How real is freedom of religion?

January 12, 2020

Successive governments have failed to see the existing disparity of rights in the statutes

In June 2019, the PEW Research Forum, an esteemed survey institution, profiled 25 most populous countries with the highest levels of social hostilities involving religion. These included India, Egypt, Nigeria, Pakistan and Bangladesh, with all five experiencing “very high” levels of hostilities. Unsurprisingly, Pakistan also figured among countries having a “high” level of restrictions.

PEW has been generating global surveys on subjects related to religious freedom and ranks countries using two parameters and hundreds of indicators assessing the state behaviour (restrictions) and the social outcomes (hostilities) on the basis of religion.

Scholars have found a correlation and interdependence between the state behaviour towards religion(s) and manifestations of religious intolerance (Brian Grim, The Price of Freedom Denied). Nevertheless, there are other factors playing into hostilities such as transnational effects, self-generative aspect of hostilities based on religion or belief that can survive without or even trigger state restrictions in certain situations, for instance in India.

The religious groups inherently maintain certain distinctions and differences, though usually, the hostilities are aimed at the smaller faith groups. Therefore, the freedom of religion available to common citizens is often measured by the standards of freedoms enjoyed by religious minorities in any country. It may be pertinent here to start an assessment of religious freedom available to the majority faith group (Muslims) in Pakistan. Let us start with freedom of speech.

Most public speeches start with religious salutes and verses, which conversely is a declaration of faith that one should not feel obliged to put on display. All public ceremonies, even the parliamentary proceedings, irrespective of the atmosphere that follows, must start with reading of the scripture. It may be worth questioning why members of the majority faith group should have to prove their faith credentials.

Equally, all parliaments in Pakistan have passed either a resolution, a constitutional amendment or a law involving the concept of apostasy and blasphemy. The current National Assembly did this last week in connection with the banning of some sacrilegious books. One wonders how many parliaments in the world have this as an ongoing business.

The minister who had to resign, the committee that was grilled, and the people at large who suffered losses due to the sit-ins in Islamabad in 2018, regarding the omission of declaration for the Ahmadiyya, weren’t these mostly Muslims?

The trend was set with the conception of supremacy of majority religion introduced in the Objectives Resolution in 1949. The next step was reservation of the highest offices (president and prime minister) for the majority, which apparently made the majority preferred citizens. All three constitutions – in 1956, 1962 and 1973 – included Islamic provisions that ingrained the Council of Islamic Ideology, compulsory teaching of Islamiat as a state policy, etc.

Despite all these measures, there is more division amongst the majority faith group and looming manifestations of insecurity. Hence, does the majority faith group enjoy religious freedom in Pakistan? It is evident that by imposing exclusion from equal rights on minorities, the majority stands equally vulnerable and disfranchised. The majority is given to believe that their rights, particularly religious freedom, are better protected and yet they live in perpetual insecurity.

The language of the constitution – by restricting the protection of minorities to legitimate rights and interests in the Article 36 – created a precedent of an explicit derogation of rights. The majority lives under the impression of enjoying privileges whereas in effect, restrictions and discrimination exclude them as well.

In the aftermath of attacks on a church in Peshawar, there came the Jillani judgment in June 2014, which reaffirmed that Article 20 of the constitution provided religious freedom (profess, practice and propagate) to all citizens irrespective of the religious identity. Moreover, the religious freedom of minorities will be interpreted in the light of their own faith. To give effect to this constitutional right, the Supreme Court issued eight directives in this much celebrated judgment, which still await implementation five and half years later. The implementation might have to wait till the respect of equality of rights is cultivated.

Overlooking the disturbing manifestations of growing religious intolerance over the decades, the official narrative persistently assured that constitutional guarantees regarding freedom of religion were sufficient. Successive governments failed to see the existing disparity of rights in the statutes and continued to claim that religious freedom had been operationalised. It transpires from the assertions that authorities misunderstood the relics of the past, such as structure of places of worship, certain rituals, as vibrant religious diversity. Secondly, the official narrative compared Pakistan with countries that lacked strong traditions of openness, rule of law and democracy. Hence, the officials denied, deflected or diluted the ground reality, at grave cost.

Of late, it has become abundantly clear that religious freedom is a problematic area. Therefore, the government has shifted to recognising problems related to forced conversions, political representation of religious minorities, etc. As a result, some affirmative action was initiated while the official narrative co-opted the notion of interfaith dialogue / relations. Yet, incidents of abuse of blasphemy laws, mob attacks, forced conversions keep surfacing because the steps lack conceptual foundation and legal as well as policy measures.

The advocates of religious freedom have long campaigned for serious reviews of law and policy based on the evaluation of legal norms using the internationally acknowledged framework, ie a) non-derogation, that religious freedom should not be infringed by unreasonable restrictions and limitations; b) non-discrimination that there should be no institutional preference, exclusion; c) the inter-section with other rights will be maintained to allow exercise of religious freedom in person and in community eg the right to expression, own property, safety and security; d) religious autonomy of individual and communities will be ensured; and e) right to conscience and conscientious objection will be respected.

If the opening of the Kartarpur Corridor for the Sikh pilgrims is a marker, Pakistan has all the potential to correct the wrongs of the past and carve out a future that can liberate Pakistani society from restrictions and hostilities. This may show a path to the neighbouring countries for regional stability.

The writer is an activist and freelance journalist, specialising in public policy and human rights. He can be reached at 

Pakistan: How real is freedom of religion?