Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and his government have survived an existential threat from the dual protests in Islamabad. Yet fearing for one’s life is nothing new for many Pakistanis—particularly those who belong to communities of religious minorities. Pakistan is home to millions of Shi’a Muslims, Ahmadi Muslims, Christians, Hindus, and Sikhs. In addition, its Sunni Muslim majority is itself comprised of countless sects and communities. Unfortunately, unrelenting violence by militants and mobs has placed this religious diversity at risk.
Because of concerns about mounting attacks against Pakistani religious communities, the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) has tracked publicly reported incidences of religious violence over the past thirty months. Our recently released Religious Violence Project report on Pakistan covers the period from July 2013 to June 2014. The findings are grim: the Project recorded 122 incidents of sectarian violence resulting in more than 1,200 casualties, including 430 deaths.
The Project has begun to yield a picture of the scope of the violence over more than two years. First, no community—Muslim or non-Muslim—is safe; even members of the Sunni Muslim majority have been targeted. Second, Shi’a Muslims are consistently victimized more than any other group. Third, a comparison of attacks against all communities between this year and last shows a decrease in the overall number of incidences and a 25 percent drop in fatalities. Understanding why this drop in the number and severity of attacks is an ongoing challenge. One causal candidate is the Sharif government. However, the release from jail during this period of Malik Ishaq—the leader of the terrorist group Lashkar-i-Jhangvi that has terrorized Shi’a Muslims in multiple recent attacks—undermines greater fear of the law as an explanation. More thorough police enforcement likewise seems unlikely, as no surge in the number of arrests following incidences of violence has been observed. The answer remains unclear.
And, while the number of attacks is down, high-profile attacks have continued. The overall number of Christians killed in the country skyrocketed after a suicide bomber killed 119 and injured 145 at the Peshawar All Saints Church in September 2013. Ahmadi Muslims likewise continue to be singled out for targeted shootings: look no further than the May 2014 killing of Dr. Mehdi Ali, a Canadian-American Ahmadi conducting humanitarian work.
The Pakistani government has fueled this problem of religious violence. Its aggressive enforcement of blasphemy and anti-Ahmadi laws has resulted in several individuals being sentenced to death in the past year alone for violating these acts, as well as encouraged religious extremists to target perceived transgressors and their advocates. One such incident was the assassination in June of human rights lawyer Rashid Rehman for defending an individual accused of blasphemy. The Pakistani government has also failed repeatedly to protect vulnerable minorities or hold violent perpetrators accountable for their actions. Despite repeated threats against his life in the weeks leading up to his murder, Rehman received no state protection nor did the government move to investigate the danger.
Given the ongoing tensions within Pakistan, what might the future portend? As an attack on a prominent public figure for his advocacy against blasphemy laws, Rehman’s assassination could well represent the advent of a dangerous turning point in the intersection between religion and politics. The murder sent a chilling but clear message to attorneys and activists alike—defending a blasphemy case can jeopardize one’s life. As a result, it is likely that even fewer lawyers than already do will risk taking up such cases in the foreseeable future.
There is also a macrocosmic effect to consider. Violence against religious communities does not occur in a vacuum. The alarmingly high number of attacks and overall body count severely degrades the climate of religious freedom for all Pakistanis. Considering the generally pious and interconnected nature of Pakistani society, threats against religious communities reach far beyond the locus of attack or the specific group targeted. Lack of basic law enforcement—paired with abusive blasphemy and anti-Ahmadi laws—encourages violence against innocents, fundamentally threatening the country’s stability.
Pakistan faces many challenges, protests in Islamabad being only the latest. Despite this, Pakistan must not neglect one of its greatest challenges of all. If the ongoing violence against religious groups is not confronted and mitigated through direct action, it threatens to tear apart the patchwork of religious communities that together make up Pakistan’s pluralistic fabric. For the sake of societal stability, and in order to protect human rights, Pakistani authorities must abort this perilous course and commit the nation’s government on all levels to protecting and defending the essential right to freedom of religion or belief for all.
The views expressed herein are the author’s own, and do not necessarily reflect the views of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom.