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Pakistan's double standard on religious insults

Muslim's should know better than to attack holy figures

Pakistan's double standard on religious insults
Silent Thinker, Lahore

January 18, 2013

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As thousands of protesters ended their anti-government sit-in near Parliament House this week, another demonstration seems to be on the horizon after controversial comments by a senior government official.

Interior Minister Rehman Malik took issue with Sufi scholar Tahirul Qadri, who returned to Pakistan from Quebec to spearhead an anti-corruption campaign aimed at disbanding the parliament ahead of upcoming elections this year.

But the ad hominen and bigoted comments revealed more about Malik than anything else.

“His outlook is like a pope. God forbid, his stole even looks like that of a pastor,” Malik said of Qadri. “He should be queried about being a semi-pope.”

Malik was not alone in criticizing the Sufi cleric. Another former minister called him a “Catholic agent,” while a news anchor compared his cleric’s cap to that of a Catholic priest. 

The minority Christian population in Pakistan was deeply angered by what they perceived as maligning the office and dignity of the pope.

Twitter and Facebook users quickly responded to the remarks, made in their view to disparage Qadri by also disparaging the leading official of the Catholic Church. Numerous calls for Malik’s resignation quickly followed.

This is not the first time that Pope Benedict XVI has been insulted in Pakistan.

After controversial remarks made by Pope Benedict during a speech at a German university in 2006, in which he quoted a medieval emperor saying that Islam had brought nothing but misery through its use of jihad, there was national outrage and condemnation of the pontiff. 

Joseph Francis, national director of the Center for Legal Aid Assistance and Settlement, called Malik’s comments “sickening” and “intolerable.”

“We shall wage our own long march. The government will be solely responsible for any unrest if we do not get an apology,” said Francis, whose NGO provides legal aid to those accused under the country’s strict blasphemy laws.

“The government should make sure its leaders … abstain from hurting our religious sentiments. We remind them that no Pakistani Christians have ever insulted the imam of Kaaba [the most sacred site in Islam] or any other Islamic personality.”

Pakistan’s controversial law on blasphemy is a sensitive topic and has been used repeatedly to justify extra-judicial killings. 

Allegations of desecrating the Qu’ran or insulting the Prophet Muhammad have resulted in the torching of people and whole villages.

Only on Thursday, the Supreme Court heard a petition filed against Sherry Rehman, Pakistan’s former ambassador to the United States, charging the diplomat with blasphemy during an interview with a news channel two years ago. 

Rehman had introduced a private member’s bill to the National Assembly against the death penalty in cases of blasphemy in 2010 but was forced to withdraw the bill after receiving death threats.

It is unlikely that Malik – or indeed any official – would withdraw or apologize for any perceived slight to the Roman Catholic Church. Even the Catholic Church in Pakistan has largely ignored the remarks and requested that the Christian community remain calm.

Fr Emmanuel Yousaf Mani, director of the National Commission for Justice and Peace at the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of Pakistan has appealed to all leaders to keep dissent and political battles within the limits of decency, the violation of which reflects poorly on democratic culture. 

“The remarks were unnecessary and provocative, as there is no comparison or link between the two personalities; one being the largest faith group in the world and another with credentials prerogative of Pakistanis and Muslims to ascertain,” he said in a statement.

However the deeply rooted religious affiliations that have become a hallmark of our nation cannot be rooted out no matter what religion they belong to. And Muslims are to be blamed for much of the influence. 

The charred ruins of cinemas and broken government buildings left by waves of destruction that followed the posting of a trailer for an anti-Islam film posted on YouTube still remind us that we exist in a society where religion is the order of the day. The latest hearing in the country’s top court shouts the same mindset prevalent in assemblies and those assigned to provide justice. 

The Catholic Church has never supported a law against insulting Christian personages and has always stood with the movements for democracy and human rights. But the attitude displayed by the interior minister, who is otherwise assigned a responsible task, will not help in improving harmony and peace in the country.

Our leaders should be careful in making controversial and nonsensical statements when speaking of religious personalities, especially if they are Muslims.

Silent Thinker is a journalist and commentator based in Lahore

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