The Night is Dark


*Originally published in The News. Unedited version below:

Five Hazaras were gunned down in Quetta on 7th June. Numbering 500, the bereaved families and members of the Hazara community later protested on the streets with coffins of the deceased. In vain.

Aftab in his youth

Aftab in his youth

Aftab Bahadar was hanged on 10th June. Sentenced in 1992 for a murder along with Ghulam Mustafa, the plumber for whom he worked, he had been painfully waiting on the death row since 22 years. However, both Ghulam and the eyewitness who testified against Aftab only recently repudiated the claim that Aftab was complicit in the crime. According to Guardian and human rights organization Reprieve, Aftab said that when he was arrested the police asked for a 50,000 rupee bribe and said they would let him go if he paid. He couldn’t.

What lies between these deaths is hollowness, a hollowness of promises and vows that continues to jar louder each day since 16th December 2014.

With a seriously flawed judicial system and reportedly the world’s largest number of inmates on death row, believed to be over 8000, the lifting of the moratorium on the death penalty in Pakistan was controversial from the start. Yet all reason was jettisoned in an attempt to subdue and satiate the seething fury and mourning after the Peshawar Attack. The decision was oblivious to logic in disregarding the fact that the very desire of terrorists resides in death and the anticipated ascension to heaven; and that an ideology as toxic, bloodthirsty and pervasive as that of extremism cannot be bound, let alone defeated, by the mere physical elimination of its members. Nonetheless, the restoration of the death penalty was made to appear as a seemingly bold and big step against terrorists; symbolic of the state’s newfound deadly and steely resolve against terrorism. However, the reinstatement of the death penalty was but a grand eyewash and façade used to deflect from taking real action on the fronts that demanded immense political will, honesty, courage and tenacity. A reality starkly reflected between the unabated killings in Quetta and the hanging of Aftab Bahadur at Kot Lakhpat.

The comprehensive National Action Plan that emerged in January as the government’s guide to countering terrorism and extremism seems to have been an act of plain political grandstanding since it remains far from any noticeable implementation.

A critical statement on the state of madrassah education by Information Minister Pervaiz Rasheed was enough to evoke a spate of hate and attacks against him, prompting fears for his safety. Pervez Hoodbhoy succinctly spoke of the controversy’s implications in his Dawn article ‘The Pervaiz Rasheed Affair’“Not a single voice in government defended the information minister. By refusing to own the remarks of its own information minister the government has signalled its retreat on a critical front — madressah reform.”  Such are the hazards and hurdles associated with the problem of extremism in Pakistan that a mere statement can shackle the government from action. As for the minorities Shikarpur, Youhanabad and Quetta suffice to mention. They continue to be hounded while militant outfits such as LeJ and SSP continue to run amok with their lust for blood.

On the other hand, decisions taken in wake of the Peshawar attack such as the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa government’s permission to allow teachers weapons inside schools resonate with the coarse nature of political imagination in the country. The prevalence of such poor governance that determines this slipshod management of alarming issues and knee-jerk reactions to them has only recently taken the life of a 12-year old pupil in Swat who was accidentally shot dead by the teacher while he was cleaning his pistol.

Despite the monstrosity that bloodily usurped the lives of 141 children, the government’s reaction has been marked by the customary national cycle of temporary outrage, condemnation, protest, forget and repeat. The recent killings of the Hazara in Quetta and the execution of Aftab Bahadur serve to illustrate the lack of any decisive, solid or substantial government and state action against terrorists and extremists, and the superficiality of the steps taken, such as the restoration of the death penalty, in curbing the cancer.

Little has changed six months since the Peshawar Attack, most of all the captivity of Pakistan and its collective consciousness by political, ideological, social and moral paralysis.

At such a moment in time, one must listen to a dead man speaking from his grave; Aftab Bahadaur’s words from his last letter (translated and published in The Guardian a day before his execution):

“While the death penalty moratorium was ended on the pretext of killing terrorists, most of the people here in Kot Lakhpat are charged with regular crimes. Quite how killing them is going to stop the sectarian violence in this country, I cannot say. I hope I do not die on Wednesday, but I have no source of money…I have not given up hope, though the night is very dark.”

The night ended for Aftab as his last, but for Pakistan, indeed the night remains very dark.

~ Hafsa Khawaja

~ Tyranny of Everlasting Sorrow


On 16/12/14, to which it has been six months yet nothing has changed but the deepening of 141 wounds inflicted upon every single Pakistani till the end of time.

On the mother in a bloodied and tattered green and white.

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Oh beloved mother,

Bloodied and bruised,     

From the tyranny of misfortune,

Your children wished to nurse you tomorrow, 

Yet what trampled you forever, prevailed yet again;

The tyranny of misfortune triumphed,

Into the tyranny of everlasting sorrow. 

~ Hafsa Khawaja

Obfuscation of Reality & the Guilt of being a Minority


*First posted on Dawn Blogs, unedited version below:

“This is an attack on Pakistan”

“They were killed for being Pakistanis, not Ismailis”

This line of response to atrocities within Pakistan is not new but has become rather common and frequent. The horrific recent assault on the Ismaili community in Karachi was also no different in prompting it among many.

However, there is a problem with this.

As mentioned before, attacks on religious minorities in Pakistan are often deemed continuation of the plague of terrorism in the country; violence that is raging yet indiscriminate, targeting and affecting all Pakistanis. However, the danger of this narrative is that it blurs a gory reality; that religious minorities face fatal focus from terrorists and extremists; especially targeted and massacred. From the Shia Hazaras in Quetta to Shikarpur, from Kot Radha Kishan to Youhanabad, and now Safoora Chowrangi, there is a cold-blooded calculation behind this blood-letting, and these are truly besieged communities.

Violence against religious minorities and minority sects is a distinct, targeted violence aimed at their complete extermination from Pakistan. These are not sporadic bouts of savagery but a carefully planned, calculated and continued carnage aimed at ‘cleansing’ the land of pure from, what Lashkar-e-Jhangvi disgustingly decries the Shias as, ‘impurities’.

There is a special distinction motivating these slaughters, that of religious identity, and this distinction cannot be brushed under the blanket of national identity without appearing as a travesty of truth.

Anti-Shia violence precedes the war on terror since sectarian militant outfits like the LeJ and SSP, which have now come to be subsidiaries of major terrorist organizations due to their ideological commonalities, have existed since long. Those who have lived through the 80s and 90s would bear witness to this.

In his piece for Al-Jazeera, Murtaza Hussain mentions:

“It is believed that since the early 1990s, nearly 4,000 Pakistani Shias have been murdered in sectarian attacks, and at a pace which has rapidly accelerated in recent years.”

Minority sects, especially the Shia, are labelled kafir to kill. They are singled out for being Shia and Shia alone. Any attempt to sketch attacks against them as any other reality is akin to the attempts made in the US to paint the Chapel Hill shooting of three Muslim students as a “parking dispute”, anything other than Islamophobia – which clearly outraged many Pakistanis.

Obfuscation of narrative therefore blurs reality and blinds people to the prevalence and nature of injustice.

Therefore, to say that the recent massacre is an attack on Pakistan is to obfuscate the narrative. It is an obfuscation that serves nothing but to perpetuate these atrocities and normalize their occurrence as part of the routinzation of violence in the country.

This long-existing violence has only been emboldened by the prevalence and pervasiveness of state failure and complicity in overseeing the reign of terrorism in Pakistan.

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There is also a rush and tendency in Pakistan to make the perpetrators of these brutalities as monsters, that people from among us can never do such a thing. Yet their ideas are not new. They are the same ideas that thrive among many segments of the Pakistani culture and society; ideas drenched in anti-Shia prejudice. Ideas that run along, “Shias should not be killed but they…” Ideas that see the Shia as deviant Muslims distorting Islam, as religious “others”, which extremists and terrorists derive strength from, subsequently taking them a bloody stretch further by deeming them kafir and wajib-ul-qatal.

However, as denying of internal rot as many are, naturally little time is spent to link all inconceivable acts of such cruelty to foreign forces.

It is important to quote former Pakistan Director of the Human Rights Watch and human rights campaigner Ali Dayan Hasan, who took to Twitter after news of the attack:

“Increasingly, formulaic condemnations and condolences by state institutions in the face of carnage just add insult to injury. Blaming India & others for atrocities against minorities does not absolve the state of failing in responsibility to protect.”

As religious minorities remain besieged by persecution, fear and discrimination in Pakistan, let us not lose sight of the fact that the state, with its spinelessness, indifference and links of patronage with these groups, remains complicit in letting takfiri militant outfits run amok with their hate and lust for blood.

And as a society, perhaps if we cannot stop this butchery, we can at least try not to silence the screaming plight of these communities who are only guilty of being religious minorities in Pakistan today.

~ Hafsa Khawaja

Loyalty Oath, More of the Absurd


*Originally published in The Nation.

There is no shortage of the absurd in the land of pure.

In continuity of the norm of absurdity, the returning IDPs of North Waziristan were recently required to sign a certain “Social Agreement North Waziristan 2015”. The document requires the reaffirmation of their allegiance and loyalty to the Constitution of Pakistan, the Frontier Crimes Regulation, along with a host of other things including that protection of government institutions as the responsibility of the tribes.

A report in Dawn mentions some contents of Agreement: ‘If a tribe fails in fulfilling its responsibilities mentioned in FCR, then the government will withdraw all incentives of the tribe or clan including cancellation of national identity card, passport and other documents. Their properties including houses would be confiscated or demolished or they will be barred from the area. The people would be responsible for maintenance of peace, security of the government bodies and action against anti-statement elements.’

The agreement, a compulsory and non-negotiable prerequisite for all returning families and tribes, is alarming in all its character. By placing doubt on the loyalty and allegiance of a people who made the greatest sacrifice and abandoned everything for a war proclaimed in the name of Pakistan; and by placing immense responsibility on them for preventing elements on their land, that caused them such hardship in the first place, is but a travesty that stands as a deplorable testament to the Pakistani state today. The obligation upon the people of North Waziristan to “keep their soil free of anti-state elements” is a clear reversal of traditional roles of the state and the people with the former responsible for the security, safety and protection of the nation. It is a denial and disavowal of the state’s responsibility by the state itself.

However, the origins of such obligations and requirements are not new, rooted deeply in a product of British colonialism of 1901 that still prevails in FATA and upon its people in the 21st century: the Frontier Crimes Regulations.

Formulated to rein in Pashtun opposition to British colonialism, the FCR has only been nominally amended since. Legislation passed by the Pakistani parliament is invalid in FATA due to Article 247 of the Constitution which invalidates the application and operation of laws made by the Parliament, and removes FATA from the jurisdiction of Pakistani courts.

It truly is shocking how a colonial relic is very much alive in governing the people of an independent country in the 21st century. And while the rest of Pakistan may debate over the progress of democracy, civil liberties and rights, the people of FATA are still virtually colonial subjects, governed by a colonial set of relations, barred from the share of any political, social or economic development and participation in the rest of the country. The prevailing existence of the FCR in Pakistan is, but a stark reminder of the bleak credibility and character of democracy in the country; and the character of the state and country itself.

The Agreement proceeds to further say that, “You will not become part of any action intended against peace and security of Pakistan and will prevent enemies of the state, Constitution and institutions or local and foreign terrorists from using your soil against the country”.

While the part about not becoming part of any action intended against the peace and security of Pakistan seems fairly clear and innocuous, a second glance reveals the opposite. Since compliance with the FCR has been the main component of the allegiance, challenging the draconian system of laws would naturally constitute a challenge to the state; a disruption to the peace and security of Pakistan. Conflating the FCR with the state, which virtually doesn’t exist in FATA, and Pakistan, is farcical at best. It is also precisely because FATA is virtually removed from Pakistan in every aspect, that the region is open as a fertile ground to local and foreign actors, along with powerful organs of the state, their machinations and plays – a state within the state – all at the expense of the people of the region.

The formulation of this Agreement thus, leaves no room for hope against bringing the people of FATA in the mainstream of the country with full citizenship rights; and attempts to subdue the utmost necessity of doing so. The Agreement is also indicative of the lack of intent prevalent in the corridors of power in Pakistan regarding the reform, repeal of the FCR, or any relief for the people of FATA.

During President Zardari’s tenure, a number of amendments were made to the FCR which included the extension of the Political Parties Order of 2002 allowing the operation of political parties in the region, the right of appeal against decisions of the political agent; and changes in the Collective Responsibility Clause for women, children and senior citizens in cases of arrests and detentions. However, their practical implementation is subject to much debate today; as the amendments themselves remain bound within the FCR framework that still holds FATA in its grip.

The FCR is a chief instrument of the dehumanization of the people of FATA who are daily witnesses to myriad difficulties and horrors, which barely make the margins of our news, let alone national and political consciousness. The late Justice Cornelius is said to have famously remarked that the FCR is “obnoxious to all recognised modern principles governing the dispensation of justice”. And his words resound even more loudly today.

Perhaps it would be more prudent if our lawmakers, leaders and media persons discussed and debated the conditions of FATA and Balochistan as vigorously as Pakistan’s possible role in a conflict in the Middle East.

For Pakistan cannot move an inch forward with such shards sticking painfully in its heel.

~ Hafsa Khawaja

Engaging Pakistan’s Blasphemy Law


*First posted on Laaltain.

From Aasia Bibi, Rimsha Masih to Shama and Shehzad; blasphemy in Pakistan hangs like a sword over Pakistan’s religious minorities.

However, amid the cases, there is a concerted effort underway to push for reform regarding the blasphemy law in Pakistan, by the name of Engage.

 

A non-profit research and advocacy organization, Engage is pushing for the reform through research and dialogue, by way of which it aims to impact and change the discourse; legal, social and cultural frameworks surrounding the issue of blasphemy in the country.

Unlike the usual frameworks, such as those of human rights, used to structure debate and discourse against the Blasphemy Law in Pakistan, Engage is rooted in the singular framework of Islamic tradition for the pursuit. During his recent talk at the Lahore University of Management Sciences, researcher Arafat Mazhar, who is one of the main individuals associated with the organization, continuously reinforced that authority has to be established in order to counter the dominant narratives prevailing on the issue in the country; and that this authority and evidence has to be derived from the same source which is used as a legitimating basis for the Blasphemy Law i.e Islamic tradition.

Picture taken from Engagepakistan.com

Engage, therefore, pursues the important deconstruction of what it calls the erroneous basis of the law through Islamic tradition; chiefly through Imam Abu Hanifa’s position that blasphemy is a pardonable offence for non-Muslims.

Moreover, Mazhar spoke of Ismail Qureshi, architect of the Blasphemy Law in Pakistan’s, and his disastrously incorrect reading of Ibn-e-Abideen (1836) whom he referenced to lend weight to the law. It was Ibn-e-Abideen, who, in fact, pointed out the line of false narration regarding the Hanafi position on the issue of blasphemy by non-Muslims.

And as written in his articles for Dawn, he reinforced the significance of this Islamic tradition by mentioning that the position of blasphemy as a pardonable offence for non-Muslims was approved and signed by no less than 450 of the most prestigious names in the Hanafi ulema, not just from South Asia, but around the world” (which included Ahmed Raza Khan Barelvi, founder of the Barelvi school of thought to which, ironically, Mumtaz Qadri belonged).

The organization’s site is prompt to state that:

 “Our research actually shows that the law is built on erroneous religious foundations including misquotations and misrepresentations of authoritative classical Islamic jurists.

[and by demonstrating the abovementioned through informed, thorough research and historical evidence]

It is only when this narrative – the public sentiment– is reshaped that legal reform can be addressed.”

In Mazhar’s words, “legal reform cannot take place in a vacuum in Pakistan” without addressing the popular social and cultural acceptance and prevalence underlying the Blasphemy Law.

In short, Engage aims to make use of solid research in Islamic tradition to delegitimise the basis of the Blasphemy Law in Pakistan and engage the general public, society, culture, institutions such as the government, judiciary, religious scholars and groups such as non-governmental organizations and the civil society in Pakistan along with the international community of Islamic scholars, in order to push for reform of the law.

As part of its efforts, Engage has established a Fatwa Drive which seeks scholarly endorsements recognizing the erroneous position on cases of blasphemy relating to non-Muslims; that if an alleged blasphemer seeks pardon, he should be forgiven.  The Fatwa Drive includes visiting major madrassahs, masjids, Islamic jurists and scholars for the purpose.  For Engage, this is based upon the idea that “Together, the moral authority of these opinions can be used a force for legal and popular reform.”

Well-aware of the ire, controversy, dangers and suspicions such a campaign can and does invite, Engage seeks to maintain a clean character of its campaign – free of affiliation, association with different interests – by seeking funds to support itself and its objective through crowdsourcing.

Engage’s campaign can be contributed to at: https://www.indiegogo.com/projects/engage-reforming-pakistan-s-blasphemy-law

Arafat Mazhar can be contacted on Twitter: https://twitter.com/arafatmazhar

And truly, if Pakistan is to chart a peaceful and pluralistic future for its citizens and religious minorities, it is essential to engage with and overcome all that sustains the Blasphemy Law.

~ Hafsa Khawaja

Silencing LUMS, Resilencing Balochistan


*Originally posted on the Dawn Blog. Unedited version below:

“Learn about the history, complications, human rights abuses, and the struggle for justice that has been going on in Balochistan.”

Such was the description of an event that was to be held at the Lahore University of Management Sciences today.

Highly-anticipated, Unsilencing Balochistan was scheduled to have a panel including Mama Qadeer (Chairman, Voice for Missing Baloch Persons), Farzana Majeed (General Secretary, Voice for Missing Baloch Persons), columnist and activist M. M. Ali Talpur, academic Professor Aasim Sajjad Akhtar, Director HRCP I. A. Rehman and activist Sajjad Changhezi. The session was to be moderated by Chief Editor of the Daily Times, Rashid Rahman.

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However, yesterday students, staff and faculty at LUMS were abruptly emailed a brief, one-liner by Ali Khan, Chair of the Humanities and Social Sciences Department:

“The scheduled talk has been cancelled.”

While the reasons were clear to the wise, it was still difficult to imagine the stomp of boots within a private academic institution’s premises resonating among its decisions and activities.

Yet a ‘direct order’ by a certain ‘institution of the state’ was conveyed to Ali Khan demanding that the talk on Balochistan be cancelled immediately.

To the utmost furore of the students, Unsilencing Balochistan had become re-silenced even before it could be heard.

It says much about that state of affairs in a country when a discussion in a private university located in modern, urban provincial capital poses a threat to the state; when a few whispers from thousands of strangled voices of suffering and struggle raised to shatter the deathly silence shake the towering walls, overshadowing the state and society, of the corridors of power in the country.

Whispers put to immediate hush shriek of a culture of coercion and injustice, of power and subjugation.

The forced cancellation of the talk at LUMS is but merely a slight brush of the all-pervasive hold that has Balochistan gripped for decades; littered its streets and roads with mutilated bodies, left it with craters for graves and vanished many into thin air.

More importantly, the event’s cancellation is a blatant pursuit of the monopolization of discourse and narratives in Pakistan by the all-mighty and powerful. A pursuit, that is not new, which has previously and continues to subordinate education to certain agendas by the perversion of textbooks in Pakistan through distortions, lies, fabrications and obfuscations.

In the case of the Baloch and Balochistan, the monopolization is so complete, and its absorption so widespread, that challenging or contradicting it has now become a ‘threat’ and abhorrent to ‘the state’. It is a narrative of the sardars, the BLA and the naïve Baloch – manipulated by all to resent and dissent against the utopia that is Pakistan which has been ceaselessly kind and generous to the people of the province.

This narrative does all but exclude the greatest violator of Baloch rights – the Pakistani state and its institutions.

Umair Javed, who also teaches at LUMS, was quick to point out that none of the speakers who were to speak at the event were linked to either of the actors upon which the dominant narrative regarding Balochistan is centered; and that the state’s side of the story on the issue has been fed to us for over 60 years.

People on Twitter were prompt in stating that talks and discussions at LUMS don’t and cannot bring change; they are insignificant. Fair enough. However, then what was so significant and alarming about a discussion within the university that called for its cancellation? It was the persisting monopoly of narrative that the talk at LUMS seemed set to challenge – a narrative that is a product of the carefully-constructed dominant discourse which brands any dissent or dispute to be anti-Pakistan, anti-state ‘propaganda’; a narrative that conflates certain institutions with the country itself, to criticise whom is to malign Pakistan; a narrative that strangles the people for it seeks to strangle their voice. This fight of narratives and discourses is not trivial but a crucial battle in the struggle for a genuine democracy in Pakistan.

And the cancellation is yet another alarming reminder of the necessity to reclaim the discourse in Pakistan, to wrench it away from the hands of the powerful to the people.

Balochistan is bleeding.

And silence in its bruised and bloodied face is very much an accomplice.

And it must be remembered that only the aggressor would stifle and silence the cries and wails of its victims; for it exposes him. And the forced cancellation of the talk sputters the same.

As the cancellation is an assault on freedom of expression, freedom of speech, academic freedom and thoughts; it is an indicator of the palpable limits to the widely-hailed freedom of expression in Pakistan which is only allowed to run rampant upon political actors and groups. It stems from the stream of logic that accepts that a democratically-elected prime minister can be sent to the gallows, another can be humiliated and sent into exile but a military dictator cannot be tried. No, never.

Thus, the ‪#‎ShameOnLUMS‬ trend which absurdly holds the university at fault for planning such an ‘anti-Pakistan’ event and justifies the subsequent cancellation. The social media trend is but sharply reflective of the pervasive absorption of the dominant narrative regarding Balochistan, which includes conflation of an institution of the state with the state itself, and the consequent acceptance of limitations to academic freedom and discussion in Pakistan – a stark legacy of decades of dictatorships and authoritarianism that is pulsating strong even during an ostensibly democratic period; indicative of where true power lies even today

In a time such as this, the invaluable and timeless words of the great Eqbal Ahmad draw us back to them.

While famously speaking against the brutal army action in East Pakistan in 1971, and how uncanny to find striking relevance, sewn deep in his words for East Pakistan, to Balochistan, he wrote:

“I do not know if my position would at all contribute to a humane settlement. Given the fact that our government is neither accountable to the public nor sensitive to the opinion of mankind, our protest may have no effect until this regime has exhausted all its assets and taken the country down the road to moral, political, and economic bankruptcy.

 However, lack of success does not justify the crime of silence in the face of criminal, arbitrary power.”

And as the crime of silence reigns today; and if voices are a threat, then speak, nay, scream we shall.

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Youhanabad and the Language of Prejudice


*Originally published in The Nation.

Less than four months since the Peshawar tragedy and Pakistan has seen the Shikarpur bombing, the Peshawar Imambargah and Youhanabad attacks.

Blood does not seem to stop flowing in this land.

Much has been said about attacks on religious minorities in Pakistan, and it is often that the violence against them is explained by brushing it into the general epidemic of terrorism afflicting the nation and country; violence that raging yet indiscriminate. Certainly, attacks on religious minorities do add to and reinforce the plague of violence in Pakistan yet they are not one and the same thing. The danger of this explanation is that it is a narrative which blurs a gory reality; that religious minorities face fatal focus from terrorists and extremists; specially targeted and massacred. From the Shia Hazaras in Quetta to Shikarpur, from Kot Radha Kishan to Youhanabad, there is a cold-blooded calculation behind this blood-letting, and these are truly besieged communities.

Ali Sethi’s recent article in The New York Times on the Youhanabad attack states:

‘According to one estimate, in the last two years there have been 36 targeted attacks on Pakistani Christians, 265 Christian deaths from suicide bombings and 21 “persecutions” of Christians under Pakistan’s blasphemy law.

What we have, then, is the peculiar despair of a people who are unable to articulate their real grievance, a people who have no political parties or voting blocs of their own, who have only churches and pastors and the eternal motifs of suffering and deliverance to see them through this dark period.’

Moreover, although Youhanabad falls in Chief Minister Punjab Shehbaz Sharif’s constituency; he hasn’t visited it once since the attack. This does much to demonstrate the crass neglect and disregard prevalent in the ruling party’s leadership on the issue, aggravating the spiralling state failure at the cost of numerous Pakistani lives.

The extremist intolerance and hate that set off bombs in Youhanabad also bred further violence as two men were burnt alive by the resulting angry mob in broad daylight to the glare of photos being snapped and videos being captured through mobiles by the perpetrators.

As gruesome and reprehensible was the lynching, it is important to view the incident clear of the inevitable and intense emotions clouding it. Waqqas Mir, writing for The News on Sunday, offered the needed perspective:

“A mob is a mob and its violent actions need to be condemned for that reason alone. The religion to which violent individuals belong is not helpful in explaining the violence or, more importantly, controlling it.”

Religion can certainly not be held culpable in cases such as these which are clearly not specific to certain groups in the society if we are to recall that the savage lynching of two brothers in Sialkot happened not long ago.

However, the violent turn of events after Youhanabad revealed an equally important aspect contributing to the dismal position of Christians in the country: cultural and social.

The Youhanabad bombing and the mob that horrifically took the lives of two men spurred a rush of reactions. Soon some sentiments morphed into degradation of the Christian community in Pakistan.

Many expressed shock, outrage and despair at the incidents, yet a flurry of tweets and comments also ran along the lines of “chooray chooray hi hotay hain”. The attachment of choora as a disparaging and condemnatory label for the entire Christian community is neither new nor uncommon, and this was put to ample display during the ugly turn many comments took as the news of the mob murder emerged. Such is the extent of its use and commonality that choora rings synonymously with the Christian community in the country for many.

Language is the vehicle of culture, and inevitably, cultural prejudices.

Choora, a pejorative to belittle and degrade Pakistani Christians, is rooted in the utter lack of respect and recognition associated with those who have menial occupations in the society. The comments sought to shamelessly demean the Christian community by way of the label since socially and culturally, little respect is lent to the work of those who toil after the dirt and filth we leave in our wake, not quite different from this filth spouted at the Christian community; a religious minority whose members included illustrious individuals like Cecil Chaudhry, Mervyn Middlecoat, Justice Cornelius and Samuel Martin Burke who lived their lives for Pakistan.

The application of choora in its cultural context therefore ‘others’ Christians by degrading them as some sort of second-class citizens who are unequal to the rest. This is similar to the linguistic treatment of khawaja sira or khusras which is reflective of our societal treatment of them; in the form of exclusion; subjection to humiliation and jokes.

While to some these may ring only as mere words, they are nonetheless expressions of the deep-seated beliefs prevalent in many segments of the Pakistani society; cultural crutches for the bigotry that perpetuates prejudices against the cornered Christian minority. These reflect and reinforce prejudices that manifest as apathy towards their problems, grievances and pleas, and in the most extreme of cases, as bloody sores as in the form of Joseph Colony, Shama and Shehzad’s cruel murder and the Youhanabad bombing.

The white in our flag is soaked red and it is time it is reclaimed; but for that the state and society must work and change in unison; the latter must rid itself of cultural beliefs, attitudes and perceptions that sustain and perpetuate prejudices against religious minorities in Pakistan.

And for a start, we can all begin by challenging and changing the language of prejudice.

~ Hafsa Khawaja

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