This article was originally published by the Religious Freedom Institute on March 23, 2017.
When it comes to rights for religious minorities, Pakistan is the focus of much international controversy, even though Pakistan’s religious minorities constitute just 3.7% of its population of about 205 million. These rights include freedom of religion, economic opportunities, political representations, and socio-identical acceptability of minorities by the Muslim majority and state. International human rights and freedom advocacy groups and think tanks, such as Pew Research Center, Freedom House, Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and others; rank Pakistan not friendly and not free country particularly for religious minorities. The problematic nature of this issue is also reflected by the decision of minorities to leave Pakistan; there has been a decrease in the number of minorities in the country from 15% before partition in 1947 to the current level.
According to the Pew Research Center, the state is not doing enough to protect the rights of religious minorities and is still reluctant to consider or grant them equal citizenship in Pakistan. These findings are also an indicator that the state has significant involvement in religious matters and/or personal beliefs. This use by the state of religion for political purposes in turn creates space for the misuse of religion, in this case Islam, for political gains by particular segments of society.
But at the same time, I have been involved in both inter- and intra-faith programs in Pakistan. I have experienced that there is a Muslim voice for the protection of equal citizenship rights for religious minorities, and it is encouraging that at least a few Muslim religious leaders and other groups recognize they need to play an active role in this regard. They are involved in different ways to address the issues of religious minorities in the country.
In my experience in Pakistan and my experience here in the U.S. working at a religious freedom organization, I find that the main voices regarding minorities’ situation in Pakistan are coming from two key stakeholders; i.e. first, the victims – religious minorities, and second, the organizations advocating for minorities’ rights. And it seems that the main target of organizations advocating for change is the government of Pakistan. Yet there is a voice missing, and this missing voice may be the most important stakeholder of all in this issue, namely common people representing Pakistan’s Muslim majority. I myself am part of this majority population. There are indeed members of the majority population who share with our minorities a vision for a future inclusive, harmonious Pakistan.
In order to work effectively toward substantive, sustainable inclusion of all Pakistanis together, I feel there is dire need to seek deeper understanding of the perspectives held by the majority toward minorities. We need to listen to what the majority feels about religious minorities and their rights in Pakistan, and also understand their level of knowledge of this topic. For example, what are the drivers of their involvement in incidents of conflict with minorities? What do members of the majority Muslim population perceive to be the barriers to full acceptance of minorities in mainstream societal life? To what extent are Pakistanis of the Muslim majority aware of issues regarding equal citizenship rights of minorities? Do Muslims in Pakistan even know about the efforts underway by Muslim religious leaders, such as the Amman Message and the Marrakesh Declaration, to support intra-faith peace as well as equal citizenship before the law for all?
Listening to this most important segment of Pakistani society, the people from Muslim majority, will help to identify their key concerns. This in turn could help identify starting points for more effective dialogue and appropriate strategies to improve the minority rights situation in my country. I think there needs to be investment in studies to provide better understanding of majority views and opportunities for members of Pakistan’s majority population to play an active role in working toward a more harmonious future for Pakistan.
The most effective way to secure minority rights in Pakistan is to involve the majority as partners in this work.