It is a familiar script. Two groups of young men get involved in an altercation. Things get heated, tempers flare, and there is an eruption of violence leaving injuries and property damage in its wake. This is what happened on Eid in Faisalabad earlier this week, when around 30 people were injured after a dispute over a chicken – allegedly run over by one of the men involved – escalated into a full-blown sectarian assault that ended with an Ahmedi place of worship being razed to the ground. According to reports from the scene, the violence had all the hallmarks of similar attacks in the past; a relatively innocuous trigger, the involvement of local mosques and mullahs inflaming sentiment against minority communities, the gathering of a mob comprised of locals unconnected to the initial dispute, and the eventual destruction of persons and/or property in an orgy of religious violence.
Speaking to the media, the new Minister for Information and Broadcasting, Fawad Chaudhry, claimed that the incident in Faisalabad was nothing more than a personal dispute that had gotten out of hand, with no religious motivations involved. This statement is puzzling for several reasons; it can hardly be considered business as usual when a frenzied mob can engage in running street battles for several hours before torching a place of worship with impunity as the police simply looks on. More importantly, disputes of this kind – and there are many – usually do not end with massive acts of arson, nor do they unfold to the sound of sectarian slogans and coordinated attempts to punish a specific community. Under normal circumstances, a dispute over a dead chicken would probably involve harsh words and perhaps even a brief fistfight, not a massive conflagration involving dozens of people. Indeed, it is impossible to shake the feeling that events took the course that they did precisely because one of the parties involved happened to be an Ahmedi.
There has long been little point in hoping that those in power in the Land of the Pure will find the moral courage to call a spade and spade and denounce the forces of religious bigotry that have slowly but surely consumed this country. Every year, hundreds of individuals whose only crime is believing in the wrong god or following the wrong faith find themselves subjected to often deadly violence, even as politicians, the police, and even the courts simply shrug their shoulders, downplay the significance of what is happening, and mutter references to Jinnah’s speech on 11 August 1947 in which he declared Pakistan would be tolerant of all faiths and creeds. Some even go so far as to endorse the violence, cynically manipulating religious sentiment for political gain.
Much is expected of the new PTI government which has, after all, come to power promising radical change. Yet, while many understandably focus on big-ticket issues like loadshedding or corruption, the everyday acts of violence directed towards Pakistan’s minorities are no less important. On one of the first occasions that the PTI had to signal its seriousness about bringing change to Pakistan, it has gone ahead and buried its head in the sand much like its predecessors did. All the party or any of its many spokespersons had to do was make a statement denouncing the violence and yet, all that was said was yet another variation on the idea that the concerns of religious minorities in Pakistan are either unfounded or unimportant.
At some level this is not surprising. As has been documented at length by his critics, Imran Khan has long expressed sympathy for the politics of the religious right and did not shy away from campaigning on the basis of contentious issues like blasphemy in the months leading up to the 2018 elections. This was an example that was followed by some of the PTI’s candidates, who accused their rivals in the PML-N of blasphemy and were not averse to using charged religious language to win votes. Yet, this is precisely why the government’s response, or lack of it, to the Faisalabad incident is important; at a time when many fear that Imran Khan may undermine the ongoing fight against extremism in Pakistan, taking a stand on the protection of a minority community may have gone some way towards assuaging those concerns.
The nature of the PTI, in terms of its political ideology, its organisational structure, and its electoral strategy, means that its government was always going to face an uphill task in bringing about the change it has promised. After all, a party filled with traditional ‘electable’ politicians drawn from the country’s economic elite can hardly be expected to rock the boat too much, just as one that has been aligned with the religious right is not suddenly going to transform into a beacon of secular and progressive values. Yet, by not even trying to fight against these forces, the PTI is simply confirming the worst fears of its detractors. Symbolism matters and while it may be unrealistic to expect that the PTI can or will be able to do much about the systemic persecution of Pakistan’s religious minorities, at least in the short term, simple acts like condemning the burning of an Ahmedi place of worship, or appointing a non-Muslim to a cabinet post, could have meant a lot. Instead, the PTI’s first week in government has shown that it may not turn out to be too different from its predecessors after all.
The writer is an assistant professor of political science at LUMS.