Gorja Violence & Human Rights

Pakistan Christian Riots Aug 2 09The Gojra violence coincides with a chapter of an SDPI report on Human Rights in Pakistani Public School curriculum I have been reading, and I cannot help but imagine that this incident is at least somewhat rooted in the way Pakistan has approached the human rights question.

The constitution, on one hand, takes a categorically secular stance on human rights. Chapter One of Part II – the first meaty section of the constitution – deals with Fundamental Rights. Articles 20-28 cover the rights of the individual, and nowhere in these articles does one find the words Islam, Muslim, Quran or any related terms; religion remains wholly absent. Below are select excerpts from the articles that pertain to freedom of religious practice and related issues:

  • every religious denomination and every sect thereof shall have the right to establish, maintain and manage its religious institutions
  • no person shall be compelled to pay any special tax the proceeds of which are to be spent on the propagation or maintenance of any religion other than his own
  • no citizen shall be denied admission to any educational institution receiving aid from public revenues on the ground only of race, religion, caste or place of birth

Even articles dealing with religion are devoid of any reference to Muslim majoritarianism; citizens’ fundamental rights are described in an explicitly secular context.

I have been trying to locate the  blasphemy provisions in the constitution to examine the language surrounding these offenses – I will be sure to update this post with comments when I do.

The state-prescribed public-school curriculum, on the other hand, has a very different approach to human rights. First, the inclusion of human rights seems an afterthought in textbooks: no systematic, structured thought pattern emerges from the references to human rights in the coursework. Second, and more disturbingly, human rights find more mention in Islamiat textbooks than they do in Social Studies and Pakistan Studies textbooks. The latter two would have been the appropriate subjects for a secular discussion of human rights. Instead, their scant mention lacks coherence and deprives teachers of the ability to impart human rights education to children. Further, even on a high-school level, human rights related issues in these textbooks make no reference to the constitution. They do not make the connection between human rights and secular legal protection.

Islamiat, however, mentions human rights far more significantly. In Islamiat textbooks, themes of human rights are approached, obviously, from a religious perspective.  For example, textbooks routinely mention Huqooq-ul-Ebad (rights of other human beings) along with Huqooq-ullah (rights of God). Similarly, the concept of justice is Islamicized by being taught as Adl-o-Ehsan (justice and benevolence).

Teaching human rights in a religious context fuels two major forces that we see animating much of the sectarian violence in the country. First, it enhances the Mullah’s agency to legislate human rights. When human rights are understood in the context of Islam, Islamic scholars can lay plausible claim to be the best determinants of the limits of fundamental liberties. We see this manifest in the Gojra incident as the inordinate agency of Maulvi Imran Aslam, the prayer-leader to whom the instigation of violence is ascribed.  Dawn quotes a local Christian, “There has been no problem between Christians and Muslims since 1964 when Korian was developed by the then district council chairman, Chaudhry Saeed. But things started shaping up in a strange manner after the arrival of a Maulvi Sahib from Jhang some six months ago.”

Second, this conception allows for a logical suspension of the culprit’s human rights in cases where religion is debased. When human rights are understood in a religious framework, a perceived attack on the institutions of religion is tantamount to an attack on the basis of human rights, making violence easily justifiable.

With little public discussion, the conversation of human rights in Pakistan is left to the few who engage in it. The state’s rhetoric dominates dissenting voices and finds resonance with religious groups, easily shaping the public viewpoint. Until issues of human rights begin to be understood to exist outside the scope of a particular religion, sectarian violence will remain hard to stem.