Coercion Guised in Morality: The Case of Placing Pakistan on the U.S. Special Watch List for Violation of Religious Freedom

Written By: Dr. Minhas Majeed


In Pakistan, the roots of discrimination against religious minorities can be associated with different factors and all the factors are interdependent, yet it is seen in the context of religion. The history shows that there was peaceful coexistence in Pakistan before its alliance with the West in the Afghan War. After 9/11, a significant increase in violence and deterioration of security situation affected Pakistan mostly.

The new year came with the U.S. President Donald Trump’s tweet that Pakistan had to do more to combat terrorism to receive U.S. aid and accused Pakistan of “lies and deceit” followed by placing the country on a Special Watch List for severe violations of religious freedom. The State Department also re-designated ten other nations as Countries of Particular Concern (CPC) under the International Religious Freedom Act (IRFA) of 1998 for having engaged in or tolerating egregious violations of religious freedom. The Prime Minister in response to the U.S. accusation has said that the government ensures the rights of religious minorities in the country and stands for their religious freedom.

 

While recognising the role of religion in international affairs, the importance of religious freedom is evident by the mounting scholarships on the subject. Religious freedom in general parlance is freedom from coercion and interference in the matters of faith. There is unanimity in the studies suggesting that religious freedom is vital not only for the human growth but also for the peace and stability of any society. Looking at it in this perspective, freedom of religion is the most important freedom and the basic human right in any state; therefore, it becomes the duty of a state to protect this right of its citizens.

 

Majority of the world governments, including Pakistan, have committed themselves through various covenants and agreements to respect and protect the fundamental rights of the individuals and communities to religious freedom within their respective borders. However, there are countries, which despite their commitments put restriction on worship and seek to control the thought and expression of minority religious groups. There are also instances where governments are silent in taking action against the perpetrators of religious discrimination. This statement can be judged in light of the recent events of religious extremism found around the globe where not only Muslim world but also the Western world shares responsibility of limiting religious freedom in their respective countries.

 

The CPEC in fact kills Asia Pivot of U.S. Therefore, the U.S. is angry at Pakistan, calling for cutting military aid package and placing it on Special Watch List for the violation of religious freedom. A rise in violence may be the most effective way to scare Beijing off the ambitious plan.

While some parliamentarians are familiar with the Act, the general population of Pakistan is not. The IRFA of the U.S. was passed on October 27, 1998. The efforts to place religious freedom as top priority of U.S. foreign policy were recorded in 1996 when the Secretary of State Warren Christopher announced the creation of an Advisory Committee on Religious Freedom Abroad. The Committee, comprising twenty American religious leaders and scholars, produced a provisional report in 1998 and a final draft in 1999 that recommended a foreign policy agenda geared towards the promotion of religious freedom worldwide.

 

The Congress established the Department of State’s Office of International Religious Freedom to monitor violation of the religious freedom including issues related to democracy promotion, human rights, environment etc., abroad. It is headed by an Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom. The President and Congressional leaders of both Republican and Democratic parties appoint the members of U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF).

 

The USCIRF recommends policies to the State Department for application in countries where there is gross violation of these issues and place sanctions on any violator country. IRFA requires the President, who has delegated this authority to the Secretary of State to designate as ‘Countries of Particular Concern’ or CPCs (based on the annual reports published in September) those governments that have engaged in or tolerated ‘particularly severe’ violations of religious freedom. After a country is designated a CPC, the President of the U.S. is required by law to take one or more of the actions listed in IRFA, or to appeal a waiver if circumstances merit. Some supporters of the Act favour that it should be advanced through punitive measures like automatic sanctions against violators, while others stress on diplomacy and negotiation.

 

Pakistan was listed among those nations where the state is hostile to certain religious minorities and implements policies designed to threaten certain religious groups. The USCIRF in its annual reports from 2001 to 20161 has consistently called on the State Department to designate Pakistan as CPC, however, the U.S. government did not put Pakistan on the list and to a great extent avoided raising human rights issues related to Pakistan as it is an important country in the region and more so because of its alliance in the Global War on Terror (GWoT).

 

It is important to mention here that Pakistan, due to its strategic location holds an important position in the region and is an important country for the U.S. because of its post 9/11 role in countering extremism and terrorism. Pakistan today is passing through challenging times. Since 9/11 it has been hit by a wave of terrorism due to which religious intolerance and extremism towards minority groups has also increased.

 

We cannot deny the fact that in any society, religious freedom is sine qua non for other freedoms, and that stands true in case of Pakistan. However, owing to its history of relationship with the neighbouring countries and the global environment of violent extremism, the combination of internal and external factors contributing to religious extremism and the national security cannot be ignored.

 

A review of Pakistani politics shows that religious freedom is protected by law and guaranteed in the Constitution of Pakistan. Also, the founding father Quaid-i-Azam Muhammad Ali Jinnah envisioned a state that represents all communities in policymaking. Similarly, in a resolution adopted at the first meeting of the Council of the Pakistan Muslim League in December 1947, the vision of a democratic and progressive future was articulated as, “to work for an ideal democratic state based on social justice, as an upholder of human freedom and world peace, in which citizen will enjoy equal rights and be free from fear, want and ignorance”.

The problem of defining of religious freedom and the lack of scholarship relevant to the Act in Pakistan leave some grey areas where it is not possible for Pakistan to defend its position in terms of religious freedom. Similarly, the state’s response to the Act is unclear despite the efforts being made in the form of various bills introduced to address the issues. Therefore, despite legislative arguments, it is yet to be seen whether the recommendations by the USCIRF to designate Pakistan as a CPC will have a significant impact on U.S. policy towards Pakistan or not.

 

A review of Pakistani politics shows that religious freedom is protected by law and guaranteed in the Constitution of Pakistan. Also, the founding father Quaid-i-Azam Muhammad Ali Jinnah envisioned a state that represents all communities in policymaking. Similarly, in a resolution adopted at the first meeting of the Council of the Pakistan Muslim League in December 1947, the vision of a democratic and progressive future was articulated as, “to work for an ideal democratic state based on social justice, as an upholder of human freedom and world peace, in which citizen will enjoy equal rights and be free from fear, want and ignorance”.

 

It can be gauged from the speech of Quaid, soon after independence, that he wanted religious freedom for all and there was no distinction between a Muslim and non-Muslim in terms of rights, privileges and responsibilities. However, after the death of Jinnah, the religious right were distorting his words and in some instances there was a deliberate attempt to censor this famous speech. So, the question is, in the presence of legal document, the vision of a peaceful democratic society envisaged in the Act:

 

What are the factors that have made Pakistan a concern for the U.S. now when in the past there was no such concern?

 

Terrorism and extremism in all its manifestations in Pakistan are interrelated. The rising violence against religious minorities has remained a priority of the government. The tribal territories have remained a constant source of disturbance for the adjacent settled districts of the province. According to political and religious leaders as well as government officials, the violence against religious minorities is not the result of societal intolerance among religious communities but is organized and carried out by groups of religious extremists who have local as well as external support. In case of Pakistan, the miscreants and their actions have no connection to religion or religious people nor is their claim that they represent the religious people.

 

It would not be wrong to mention that internal as well as external factors have contributed to the increasing religious extremism and intolerance. In Pakistan, the roots of discrimination against religious minorities can be associated with different factors and all the factors are interdependent, yet it is seen in the context of religion. The history shows that there was peaceful coexistence in Pakistan before its alliance with the West in the Afghan War. After 9/11, a significant increase in violence and deterioration of security situation affected Pakistan mostly. Despite the government’s effort to curb religious extremism and terrorism, the pattern of disturbing events continued unabated.

 

The Constitution of Pakistan is the foundation of all acts and laws in the state. No law Ultra Vires to the Constitution can be passed in Pakistan. Thus, all other laws and acts are subservient to the Constitution. The freedom of religion is guaranteed under the Constitution of the Islamic Republic of Pakistan and this freedom is guaranteed to all individuals regardless of their religion or sect.

 

To this end, the Preamble of the 1973 Constitution says: a) Wherein the State shall exercise its powers and authority through the chosen representatives of the people; b), wherein the principles of democracy, freedom, equality, tolerance and social justice, as enunciated by Islam, shall be fully observed; and c), wherein adequate provision shall be made for the minorities freely to profess and practice their religions and develop their cultures.

 

Despite the constitutional guarantees, it is expressed in USCIRF reports that oppression of religious minorities on many occasions goes unnoticed by the state of Pakistan. Also, the poor response to sectarian and religiously motivated violence and the Government of Pakistan’s failure to protect religious minorities, its Islamic laws promulgated in previous decades, and the role of madaris in ideological indoctrination, were highlighted in various annual report of the USCIRF.

 

It is also pertinent to note that despite the accusation, the official spokespersons from time to time, have been acknowledging Pakistan’s support in fighting terrorism and extremism. It was acknowledged by the Commission in its various reports related to Pakistan that recommendations from its reports on Pakistan were implemented, for example, one of which was the decision of the Pakistani Government to abolish the separate electorate system for minorities.

 

Moreover, it was also acknowledged in some reports USCIRF, related to Pakistan, that the Government undertook positive steps to combat religious extremism and to protect religious minorities. In 2003, under the Anti-Terrorism Act-1997 (ATA), the Government of Pakistan banned three extremist groups promoting sectarian violence. These groups reorganised under new name included Millat-e-Islamia, Islami Tehreek Pakistan and Khuddamul Islam previously known as Sipah Sahaba, Tehreek-e-Jafariya and Jaish-e-Muhammad respectively. The top leaders of these groups were also detained with their offices closed and assets freezed. After their release, they were placed on “Schedule Four” of the ATA, which among other limitations allows the Government to restrict their movement in the country and monitor their activities.

 

Other measures include mapping of registered and unregistered madaris, auditing of their account and checking their sources of funding and action against those found to be involved in hate speech and militancy. In mid-2005, the Pakistani government renewed its effort to require all madaris to register with the government and to expel all foreign students. Despite an outcry from some violent extremist groups, most of the religious schools had registered. With regard to registration, the government and the madaris authorities agreed to draft a uniform registration form. It was also decided that the madaris would receive foreign financial aid only through the government to ensure proper auditing of their funds.

 

To show solidarity with religious minorities, the Government appointed Mr. Shahbaz Bhatti as the Federal Minister for Minorities in 2008. He was behind the creation of “District Interfaith Harmony Committees” meant for inter and intra religious understanding and harmony. After the assassination of Shahbaz Bhatti, his brother, Dr. Paul Bhatti was appointed as Special Adviser to the Prime Minister on Minority Affairs. A Christian jurist was also appointed as the Judge of Lahore High Court in March 2009 (at the time of the appointment there were no other Christians serving as judges in Pakistan). The same year, a five percent quota in federal employment was announced for religious minorities. Similarly, May 28, 2009 was officially celebrated as the “Minority Solidarity Day, and August 11 was designated as annual “Minorities Day.”2

 

Under the 18th Amendment to the Constitution passed in 2010, 10 seats were created for religious minorities in the National Assembly and 04 seats in the Senate. It also required seats for non-Muslims in the provincial assemblies. Under the 18th Amendment, the Ministry of Minorities Affairs was removed from the federal cabinet and devolved to the provinces. It also mentioned the Government’s intention to create a National Commission for Minorities consisting of two representatives each from the Christian and Hindu communities, a Sikh, a Parsi and two Muslims. The Commission will review laws and policies brought to its attention for discrimination, investigate allegations of abuse, recommend actions to fully include minority religious communities into the life of Pakistan, and ensure that places of worship are protected.

 

It was acknowledged in USCIRF reports related to Pakistan that in response to military operations against Taliban many acts of violence were perpetrated in the tribal areas of Pakistan near the Afghan border. Since 2009, military offensives there have met with some success, although paramilitary and military forces, political and religious leaders and, civilians have suffered significant casualties. The extremists, throughout the year, repeatedly attacked not only religious minorities and their places of worship but also schools and mosques.

 

The government also introduced National Counter Terrorism Authority-2010 (NACTA), National Counter-Terrorism Bill-2013, and National Internal Security Policy, February 25, 2014. In response to situation of minorities, the landmark judgement of the Supreme Court of Pakistan on June 19, 2014 issued directives to the government to take concrete steps to mainstream them. Additionally, Peshawar High Court ordered to reopen a 160-year-old Gorakhnath Hindu temple in Peshawar for Hindus for the first time since independence. Furthermore, the Federal Government directed the National Database and Registration Authority (NADRA) to register Sikh marriages and the Hindu Marriage Act was passed.

 

Efforts to reduce tension and encourage religious pluralism include: giving new authority to the National Commission for Minorities, creating Ministry of Minority Affairs, development of the draft of National Human Rights Policy Framework, establishment of National Commission for Human Rights and approval of Action Plan on Situation of Human Rights on February 13, 2016. The Action Plan consists of six major areas with about 60 actions for protection and promotion of human rights in the country. Besides others, the protection of rights of women, children, minorities and persons with disabilities has been given priority. Moreover, after the attack on a school in Peshawar in December 2014, National Action Plan 2015 was introduced. However, the implementation of these measures in letter and spirit are the only means to cope with the situation of violent extremism.

 

Interestingly, during Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s visit to the U.S. from October 20-23, 2013, President Barrack Obama acknowledged the significant progress in the bilateral relationship over the last year and noted its durable nature. Reiterating the strong relationship between the two countries, both the leaders stressed that the enduring partnership between the countries is based on the principles of respect for sovereignty and territorial integrity. They affirmed that friendship and close cooperation between the two countries and recalled their positive contributions to international peace and security at crucial junctures

 

FATA, which was a hub of terrorist organizations, witnessed 36 percent decrease in terror attacks by the year 2015 after the successful military offensive. The U.S. Senators, during the visit of the Army Chief General Raheel Sharif to Washington DC, acknowledged that Pakistan Army’s perseverance and commitment had degraded militants in the country’s north western region.

 

A global study, which ranked Pakistan as third on the Global Terrorism Index (GTI) list, however, highlights decline in acts of violence. The report says that from 29 in 2012, the number of acts of violence has dropped to 23 in 2013 by different groups. Those responsible for violent extremism are from Islamist groups as well as separatist movements.3 Similarly, there were positive trends in terms of security situation in 2014, as there was decrease in the incidents of violence. The number of terrorist attacks came down by 30 percent as compared to 2013.

 

Criticism on IRFA

The IRFA is criticised in the Muslim world, as many of its clauses are believed to be in conflict with Islamic laws and an evaluation of the Act is demanded. Scholars in the 19th World Congress of International History of Religions held in March 2005 in Tokyo, “advocated for changing the existing formulation of the freedom of religion clause in the UDHR believing that it favours those religions that proselytize.” The counter argument of the U.S. administration in response to criticism on IRFA is that religious freedom is a universally acknowledged right enshrined in various international covenants and declarations.

 

On the other hand though, where democracy, human rights and religious freedom is concerned, many quarters in the Muslim world implicitly criticized the double standards of the U.S. The U.S. has failed to address these issues at home, for example the arrests in the recent past protests against the government in ‘Occupy Wall Street Movement’ is a violation of civil and political rights and clearly shows the duplicity of the U.S. Similarly, Human Rights Watch reported that “international human rights treaties, such as, Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC), Convention for the Protection of all Persons from Enforced Disappearance, Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD), Mine Ban Treaty, Convention on Cluster Munitions, Optional Protocol to the Convention against Torture, have yet to be ratified and only two, CEDAW and CRC have been signed by the U.S.”4

 

There are also debates in the Muslim world and especially Pakistan about the annual report related to religious persecution in a country. It is believed that the U.S. designates a country as a CPC on the reports reported by organizations and media, which are rarely subjected to verification.

 

Furthermore, it is maintained that regardless of the religious, cultural, economic and political realities and differences, the U.S. shows no respect for the religious practices of other faiths and impose its own values and standards.

 

The U.S.-Pakistan relationship is very complicated. Despite the heavy cost of being an ally in the GWoT, the mistrust remained between the two on various occasions. Since 9/11, the GWoT is mostly fought on Pakistani soil by Pakistan against the militants inside FATA who have spread their tentacles to other parts of the country. It is reasonable to look at how this mistrust has led to U.S. insistence on. ‘Do More’ approach towards Pakistan despite the latter’s efforts and huge sacrifices in GWoT in which thousands of Pakistanis have lost their lives. It is also a fact that the U.S. cannot fight and win this war without Pakistan’s support.

 

Moreover, the status of and violence against religious minorities in Pakistan is seen in the prism of religious freedom. However, the case in point demands serious attention as the U.S., despite always making claims of promoting religious freedom, has hardly shown any concern for religious suppression in countries that serve its interest. Therefore, it is argued that as long as there is mistrust about the U.S. role in international affairs, it cannot achieve the desired goal in its foreign policy with regard to religious freedom.

 

This analysis suggests that earlier Pakistan was solely dependent on the U.S. and it moulded its foreign policy according to the wishes of the latter. However, the situation has changed since Pakistan realised that it has to give up on its reliance on the U.S. and look for other partners, more preferably regional, that are more reliable, like China and Russia. In regard, CPEC that is believed to be a game changer is one of the concerns of the U.S. It has significantly annoyed the U.S. and its strategic partner, India and both fear its effects in the long run. U.S. further reduced and downgraded its ties with Pakistan due to the CPEC because it offers China importance in the region. The CPEC in fact kills Asia Pivot of U.S. Therefore, the U.S. is angry at Pakistan, calling for cutting military aid package and placing it on Special Watch List for violation religious freedom. A rise in violence may be the most effective way to scare Beijing off the ambitious plan. Pakistan has repeatedly pointed out hostile nations in its neigbourhood and other foes of CPEC of fomenting attacks with this particular goal in mind.

 

The writer is an Assistant Professor at the Department of International Relations at University of Peshawar, Pakistan.

E-mail: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

 

1             Annual Country Report from 2001-2016, http://www.uscirf.gov/reports-briefs/annual-report

2         Annual Report of the United States Commission on Religious Freedom, (2010), 92.

3       Pakistan Ranks Third on the Global Terrorism Index. Dawn, http://www.dawn.com/news/1145300 (accessed December 15, 2015).

4       United States Ratification of International Human Rights Treaties. (July 2009). Retrieved: August 28, 2011, from http://www.hrw.org/news/2009/07/24/united-states-ratification-international-human-rights-treaties

 
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