JOHN KERRY, the American secretary of state, has been in Pakistan over the past couple of days, on a tough assignment. He had to show the proper degree of sympathy over last month’s terrible massacre of schoolchildren by the Pakistani Taliban, and urge his hosts to draw the logical conclusion: they must fight all violent Islamist groups instead of picking and choosing between them. And above all, they must crack down on groups which threaten India, although they are precisely the ones which have often found discreet sponsors in high places.
As though that wasn’t tricky enough, a rather unusual piece of advice was sounding in Mr Kerry’s ears as he began his Pakistani sojourn. A broad and ideologically mixed array of Washingtonian south Asia wonks, including ones who don’t normally pay much attention to things spiritual, urged him in an open letter to put religious freedom much higher on the agenda. That’s more than a call for motherhood and apple pie. With a country like Pakistan, where America’s wish list is long and its traction is finite, there are hard choices to be made. The issue doesn’t feature explicitly in the “strategic dialogue” which the two countries are supposed to be having; that focuses more on things like energy, the economy and non-proliferation. And then there is the future of Afghanistan after the withdrawal of most Western troops.
So why add religious freedom to an already long list? First, say the letter’s signatories, because trends in this area are so terrible. Things are getting worse and worse for minorities like the Christians, the Shias, the Ahmadiyya community and the Hindus. Aasia Bibi, a Christian woman, faces a death sentence on an absurd blasphemy charge, arising out of a petty local quarrel over drinking water, and at least 37 other people are in jail for alleged blasphemy. An extremist cleric last month denounced the Ahmadiyya as the “enemy” on television and at least one person died as a result. Also late last year, two Christians were lynched and a Shia was killed while in custody by a policeman.
And here’s a hard political fact: if Ms Bibi is hanged, that will create a backlash in the United States that will make it much harder for the administration to justify aid to Pakistan. Moreover, as religious-freedom campaigners always say, a country where horrible acts of religious persecution take place won’t in the long run be a great strategic ally. And of course, many of the worst persecutors of vulnerable minorities are precisely the armed groups which threaten the region’s stability. Diplomatic pressure could certainly make a difference to the fate of Ms Bibi, says Lisa Curtis of the Heritage Foundation, a signatory and prime mover of the letter.
Another point the signatories might have made is this: whenever America has ignored the religious implications of its foreign policy in that part of the world, the consequences haven’t been good. The influence of hard-line clerical forces in Pakistan started growing in the time of President Zia ul-Haq (pictured), whose Islamist leanings didn’t seem important in those cold war days when fighting the Soviet Union was the main priority. More attention should have been paid, and cities like New York, Paris and London would be safer places now if anyone had foreseen the consequences of that oversight.