Recent events raise religious fundamentalism fears

The Taliban’s Oct. 9 attempted assassination of Malala Yousufzai, a 14-year-old Muslim advocate of girls’ rights, in Pakistan’s Swat Valley has thrown the spotlight on the ongoing violence in that country and the risks it faces from politico-religious fundamentalism. 

It is but the latest in a wave of political violence, often with underlying fundamentalist-religious motivations, to have hit the predominantly Muslim republic of 180 million people, 5 million of whom are Christian (including 3.5 million Catholics). 

The violence has included assassinations of former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto in December 2007, Punjab Gov. Salmaan Taseer in January 2011, and Shahbaz Bhatti, a Catholic and federal minister for minority affairs, in March 2011. 

To get some insight into what is happening in the country, Our Sunday Visitor spoke to Tehmina Janjua, Pakistan’s ambassador to Italy, and to Father Robert McCulloch, an Australian Catholic priest who has lived in Pakistan for 34 years and received the country’s highest civilian honor awarded to a foreigner. 

Source of terrorism

Janjua told OSV that the attack on Malala has been firmly condemned by Pakistan’s president, prime minister and the overwhelming majority of the people “who are sick and tired of the violence.” But the attack has boomeranged, she said, and has rallied young and old to support Malala, with boys and girls lighting yellow candles and praying for her recovery. 

The ambassador said that Pakistan’s government is committed to girls’ education, and today the majority of students in professional colleges are women. The education of young girls has made great advances in cities and towns, she said, but the same is not yet true in rural areas. 

She attributed the violence to the terrorism “that has spilled over” from Afghanistan, where armed conflict has raged for some 30 years, and also led to the assassinations mentioned above. “Such terrorism is alien to us,” she stated.

‘Growing intolerance’

Father McCulloch, procurator general for St. Columban’s Missionary Society, offered other insights into the violence. “Pakistan is going through a profound identity crisis, an Islamic republic, but with so many traditions and expressions of Muslim belief and practice,” he said. “There is a growing intolerance that makes Muslim sects antagonistic to one another, and the antagonism is being manifested in violence.” 

He believes “the real threat to Pakistan” comes not from the Taliban or the American drones, but from “the increasing militancy of Pakistani Muslim against Pakistani Muslim.” 

“It is easier for the fundamentalist politico-religious parties to attack the government than to accept their own responsibility for the religious aggression that is growing in the country,” he told OSV. 

He describes the Taliban as “an organized program of fundamentalist terror heavily subsidized by Saudi Arabia, which threatens every Pakistani who refuses to succumb to its dictates, such as Malala.”  

“It is religious totalitarianism and a perversion of religion,” he said, and “is exactly the question that Pope Benedict [XVI] raised in his Regensburg speech, September 2006,” during which the pontiff quoted a 14th-century Byzantine emperor on the danger when faith is disconnected from reason. 

At the same time, Father McCulloch sees “a widespread popular anger at U.S. presumptions to interfere in Pakistan.” This anger “is genuinely patriotic and takes on a religious dimension,” he said. But, “for the most part,” it has been “misinterpreted by international media and analysts and characterized as a fundamentalist protest.”  

Blasphemy-law abuses

At the World Synod of Bishops in Rome, Bishop Sebastian Shaw, apostolic administrator of Lahore, highlighted another cause of violence: the blasphemy law. He thanked Pope Benedict and “many other Church and state leaders who intervened to save the life of Asia Bibi with regard to the false charges of blasphemy.” In fact, Bibi is still in prison, under threat of the death penalty, and needs international governmental pressure to change her situation. 

Bibi is but one of several Christians who have suffered because of the blasphemy law over the past year. The most recent is Rimsha Masih, a girl with Down syndrome who was accused of burning pages of a school textbook that contained verses of the Koran. Father McCulloch blames this “fundamentalist oppression” of Rimsha on “a corrupt — rotten to the core — legal shambles which disgraces Pakistan.”  

“She has been judicially attacked in the same way as Malala has been physically attacked,” Father McCulloch said. 

Pakistan’s President Asif Ali Zardari and his ruling party’s Human Rights Cell have publicly called this case an abuse and misuse of the blasphemy laws, and there has been a public outcry and a growing reaction that such cases are making a mockery of Islam, Father McCulloch added. 

Janjua insists that the blasphemy law “is not a discrimination against Christians; it is a law that is being misused by individuals against individuals irrespective of their religious belonging.” Most of the victims have been Muslim, she said, and many problems have arisen under this law because of “poverty, underdevelopment and illiteracy.” 

She believes the law should not be abolished now.  

Father McCulloch agreed and said it cannot be abolished “in the present climate,” because to do so “would create a mayhem of religious fundamentalist reaction in Pakistan: It would play right into their game!”  

He told OSV that on the other hand, the president, prime minister, governors and chief justice must use their influence “to prevent the abuse and misuse of the blasphemy laws by the police and judiciary” by ensuring that such cases are dealt with by the highest police and judicial levels in each province. 

Signs of marginalization

Apart from this problem, Janjua said the Christian community in Pakistan has “full religious freedom” and is able to make “an unhampered contribution” in the fields of education and health care.  

While mainly agreeing with Janjua, Father McCulloch notes that the major problems facing Christians in Pakistan today arise from “continuing discrimination based on religion” and “the ever-present threat of abuse and misuse of the blasphemy laws.” He believes “the very talk of minority and majority” actually “marginalizes Christians in their own country” and asserts that “the educational syllabus/textbooks promote a climate of intolerance” that is “offensive” and “insults” Christian and Hindu young people in school. 

Asked what signs of hope she sees for a more peaceful, harmonious Pakistan, the ambassador pins her hopes on “the people of Pakistan,” who “have had enough of the violence, and want to push it back and breathe better.” 

Gerard O’Connell writes from Rome.