprit behind the radicalisation of the Muslim world, Saudi Arabia, is hardly ever criticised by any of these major powers for its tremendous failings.

Yet it is time the world took a long-term view of Pakistan. Pakistan can go either way. It can be allowed to become radicalised or it can be salvaged as a large Muslim majority, democratic nation state. For it to be salvaged as the latter, all efforts of reform must be encouraged. Part of this would be to drive home to Pakistanis that the world will do business with them only if they put an immediate end to the persecution of religious minorities in Pakistan. Give Pakistan the choice: economic prosperity or pariah status. Ultimately, Pakistanis have a keen business sense. The ruling elite will get the message. However, for this to happen, the world powers, especially the big three — US, EU and China — will have to sacrifice their short-term interests in the region. This means that things like the Economic Corridor, GSP Plus and development aid have to be linked with concrete progress on the issue of religious freedom. Similarly, if Pakistanis are turned away at international airports, they will will begin to reconsider their shortsightedness. There is precedent for this in South Africa. Unlike South Africa, Pakistani rulers will quickly throw in the towel.

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