Thursday, March 19, 2015

Attacks on Churches and Mob Violence in Lahore


Maryam Sakeenah

My parents chose to send me to a Christian missionary school- a decision I have always been grateful to them for. The Convent’s ‘Character Building’ programme instilled in me values which, owing to the essential kinship of the Abrahamic faiths, facilitated my appreciation and practice of my own faith as a Muslim later in life.

Incidentally, all serving staff in my household happen to be Christians. In Ramazan they prepare the Iftar, and at Christmas and Easter we give them an extra something to partake of the family festivity. Through all my extensive and longstanding interaction with Christian friends, colleagues, subordinates, there is no unpleasant or uncomfortable memory I have. And I know I am no exception.

In fact, when I condoled with my Christian domestic help about the unfortunate recent events targeting churches in Lahore, I sensed in their comments the same sentiment I have gleaned from my experience as a Pakistani Muslim. ‘We have been brothers and sisters living together for decades- there was never a problem. And now some unknown enemies wanting this country’s destruction want to create hate. We have nothing against each other- Muslims too are under attack from the same people. We need to be together’, said my illiterate Christian kitchen helper- (translation my own).     

There was an understanding even within these unlettered members of a less privileged minority community that something had gone wrong in recent years; that violent religious hate was not the ethos of this land; and that there was a common enemy out there whose triumph was in sowing discord and hate between the two communities.

And yet ironically I find a complete absence of this simple understanding in the opinions of vociferous social media commentators both from the secular-liberal and conservative perspectives. In fact, the polarity in their views is striking whenever I browse through my newsfeed. While sadness over the attack on the churches was palpable among all shades of opinion, there was a callous lack of sympathy for the innocent Muslim victims of the post-bombing mob-lynching by Christians, and a brazen attempt to paint the ensuing violence by Christian mobsters as ‘but natural.’ This selective sympathy shows our own deeply rooted prejudices. On the other extreme there are outrageous calls for indiscriminate reprisal against the Christian community of Youhannabad where the lynchings happened.

The problem with the narrative that emerges from these polarized, clashing perspectives is that it sees the recent events through the blood-stained lens of ‘Us versus Them’; as a ‘Christian versus Muslim’ issue which is both inaccurate as well as dangerous. In fact, the terrible mob violence that occurred in the wake of the church bombing was also a tragic result of dangerously viewing the attack on the church as ‘Muslim’ violence against ‘Christian’ victims. More accurately, it was violence by an extremist militant minority group for whom all who do not share their violent ideology are potential targets.  This is why the anger was directed at Muslims who had been engaged in routine business in the Christian locality. The two innocents picked for the barbaric lynching were lighter skinned (a characteristic of the Pashtuns) and at least one of them bearded. The mob violence was hence fired by ethno-religious stereotyping and the blind hate born of such prejudices.

In response to the ensuing violence by the Youhannabad locals there is brewing anger amidst neighbouring Muslim communities which sets the stage for potential clashes waiting in the wing. In the climate of fear and anger many families in Youhannabad are planning to relocate or have done so already. This is the triumph of the real enemy as it fulfils the malevolent agenda perfectly. The victory of the enemy is when its victim turns into a savage perpetrator like itself, continuing the cycle of violence.

Violent incidents targeting the Christian community in Pakistan in the recent past certainly fuel the anger by creating genuine and understandable grievances. However, it has to be understood that such targeting of the Christian community has always been resented and rejected by the overwhelming majority of the Muslim population of this country; and that the extremists involved in terror attacks on Christians are a fringe element rejected by the mainstream public opinion. Terrorist outfits are all out to exact vengeance that spares none- mosque, imambargah, church- Muslim, Christian, Shiite- all are fellow sufferers in this great calamity that has gripped us as the terrible cost of owning the US’s Great War on Terror.

The Christian community of Pakistan never has been, is not and should never be an oppressed minority hated and targeted by Pakistan’s Muslim majority. Those trying to reinforce this idea- whether extreme rightwingers, conservatives or the secular liberals- are utterly wrong. This is a false picture that will fuel more rage and blind hate.

What is required in the wake of this frenzied violence is a communal introspection by both communities. The Christian community needs to examine why its young members descended into such rank savagery, and must take responsibility to curtail simmering violence that utterly betrays the Christian spirit of forbearance and compassion. The Muslim community must also engage in a serious endeavour to root out the ire and vengeful streak building up in its ranks in this charged atmosphere.       
The pulpit and the minbar both must take up their vital roles to defeat this false ‘Us versus Them’ narrative. Both religions contain voluminous and powerful content on tolerance and compassion which needs to resonate to drown this madness in the name of faith. Faith must be the healing, the mending and the force inspiring peacemaking. The Quran questions the validity of a faith that justifies and inspires evil. "Say: "Worst indeed is that which your faith enjoins on you- if you indeed are believers." (2:93) It reminds us with a vital message that has never been as relevant as it is today. Let not the enmity and hatred of others make you avoid justice. Be just: that is nearer to piety... Verily, Allah is Well-Acquainted with what you do.”  (5:8)
In the midst of this senseless melee of wrathful hate, the words of Islam’s blessed Prophet (PBUH) for his Christian citizenry from Najran become a beautiful encore played to a deaf audience.

"This is a message from [Prophet] Muhammad ibn Abdullah, as a covenant to those who adopt Christianity, near and far, we are with them.
Verily I, the servants, the helpers, and my followers defend them, because Christians are my citizens; and by Allah! I hold out against anything that displeases them.
No compulsion [in religion] is to be on them.
Neither are their judges to be removed from their jobs nor their monks from their monasteries.
No one is to destroy a house of their religion, to damage it, or to carry anything from it to the Muslims' houses.
Should anyone take any of these, he would spoil God's covenant and disobey His Prophet. Verily, they are my allies and have my secure charter against all that they hate...
...Their Churches are to be respected. They are neither to be prevented from repairing them nor the sacredness of their covenants.
No one of the nation (of Muslims) is to disobey this covenant till the Last Day (end of the world)."
(Text of the Charter of Privileges, Treaty of Najran)