Purifying the Land of the Pure: Pakistan’s Religious Minorities

Purifying the Land of the Pure: Pakistan’s Religious Minorities
(Farahnaz Ispahani, May 22, 2019)

Transcript available below

Watch her speaker playlist

About the speaker

Farahnaz Ispahani is the author of the recently released book Purifying The Land of The Pure: Pakistan’s Religious Minorities.

In 2015, she was a Reagan-Fascell Scholar at the National Endowment for Democracy, in Washington, DC where she worked on Women and Extremist groups with a particular focus on the women of ISIS. Ispahani was a Public Policy Scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Center from 2013-2014.

A Pakistani politician, Ispahani served as a Member of Parliament and Media Advisor to the President of Pakistan from 2008-2012. She returned to Pakistan with Former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto in 2007 after opposing the Musharraf dictatorship in the preceding years. In Parliament she focused on the issues of terrorism, human rights, gender based violence, minority rights and US-Pakistan relations. The most notable pieces of legislation enacted with her active support include those relating to Women’s Harassment in the Workplace and Acid Crimes and Control, which made disfiguring of women by throwing acid at them a major crime. She was also a member of the Women’s caucus in the 13th National Assembly. The caucus, which straddled political divides, was instrumental in introducing more legislation on women’s issues than has ever been done before during a single parliamentary term.

Ms. Ispahani spent the formative years of her career as a print and television journalist. Her last journalistic position was as Executive Producer and Managing Editor of Voice of America’s Urdu TV. She has also worked at ABC News, CNN and MSNBC.

She has contributed opinion pieces to the Wall Street Journal, Foreign Policy, The National Review, The Hindu, India, The News, Pakistan and The Huffington Post.

Ms Ispahani has spoken at many forums in the U.S. and abroad including the Aspen Ideas Festival, The Brussels Forum, The Aspen Congressional Program, The Chautauqua Institute, The University of Pennsylvania, Wellesley College, Jamia Millia University, Delhi.


Robert R. Reilly:

Tonight, as you know, we’re very privileged to have Farahnaz Ispahani with us to speak on the title of her new book, Purifying the Land of the Pure: A History of Pakistan’s Religious Minorities, and there are some copies for sale outside and I know Farahnaz would be happy to sign them for you after her talk.

Now, she knows whereof she speaks for the simple reason that Farahnaz is from Pakistan and has worked there both as a journalist and as a legislator and as a media advisor to the President of Pakistan and the issues on which she concentrated are the same ones about which she writes and concentrates today, which is religious persecution of minorities, women’s rights, and other such matters.

I just [want to mention] one laudable thing she achieved during her career as a legislator through her support for it was a bill which made disfiguring of women by throwing acid in their faces a major crime. Now, here, Mrs. Ispahani was a Reagan-Fascell Fellow at the National Endowment for Democracy here in Washington where she worked on women and extremist groups with a particular focus on the women of ISIS. She’s also been a public policy scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Center. I’m happy to say – being a Voice of America veteran – that Farahnaz has also worked there where she was an executive producer and managing editor of the Voice of America’s Urdu TV service. She’s also worked at other networks and has contributed to too many publications to mention here, and I wouldn’t want to poach on her time as she addresses us on, “Purifying the Land of the Pure,” Farahnaz.

Farahnaz Ispahani:

Good evening to all of you. I’m so honored to be here. Thank you so much for reaching out. I don’t think I’ll be your best speaker ever. I know that you’ve had some legendary speakers, some who are good friends of mine. I just want to get an idea from you. Do you prefer a longer talk or more Q&A? Okay, so you’re going to get both. Can you hear me? Okay.

Good evening and thank you for having me here today. I’m grateful to have a chance to speak about those citizens of Pakistan who are not treated as equal citizens of the land, and it’s a very, very sad and heartbreaking story, really, of how they have gotten to this point.

So, I like to use the phrase ‘numerical minority communities’ because they’re not just minorities. In these countries it’s their numbers which make them minorities and make them vulnerable and I think it’s important to state that. As we are all aware, the mistreatment or marginalization of ethnic and religious minorities has become a global phenomenon. Demagogues are generating hatred for the other all over the world. Attacking minorities is for some a way to garner support for a faction within the majority.

In the United States, not enough people recognize why protecting religious freedom everywhere and for everyone needs to be an important plank of U.S. foreign policy. Christians are victims of 80% of all acts of religious discrimination in the world. Efforts to highlight, oppose, and prevent religious discrimination globally are therefore efforts that protect and defend the right of Christians to profess and practice their faith, standing up for the rights of all religious minorities everywhere: Jews in Europe today facing a rising tide of anti-Semitism, Muslims and Christians in India facing political exclusion, Muslims in China in reeducation camps, and in Burma, facing ethnic cleansing. Yazidis in Syria and Iraq are fighting for their survival even after the rout of ISIS in most areas and smaller sects and denominations in many places are being targeted for their beliefs. That is why it is so important for Christians in the United States who want to help protect Christians in countries where they are under attack to stand up for the rights of all numerically small religious minorities globally.

My book, Purifying the Land of the Pure, is a cautionary tale for the country of my birth, Pakistan. Pakistan was carved out of British India in 1947 to be the homeland of Muslims in parts of the subcontinent where Muslims were a majority. Its founding fathers did not envisage Pakistan as an Islamic state or an exclusive homeland for the Muslim majority, but Pakistan’s founding fathers lost out to the forces advocating for communal majoritarianism soon after independence. Pakistan has gradually descended into Islamist extremism. I will talk about it in detail in a bit, but first let me talk about the phenomenon that Pakistan’s story highlights.

Communal majoritarianism, as most of you know, is the idea that the majority’s beliefs have some sort of right to prevail. It is a distorted version of a medieval idea. My Latin is nonexistent. I’m going to ask you to help me out, but I will attempt nevertheless, cuius regio, eius religio, ‘whose realm his religion’, was the idea that those in government or in power could impose their religion within the realm. The Reformation and the Enlightenment were supposed to have done away with that notion, but in the modern era this medieval concept of imposing religion has become a tool to distract people from social and economic problems.

In some cases like Pakistan, it is argued that only the creation of a purer society, purer in ethnicity or religious composition of a society would somehow enable a nation to overcome its problems. The end result however is the same everywhere not very different from the dark ages. Violence against minorities is unleashed, causing grave human suffering.

You may have read recently about the location of a famous Pakistani Christian who is called Aasia Bibi. Her name is Aasia Noreen and was recently relocated to Canada after facing false charges of blasphemy for more than eight years. Her relocation ends her trauma, but it does not reflect substantive change in the persecuted state of Pakistan’s religious minorities.

Pakistan’s draconian blasphemy laws remain in force and there’s no sign that the authorities plan to drop prosecution of hundreds of blasphemy cases. Between 1987 and 2012 Pakistani authorities prosecuted 1,170 individuals for blasphemy. That number has only increased over the years and currently over 200 Pakistani Christians are in prisons across Pakistan, facing charges of insulting Islam or its prophet. As Amnesty International said in one of its reports, “The mere accusation of blasphemy amounts to punishment. The accused becomes ensnared in a system that offers them few protections, presumes them guilty, and fails to safeguard them against people willing to use violence.

Aasia Bibi, whose case attracted international attention, was an unlettered berry picker convicted by a Pakistani court of defiling the name of the Prophet Muhammad. She was framed by her Muslim neighbors who objected to her drinking water from the same glass as them because she was Christian, therefore unclean, impure. Under Pakistan’s blasphemy law, her comments – alleged comments in response to her neighbors’ mistreatment – was punishable by death.

In 2010, Bibi at age 45 was sentenced to hang. Support from churchgoers and human rights defenders around the world meant that the United States government and Pope Francis paid attention to Bibi’s case. Parallel efforts were initiated by the European Union Special Envoy for Freedom of Religion or Beliefs to secure her release. EU official Jan Figel told the Pakistani government last year that continued European market access to Pakistani products under the GSP, the Generalized System of Preferences, would be directly linked to Aasia Bibi’s case. Pakistan’s Supreme Court took up Bibi’s appeal only after that threat after having ignored it for years. The European Union wasn’t the only body exerting pressure. The U.S. State Department first placed Pakistan on a watchlist for severe violations of religious freedom and put it on its list of CPCs after waving sanctions for years on grounds of the country’s importance to U.S. foreign policy.

So one thing we have seen since President Trump has become president is that the U.S. is taking a different stance towards the most allied allies and that is a welcome change for us. Aasia Bibi had spent more than eight years in solitary confinement before the country’s Supreme Court finally acquitted her in October 2018, but such is the atmosphere of hate in the country that Islamist groups took to the streets to protest her release and a review petition against her release was put in to block the Supreme Court’s decision. Even after the review petition was dismissed and she was acquitted of the charge of blasphemy, Aasia Bibi had to remain under protective custody at an unknown safehouse in Pakistan because the zealots basically still wanted to kill her.

It didn’t matter if the Supreme Court had acquitted her. Eventually, pressure from Western governments and the Vatican, complete with threats of European Union sanctions at a time when Pakistan is seeking a thirteenth bailout from the IMF in thirty years, worked. Pakistan cannot afford sanctions at a time its financial situation is so precarious. Pakistan’s all-powerful military and the civilian government that was installed last year are all obsessed with improving Pakistan’s international image without really changing its reality. They want Aasia Bibi’s flight to safety to be projected as reflecting change in Pakistan’s treatment of its minorities. It is nothing of the sort. Bibi had to be smuggled out of Pakistan gharbed in a Burqa, a full body veil, to keep her protected not just at the airport, but on the flight.

And she still faces threats to her life from Islamist fanatics in her home country. Prime Minister Trudeau was recently asked where she was, whether she was in Canada, and where in Canada she was, and he refused to answer the question directly for the considerations of safety and security. The Prime Minister of Canada, so that shows that, you know, these people and these zealots, immigrants and others, are now everywhere, and for the rest of her life she has to hide. We all hope that she may know peace and happiness for her remaining life abroad, which she could not have in Pakistan, but we must not forget that without major reform in its legal and political environment, Pakistan continues to have one of the worst track records on protecting its religious minorities.

Christians, Hindus, and Ahmadi Muslims continue to face persecution and the country’s blasphemy laws under which Bibi was targeted enable that repression. Blasphemy laws are filed routinely by extremists for political gain, by neighbors for revenge over a slight, and sometimes even by corrupt landlords for advantage in property disputes.

So where do these laws go back to? How far do they go back in Pakistan’s history? Pakistan’s blasphemy laws date back to the military dictatorship of General Muhammad Zia al-Haq. In 1980, making a derogatory remark against any Islamic personage was defined as a crime under Pakistan’s penal code Section 295, punishable by three years in prison. In 1982, two years later, another clause was added that proscribed life imprisonment for willful desecration of the Qur’an. And in 1986, a separate clause was added to punish blasphemy against Prophet Muhammad with death or imprisonment for life.

The laws and the fears of vigilante violence in their support has wreaked havoc on Pakistan’s minorities. For the last six years, a Christian couple, Shafqat Emmanuel and his wife Shagufta from Punjab province, have been in prison. Their suffering started when in July 2013 a resident of their town claimed he had received blasphemous text from an unknown mobile phone number during his prayers while at mosque. Police arrested the Christian couple on charges of insulting the Qur’an and insulting the prophet after local clerics demanded action. Ironically, the alleged texts were written in English whereas Shafqat and Shagufta are both illiterate and do not know either English or its alphabet. The couple has been on deathrow since April 2014 and their appeal is pending before the local high court.

Another case is that of Jenette Hafeez, a Muslim who was a visiting lecturer of English at a university in southern Punjab. He graduated from the United States and went back to Pakistan to teach his people. He has been in prison for the last six years after being accused of blasphemy by Islamist student activists. Hafeez had been charged because he invited a woman speaker to a seminar who had allegedly penned blasphemous passages in her book. He has had difficulty securing legal assistance til now. His first lawyer dropped him as a client after being mobbed over 200 fellow lawyers. When human rights defender Rashid Fremon took up his case, he was shot dead in his office by an Islamist who sought to punish the defender of a blasphemer. The killer has never been apprehended and judges do not want to hear Hafeez’s case, which has been transferred from one court to another six times since 2013. He finally has representation and we hope a court date is set soon. Interestingly, the person who has taken up his case was also the person who represented my husband when the Pakistan military accused him of treason. He’s a brave man.

There are also cases of innocent people accused of blasphemy who never even make it to jail or court. In 2014, a young Christian couple, Shehzad and Shamma, were beaten and then burnt to death by a mob in a small Pakistani village after being accused of desecrating the Muslim holy book. When word spread about the alleged accusation, villagers gathered and formed a mob.

Shehzad and Shamma locked themselves into a room, but the mob consisting of dozens of villagers broke the door and beat them with fists and sticks. The mob then dragged the couples bodies to a nearby brick kiln where they burnt them to death. Shamma, by the way, was pregnant at the time and had three other children.

The attack on the couple was instigated by using local mosques at the behest of a local brick kiln owner over a monetary dispute with the couple amounting to approximately $900 U.S. Dollars. As I said, they left behind three small children.

So as these three examples of the power of the blasphemy laws demonstrate, Aasia Bibi’s flight to safety was a victory of sorts in an environment where religious fanaticism precludes due process. Until a few years ago, Western governments which viewed Pakistan as a strategic ally did little to protect Pakistan’s religious minorities. In this instance however, conserted, coordinated efforts, including a threat to sanction Pakistan over its institionalized religious persecution, helped ensure a victim’s freedom.

A similar concerted effort is now needed to ensure that Pakistan abides by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and guarantees religious freedom to all its citizens. Western governments could link economic assistance, visa for the travel of government officials from Pakistan, and also support for Pakistan in multilateral institutions. Link all of those things to Pakistan’s willingness to abandon laws that persecute its minorities. It can all be done.

Religious persecution and discrimination are often disguised as measures to protect the beliefs or the religion of the majority against slander or hurtful comments. It is a clear violation of the UN Declaration on Human Rights, which in Article 18 explicitly says, “Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience, and religion. This right includes the freedom to change his religion or belief and freedom either alone or in community with others in public or private to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship, and observance.” Many countries that are part of the United Nations and are signatories to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights have in recent years have been progressively limiting the religious freedoms that they committed to under that declaration.

A few years ago, the Egyptian cities of Alexandria and Tanta were the sight of Islamic State suicide bombings that killed 45 people attending Palm Sunday services. Around the same time, a frenzied mob lynched a Muslim student accused of blasphemy at a university in Pakistan’s northwestern city of Murdan. So thousands of miles apart one was an act of well-planned terrorism, the other the result of mob violence, but both represented the growing intolerance and in some cases indifference towards religious minorities in many majority Muslim countries.

My book, Purifying the Land of the Pure, is a concise history of how Pakistan reached its current stage of extremism in an incremental way. I demonstrate how the country’s bigots first targeted Hindus and Sikhs soon after the country’s creation in 1947, going on to target others over time. Their desire to make Pakistan religiously purer led to a debate about who is a true Muslim, which has led to persecution of non-Sunni sects within Islam as well. For example, the Ahmadis or the Shias. When it was partitioned from India seventy years ago, Pakistan had a healthy minority population of 23%, almost a quarter.

Now, even after legally redefining a denomination for which we considered Muslim as non-Muslim, the Ahmadis, Pakistan’s Muslim population is down to 3%, but still the bane for blood doesn’t end, which is quite mysterious. Hindus and Sikhs at that time left for India, many Christians and most Zoroastrians immigrated to Britain, Australia, and North America, but the religious battles within Pakistan are not over even after such a drastic reduction in the non-Muslim population.

There are now significant communities of Pakistani Christians in Philadelphia, Salt Lake City, and Houston. While the churches in Karachi, Lahore, and Rawalpindi have fewer worshipers. The saddest thing I think is if you go to a Pakistani Christian service in the United States, you will still hear them singing the hymns in Urdu or Punjabi or from whichever province they come from. They still feel proudly Pakistani, but they fled because they have to live and their children had to live. So, you know, it’s a very, very painful thing to observe that I think, you know, trying to keep their culture and language alive in another country.

In recent years as Islamist terrorists nurtured by the Pakistani state to advance foreign policy objectives have turned inward, attacking Ahmadis, Shias, and Christians. For example, the Sipah-e-Sahaba, the Pakistani Taliban, there are many groups like this who the Pakistani military aids and abets and uses to fight Indians across the border, uses to infiltrate and wreak its vengeance in various places, but when it’s winter and they can’t traverse those paths, then becomes a killing season within.

In a year and a half period in 2012 to 2013, Shias were subject to 77 attacks, including suicide terrorist bombings. 54 lethal attacks were perpetrated against Ahmadis, 37 against Christians, 16 against Hindus, and three against Sikhs. Attackers of religious minorities are seldom prosecuted and if they are, the courts almost invariably set them free.

Members of the majority community, the Sunnis, both Deboandi and Barelvi, who dare to question state policies about religious exclusion are just as vulnerable to extremist violence. Most people in this audience will probably remember the assassinations of two political colleauges and friends of mine, former Punjab Governor Salman Taseer and former Minorities Minister Shahbaz Bhatti, who were both killed for standing by Aasia Bibi and Shahbaz Bhatti particularly, was standing up against the blasphemy laws, which hit his community, Pakistan’s Catholic community, very, very hard. When his murderer was sent to the gallows – Governor Taseer’s – it was praised as a sign of change in Pakistan. Sadly, within days the murderer was made into a saint by extremists and his tomb was converted into a mosque and a shrine, encouraging others like him to kill in the name of religion.

As what I’ve been speaking about probably tells you that Pakistan has the world’s worst blasphemy laws that were imposed in 1982. According to these laws, blasphemy against Prophet Muhammad is punishable with death or imprisoned for life while disrespecting the Qur’an is punishable by life imprisonment. These laws are used to settle scores, extort money, or grab property belonging to members of minority religions. Hundreds of cases targeting religious minorities with blasphemy charges are regularly filed. These laws make it difficult for religious minorities to practice their religions, creating the prospect of inviting criminal charges for religious beliefs different from that of the majority.

In effect, Pakistan’s blasphemy laws also give Muslim clerics and laity a stick with which to beat religious minorities in the event of non-denominational disputes. For example, there are instances in which minorities have been framed from blasphemy to force them off their land or to punish women for rebuffing propositions from influential men, so it runs the gamut. Different minorities have borne the brunt of state-sanctioned attacks at different times. In Pakistan’s early years, Hindus and Sikhs were the majority target while Christians, Ahmadi, and Shias became the focus of hatred in succession.

Much of the prejudice against religious minorities can by traced to the effort by Islamist radicals to make Pakistan purer in what they conceive as Islamic terms. Given among the denominational differences amongst various groups of Muslims, the concept of an Islamic state has led to unending debate over the role of religion in the life of Pakistanis. So when Pakistan was founded in 1947, its secular founding fathers did not speak of an Islamic state. Muhammad Ali Jinnah, recognized as Pakistan’s Quad-i-Azam or ‘great leader’, clearly declared that non-Muslims would be equal citizens in the new country. Reflecting his secular views, Jinnah, himself a Shia, nominated a Hindu, seven Shias and an Ahmadi to Pakistan’s first cabinet. Now, non-Muslim representation at the cabinet level is limited to symbolic appointments while Shia face fear campaigns from extremist Sunni Muslims that declare them non-Muslims. This has all happened in just seven decades.

In a speech of 11 August 1947, Jinnah had stated that in order to make Pakistan happy, prosperous, every person living in the country, no matter what is his color, caste, or creed should be first, second, and last a citizen of the state with equal rights, privileges, and obligations. His speech advanced the case for a secular, albeit Muslim majority Pakistan. He said, “I cannot emphasize it too much. We should begin to work in that spirit. In course of time, all these angularities of the majority and minority communities, the Hindu community and the Muslim community will vanish.” That vision, outlined by Pakistan’s founder, remains unfulfilled.

There are four stages that I talk about in my book and I will just go through this and I think that I will wrap up, so the four stages of intolerance in Pakistan. The first stage I identify as Muslim-ization, which was a massive decline in Hindu and Sikh populations from 1947 to 1958. The second stage was Islamic identity, state-sponsored textbooks rejecting pluralism from 1958 to 1971. The next stage was Islamization: legislation against minorities from 1974 to 1988. And the last and final category is militant hostility: terrorism and organized violence from 1988 to the present day. So I will finish here if that’s okay.


Audience member:

As you have discussed the fracturing in Pakistan, how soon before the Muslims really turn on each other?

Farahnaz Ispahani:

It’s started. In fact, it started a while ago. First, the Ahmadi community by writ of parliament and the Prime Minister, Zulfikar Bhutto, were named as non-Muslims. It’s the only place in modern history where people are not allowed to anymore call themselves by their religion.

So Ahmadi Muslims were put into a minority though they were a majority. They are not allowed to call them mosques mosques. They have to call them ‘places of worship’. They are not allowed use ayats, religious phrases from the Qur’an, on their graves. If they do, the police come and erase them. They are not allowed to in any way ‘pose’ as a Muslim. Pakistan’s the only country in the world that has ever done something like this.

So that was number one, and of course, irony of ironies, the Ahmadis were among the biggest donors to Pakistan, and worked side by side with Mr. Jinnah for the creation.

The second I would say would be the Shia Muslims, who are technically, constitutionally Muslim because they are twenty percent and it’s difficult, and are spread all over the country. I read out those figures that those suicide bombings between 2012 and 2013, the majority of them were targeting Shias and their places of worship because after Ahmadis, they decided Shias are non-Muslims. So there’s a great deal of violence between Sunni and Shia groups, but Shia groups are the minority.

Now, another, the new issue is Sunnis and Sunnis because in this country for a long time people were like oh, those Sufi Muslims in Pakistan. They are the soft Sunnis. Let’s give them money. Let’s train them. They are great, right? The soft Sunnis, the Barelvis, are less Wahhabi-ish and they go to shrines and they pray, but they are all the people who are behind the blasphemy murders, lynchings, and cases.

So the misunderstanding in the United States, the lack of understanding in the United States about what is actually happening on the ground, so for twenty years these Sufi shrines were being given money and they were being told to preach and all of that and what they were preaching was blasphemy against the Prophet Muhammad kill them, lynch them, if they’re lucky, the police [unintelligible].

So those are the different gradations now. And the not so soft Sunnis, who are more of the Deobandi school, they tend to be supporters of – not all of them – those who are extreme are supporters of the Pakistani Taliban, are supporters of a Sharia state, are supporters of, basically, wiping out all unclean and impure people from within. Does that answer your question?

Audience member:

How much of what you just described is shared by Pakistan and Bangladesh? And Bangladesh turned out quite differently. Why?

Farahnaz Ispahani:

Well, part of my remarks, which I didn’t get to, but if you buy my book, you will get there [is that] in 1971, there were elections, East and West Pakistan. East Pakistan being today’s Bangladesh. Unfortunately, East Pakistani, Bengal, won, and the arrogant West Pakistanis couldn’t have it, and they went in and they butchered millions of people, women, children, and in particular, [the] Pakistani Army butchered Hindu Bengalis because they were politically aware.

So part of what happened then in ’71 was the new – after the liberation of Bangladesh, which is how Bangladeshis refer to it, the liberation from Pakistan – Bangladeshis started out with this much more, I would say, not Socialist but a leader who was all about rights for everyone from peasants to people higher up and a new Bangladesh where all Bangladeshis were equal because they were not equal while they were part of Pakistan.

So the history, firstly, only starts in ’71, and they didn’t have to take the baggage of what was being done to the Pakistani Constitution with them. They started again, but recently if you notice what’s happening in Sri Lanka, and what’s happening in Bangladesh, you’ll notice something new.

This is not poor people and ragtag armies going out and lynching a peasant. These are highly educated and rich people from wealthy families, the holy bakery massacre was Hizb ut-Tahrir. Sri Lanka same thing, a very, very wealthy Muslim business family, so that’s another trend that you’re seeing more and more.

So anyone in this town, you go to USIP – I hope no one’s affiliated with them. Even if you are, I’ll tell you the truth – it’s a bunch of nonsense when they tell you it’s poverty that breeds extremism, etc. It’s an ideology, man. It’s an ideology, you know? They believe it. They believe you’re impure and they’ll keep purifying til I guess they’ll be one person left in the room, but that’s what they believe.

Audience member:

What is the root of this idealization of purification? And I’ve heard two opposite explanations. One, too many minorities with genuine communal troubles as in 1947 clearly on both sides of the Line of Partition there were real communal troubles. The other explanation, too much uniformity already, the majority’s unconstrained, the ideology that if everyone just worships the same way, then eventually Allah will reward us. Was the second one always predominant? How did Pakistan become the land of the pure?

Farahnaz Ispahani:

You know, I don’t think the two things are different. At partition, Hindus and Muslims who had lived next door to each other for generations and generations and generations from cities to villages and there used to be communal strife, occasionally, but they lived next door to each other for generations and generations and centuries and centuries.

My belief is that already when you start having fewer people after partition, you went from 23% to 3% after partition and then after the loss of East Pakistan, Bangladesh, in ‘71, which had the larger Hindu population.

So you’re losing large segments of your minority population twice over, and as I was saying, why for example do the Saudi Arabians need to be so insecure? Why, right? There’s no reason, right? I mean they’re the majority, they have the power, the oil, the strength, so why do they go around oppressing their minorities? It is an ideology and a mindset. So it’s not two different things, it’s the same thing, actually.

Audience member:

What is the influx of oil money into the South Asia political scene and economic scene and second, what will be the fate of the Bangladeshis, especially the [unintelligible], who ended up being caught in West Pakistan after the 1971 war.

Farahnaz Ispahani:

East Pakistan?

Audience member:


Farahnaz Ispahani:

They were caught in East Pakistan, Bangladesh, yeah.

You know, I assume from your question you are of Pakistani origin? Are you? Okay, because I’m interested. This usual oil and money thing about the Saudis, it comes from Pakistanis, usually, and the reason for that is it’s very easy to blame someone coming in from the outside. ‘The Saudis came with their oil and their money and they built these horrible Wahhabi madrassas and they destroyed everything’.

Firstly, the Saudis were not there in 1947, they were not there in 1971. They came in the ‘80s, right? They came with the whole U.S. war against the Soviets, and the Saudis and the Pakistanis partnered, right? And Pakistan’s President, General Zia al-Haq, a military thug who has the most to do probably in the Islamization of the bureaucracy of politics, of institutions, etc. He’s the man. He did those things on his own, and he willingly welcomed the Saudis in. Our own leader did that. The Saudis did not come in on tanks. Right? Number one.

And secondly, there are plenty of madrassas, which are not Saudi-funded today and I just find all over South Asia people keep using the Saudi-boogey and I think you know what it’s just time to wake up. Something very bad is happening in South Asia. I mean look at India, you know? Pakistan’s taken seven decades. In India in a few years, I mean what is happening to Muslims and Christians in India, right?

Bangladesh, doing so well, so progressive, Bangladesh is at the moment one of the leaders in South Asia in terms of economy and everything, right? So it’s not the economy, stupid, right? It’s clearly something else.

So you know as I said, I’m not a fan of the Saudis. I go there for my religious rites, etc., but besides that they weren’t helpful, but I wouldn’t say they destroyed the country. The country was destroyed starting a year after Mr. Jinnah died when something called the Objectives Resolution was passed by the Constituent Assembly.

And the Objectives Resolution basically said Pakistan will be an Islamic state and all minorities will be safe in Pakistan, they’ll be safeguarded by the Muslims, and immediately you had a two-tier state. So this was the 1940s. These guys didn’t even appear til – I mean they were in the desert in those days. So I hope I answered your question.

Audience member:

You said the problem. What is the solution? [unintelligible] Last week I heard that they acquitted from the court this two people that they accuse them that they burn the Christian couple alive.

Farahnaz Ispahani:

Yes, Shamma and Shehzad, yes.

Audience member:

They arrested two people in 2015 or at that time, but last week I read in the newspaper and I have the picture, but I forgot to bring it that they acquitted these two people.

Farahnaz Ispahani:

Yeah, so if you want, I’ll go to the first one, solutions, right? What can the United States do?

Audience member:

The world as a whole, what can it do?

Farahnaz Ispahani:

No, I have to talk about the U.S. because I am Pakistani and American. This is also my country and I always look for things that I can lobby for here, and we got Aasia Bibi out, so that’s the beginning. That’s the first drop.

So my answer to you, the solutions: countries that have institutionalized religious bigotry through laws must be made to realize how they prejudice laws endanger the participation and contemporary global civilization. This might require very complex process of making legislators and offending countries realize that communal majoritarianism at home involves costs around the world. One example is denying visas to travel to the West for all those who advocate or support laws restricting freedom of religion or who may have participated in writing or enacting such laws.

The Prime Minister of Pakistan, who I call the selected Prime Minister, the Prime Minister of Pakistan during his election campaign vowed to uphold Pakistan’s blasphemy laws and to die defending them. Throughout his campaign there was abuse against Ahmadi Muslims and a lot more.

Now, you know, it’s time. I mean our embassies really have to wake up and instead of portraying someone a cricketer, a handsome, swashbuckling whatever, who was married to Jemima Goldsmith. Wake up.

The moment he campaigned along those lines, the U.S. should have said, ‘you are not welcome here until you take those words back. We are serious about human rights in this country’. That doesn’t even involve anything. That’s a backchannel conversation. You don’t have to humiliate him in public, but it’s not okay. It’s not okay, and you know, it’s about time.

So one is deny visas, restricting visas for those inciting violence and religious hatred that already exist must be further strengthened. The amount of people whose children come here and go to universities, who have massive bank accounts, who live you know in palatial houses in McLean and Potomac and all of that, you know.

And meanwhile, they’re hosting the [unintelligible] and they’re doing all of this, and everyone’s going, and they’re the Muslims to know. You know what? I just think it’s not so difficult. You turn down Coptic Christians every day. You turn down people fleeing the depravities of ISIS, Yazidi women, every day. Why are these people coming here? Time to change.

Finally, I mean this is maybe pie in the sky, but it’s something I want to do: a global religious freedom protection fund. It could be a public-private partnership with funds coming from Congress or not and the rest from private foundations, charities, and individuals.

This fund could be used to support embattled communities and their leaders, as well as to highlight persecution because there are too many think tanks and separate universities doing work in fighting over funds. There has to be a way where people come together now in that fight whether you’re Anglican or Catholic or Shia or Sunni or you know whatever religion or no religion you belong to. A fund like that could be for legal defense of victims in countries with restrictive laws.

It could help refugees from Christians and other persecuted minorities to survive as refugees. Pakistani refugees in Thailand: they are going nowhere. The U.S. will not let them in, nor will Canada, nor will any other country, but they will not go back to Pakistan, so they are living in camps. Help them survive as refugees while preparing for the day when they can either go back to their country of origin or find a home somewhere else.

It’s important to emphasize that the rising intolerance and persecution is not necessarily relocating all of those facing persecution, right, because that will just be helping those persecutors completely ethnically cleanse. So another long answer.

Audience member:

Great answer and you gave fantastic information. My question is is the phenomena you’re talking about not just in Pakistan, but is it also civilization because we see a rising level of intolerance in West Africa. I wonder if you could talk about is it a civilizational thing? I’d like to clarify one thing. Those refugees in Thailand, they’re actually Christians aren’t they?

Farahnaz Ispahani:


Audience member:

The other things is what do you recommend that people in the private sector do? What do you recommend, you know, ordinary citizens could do. You’ve given what governments could pursue, the Magnitsky Act.

Farahnaz Ispahani:

Hassle your elected representatives. I live in DC, so I don’t have any besides Eleanor Holmes Norton. Just hassle them every day and just start bombarding Marco Rubio’s office. They will listen to you. Get to those senators and congressmen who will listen and who already have a caucus and money to work on these issues.

I’m sorry, the first part of your question – you see this in West Africa, you see this everywhere, but what – perhaps I have failed to make clear is the institutionalization, the legal process, the Constitution being amended reducing people to subhuman level through the use of laws and government and parliament. That is not the same as ethnic cleansing. That is not the same as however barbarous or whatever it is. This is supposed to be a democratic state.

So no two wrongs make a right, but this is just something which cannot be copied. In Indonesia, the government has created a blasphemy app. What do people do with that? The same thing, they call up and they say my Christian neighbor, my Buddhist neighbor, my Hindu neighbor blasphemed against the holy prophet, peace be upon him. It’s an institutionalization of the ideology. Once you have the laws, it’s almost impossible to repeal them.

Audience member:

Are there groups – do you see groups within Pakistan’s Islamic groups that are using the Qur’an, I mean Shariah, to fight against these laws on the basis of Islam? Does that exist? Is that growing?

Farahnaz Ispahani:

There are groups who will tell you that blasphemy does not exist in the Qur’an, they will tell you that it is not Islamic and there are small groups working on that, but it’s not a widespread effort yet.

Audience member:

These extreme groups in Pakistan – is there a connection with the international Muslim Brotherhood and ISIS? Are they created by their own ideology, affected by Wahabis? Is there cooperation with international groups?

Farahnaz Ispahani:

Oh, I see, okay with international groups, right. In recent history, there hasn’t been much linkage with the Muslim Brotherhood that I know of. ISIS was far more successful recruiting from Bangladesh, for example, than Pakistan though there were Pakistanis who went and fought with ISIS, but the numbers were much lower than the Bangladeshis.

Generally, when you talk about foreign organizations or of non-Pakistani origin, I would say Hizb ut-Tahrir and then I would talk about the Afghan Taliban, but that’s about it not on the level that you are talking about you know. We’ve been sort of a mentor to terrorists. We have not really – except ideologically, theologically, etc., right – have followed many Islamist groups, but we have all our own groups, so there isn’t that much crossover that I know of, but then I’m not an expert in terrorist groups. I can only tell you what I know.

Audience member:

Thank you, Farahnaz, for this. I have to ask a devilish question.

Farahnaz Ispahani:

I’m sure, Peter, yes.

Audience member:

South Asia and Hindu caste culture based on ritual purity: how much do you think that is a particular variable in this phenomenon not only Pakistan, but in India today? What is your analysis of that? Thank you.

Farahnaz Ispahani:

I don’t really see Hinduism as having had that great an impact. Today, Pakistan, you know the younger generation, they don’t even really have any idea about partition in a real way unless their families were part of it, so there is very little of that kind of Hindu culture and caste system except in Sindh, I would say, where you have a larger Hindu population.

Audience member:

I guess I would argue that it’s kind of a meme and a trope in the sense that Hinduism is part of the culture of the region. You know when I was working in Islamabad, I have to say that there were members of my staff that treated other people… and I said ‘oh my god, this is- I’m back in India’, and they’re all Muslims in this case. You know there’s just sort of you know ‘you’re not in my racial order, and I’m a pure one, and you’re lower than me’.

Farahnaz Ispahani:

Purer in what way? I mean what sort of levels and castes are you talking about?

Audience member:

Just a sense of social superiority based on a kind of education, ritual purity. It transcended any particular religion. I think it was a kind of a you know potpourri in the behavior.

Farahnaz Ispahani:

Okay, you know each province, you probably had more Punjabis there and in Punjab there were people who converted from Hinduism to Islam. Those families, for example, don’t eat beef and so, you know, that may have been something you witnessed.

Audience member:

Hi, my name is Nasir. I spent my first twenty-five years in Pakistan. The second half of my life I’ve been here. A related question that just occurred to me, you know, that in the Hindu caste system is there an element of racism involved when treating the Christian minorities in Pakistan?

For example, extremism became more prevalent maybe in the ’80s and afterward when General Zia and they were supporting you know the jihadis against the Soviet Union, it gave birth to a lot of extremism and then refugees and poverty. A lot of elements went into the background that resulted in all this extremist ideology, but before that the Christian minorities there all have been treated as second-rate citizens.

So another way to look at it, if the Christians in Pakistan were whites, and there are some in Islamabad, would they be treated the same way if they should say something? Because what I understood, many of those Christians were converted, they were low caste Hindus and they became Christians and somehow that treatment of lower level treatment- They do all the lower jobs, the filthy jobs.

Farahnaz Ispahani:

Mainly janitorial, yeah.

Audience member:

…are all done by Christians.

Farahnaz Ispahani:

Christians and Hindus, lower caste Dalit Hindus also.

Audience member:

…the big factor that some reason for some reason the Hindu caste system stayed in that culture and they treated those Christians as the lower level [unintelligible] of Hindus.

Farahnaz Ispahani:

Okay, I see where this is going and I’ll take your point, but I don’t agree because then what about other religious groups who have not converted? I mean there were Goanese Christians who were not converts from Hinduism. They were still treated exactly the same, so I, you know, lands have cultures, but I really don’t think you can blame this on a Hindu caste system, but both in India and Pakistan, Christians have – and lower caste Hindus – have and are converting to Christianity and Islam to get out of the caste system to be whole again, right?

Audience member:

Why are Christians in Pakistan treated the same way as the local Pakistani Christians?

Farahnaz Ispahani:

No, of course not.

Audience member:


Farahnaz Ispahani:

Because they’re foreigners, we need their money, and the people who are sitting in Islamabad are all USAID, NGO heads, the U.S. government, Engro Chemicals, people from Lockheed Martin. I know. I lived in Islamabad. I know who the white people are.

Audience member:

You don’t see any race dynamics?

Farahnaz Ispahani:

We’re talking about a Pakistani-vs-a-Pakistani internal issue, so I don’t understand what foreigners living there… People are going to suck up to them because they’re important in their world.

Robert R. Reilly:

If I could exercise the prerogative of the house of asking you the last question?

Farahnaz Ispahani:

Yes, of course.

Robert R. Reilly:

You haven’t talked about the role of the ISI in any of this.

Farahnaz Ispahani:

Naughty, naughty, naughty. Yeah, very naughty. Okay, the Pakistani army. My husband wrote a very brilliant book called Pakistan Between Mosque and Military, and that really shows how fundamentally you know the Pakistani military and the Pakistani clerical establishment basically work together creating jihadi groups, finding a common enemy in India, and also the clerics with their bloodletting to purify the land of the pure.

So the ISI, the Inter Services Intelligence, is the Pakistan army’s spy wing, and they are now so large and so strong that they almost are running counter to the military itself. And so who’s allowed to be on television, who is allowed to speak at lectures, who is allowed to be in public, in jobs, in whatever is all controlled.

So not only are they waging wars and promoting jihad and jihadi groups, but they’ve also taken over the business of journalism and media, which they now control. If you read any local, just put in Pakistan and censorship, not one of my friends is any longer on television or allowed to broadcast. If they have ever, ever even inadvertently said anything about the ISI or anything else, so it’s a state within a state, the deep state, yes.

Robert R. Reilly:

I’m sorry, but I had one last quick question. Since you worked at Voice of America and the Urdu TV, is U.S. government international broadcasting helping or hurting today?

Farahnaz Ispahani:

I had a really unique experience of this. I was hired as an American, but with Urdu language skills, knowledge of the society, etc. and it was a time when we had yet another military dictator as president, President Musharraf, and the kind of infighting to have me removed because I would interview human rights activists, people from religious minorities; the alternate Pakistan, the people who exist.

And on several occasions, I would feed the show out from D.C. and I’d get a call from the person who ran the number one television channel, which we paid to carry the show all over Pakistan, saying ‘have you gone crazy Farah? You interviewed that traitor to Pakistan’, someone named Nawab Akbar Bugti, and they shut down the whole show, they left a hole in their programming.

And of course, a few days later, this old man in his late ’80s was attacked by helicopter, gunships. He was murdered in the cave he was hiding in and we got the last interview with him. But it was constantly fighting and I got someone from the State Department who came and said, “really, you know, Pakistan is our ally. Why are you interviewing anti-state people?” I said, “that anti-state person was Governor of Balochistan. He was governor of a state. He was elected.” So you know it’s become now in Pakistan a very narrow view is allowed and these laws like the blasphemy laws threaten it, silences people.

Robert R. Reilly:

Alright thank you very much.

Farahnaz Ispahani:

Thank you.