Riots erupted in a village near Gojra in Pakistan’s Punjab province on 31 July when it was alleged that three Christians desecrated pages of the Holy Qur'an at a wedding, claims that the Pakistani police later reported as unfounded. As a result, dozens of houses in an enclave called Christian Town were torched and over a hundred looted and ransacked. Seven men, women and children were burnt alive, and many more wounded.
The Gojra incident is one of the most tragic, shameful and condemnable incidents in Pakistan's recent history.
According to authorities, extremists from the Swat and Malakand regions of Pakistan masterminded the attacks on the Christian community alongside members of a banned sectarian group, Sipah i Sahaba (Army of the Prophet’s Companions), that had come to Gojra from the organisation's nearby headquarters.
Shahbaz Bhatti, the Federal Minister for Minorities Affairs, mentioned in a news conference a few days after the riots that the government would compensate the victims and rebuild the burnt houses through the establishment of a special Rs. 200 million ($2.5 million) fund. In addition, over 200 people have been arrested and charged, including the now-dismissed local officials who ignored obvious evidence that the attacks were underway.
One of the problems that has come to light following these attacks is the state's treatment of religious political parties within Pakistani society. The state provides these religious parties—which have insignificant electoral strength—with more political space than major political parties. The most glaring example of this was during the 2002 elections, when former president General Pervez Musharraf let two religious parties, Jamaat e Islami (Party of Islam) and Jamiat Ulema e Islam (Assembly of Islamic Clergy), form provincial governments in the North-West Frontier Province and Baluchistan, respectively.
The state has traditionally depended on these religious parties to reinforce its hold over the country. For example, these parties’ religious alliance in parliament was instrumental in supporting the 17th Amendment to Pakistan’s constitution in December 2003, paving the way for Musharraf to continue his rule as president.
Religious parties have often played a divisive role in the society and politics of Pakistan by highlighting religious differences between communities and—in the worst cases—inciting violence. Their continuous support of discriminatory laws such as the Blasphemy Law, which is frequently used to try non-Muslims accused of disrespecting the Qur’an, is one such example.
This time the victims were Christian. In the past, Ahmadis, Shia and members of other Muslim sects have been attacked and terrorised in their homes and places of worship. Today, Pakistani citizens must decide whether they stand for rule of law or religious dogmatism.
Non-governmental organisations, such as the Muslim-Christian Federation International and the Interfaith Council of Peace, should strengthen their efforts to enhance tolerance and respect for other faiths. But it is also important for the state to adopt a broad-based strategic policy, including changes to the school syllabi to inculcate tolerance in students and a better understanding of the cultural and religious diversity within Pakistan.
We also need the willing and active support of political parties to educate their supporters on how to rise above prejudice and to be wary of the elements that attempt to create religious tension. Political leaders in the region surely could have mustered sufficient strength to quell the raging mob. After all, an elected leader is supposed to have persuasive skills and handle unruly crowds. If they had done this, the tragedy in Gojra may have been avoided.
The diversity of our nation’s cultures, languages and faiths is not a sign of weakness, but of strength. Without a strong democratic culture that maintains respect for this diversity, a stable and legitimate democracy cannot be ushered into any country.
* Mian Ijaz ul Hassan is a writer, painter and the chairman of the prime minister’s Task Force for Culture and Heritage in Pakistan. This article was written for the Common Ground News Service (CGNews).