*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