A Pakistani mob of violent protesters last week burned down a factory owned by Ahmadis, a minority-Muslim community in Pakistan. Members of the mob had accused one of the factory workers of blasphemy, and a night of mayhem ensued. Police couldn’t contain the mob -- and went so far as to assure the rioters that the “blasphemers” would be punished. The next morning, the rampage continued when the mob torched an Ahmadi mosque in the same city of Jhelum in the Punjab province.
Kashif Chaudhry, a cardiologist in Boston who was born and raised in Pakistan, watched in horror as the news unfolded. The incident was shocking, but in many ways, not suprising: Pakistan is notorious for its violent persecution of the Ahmadiyya community, a worldwide reformist movement in Islam. Ahmadis are declared non-Muslims by the Pakistani constitution and can be imprisoned or killed for practicing their religion.
Chaudhry, an Ahmadi Muslim who left Pakistan because of such persecution, noticed something else: Many of his Muslim friends and acquaintances back home in Pakistan couldn’t be bothered to speak out against the atrocities. But what bothered him even more was that, in this hyperconnected social media age, those same Muslims were vocally bemoaning the treatment of Muslim minorities in countries like the United States and France. The hypocrisy frustrated him.
Chaudhry is not alone. Many Muslim activists say that Muslims need to vocally decry injustice when it is Muslims themselves who perpetrate it against other minorities -- or risk fueling the Islamophobia they say is rampant in the West. To not do so, and yet hold Western countries to a standard they don’t apply to Muslim ones, only hurts their community.
“With the recent rise of Islamophobia in the United States, most Pakistanis have suddenly become experts on minority rights. My social media timelines are filled with Pakistanis urging the West to accommodate Syrian refugees escaping persecution, and be more accepting of pluralism. I also see my countrymen condemning the Western media for having double standards, and not giving enough airtime to aggrieved Muslims. Many have also erupted in fury over Donald Trump’s recent Islamophobic comments,” Chaudhry wrote in an op-ed for the Express-Tribune, an English-language newspaper in Pakistan.
We want Europe/US to be kind to their muslim minorities & show tolerance but we show none as we round up Ahmadies to burn them alive #Jhelum
— Jibran Nasir (@MJibranNasir) November 21, 2015
“We decry Islamophobia in the West but turn a blind eye to the rampant -- and far more putrid -- anti-Ahmadi bigotry in Pakistan,” Chaudhry told International Business Times, adding that the apathy and silence of Pakistanis both at home and abroad have contributed to a culture that violently persecutes many religious minorities in Pakistan, including Christians, Shias and Ahmadis.
Mohammad Jibran Nasir, a rising young lawyer and activist in Pakistan who is working to change Pakistan’s culture of sectarianism, noticed the double standard, making an impassioned post on his Facebook page after the fires in Jhelum.
“Muslims in Muslim countries actually help fuel Islamophobia when we lock up people in factories ... and in homes ... and set them on fire. We have been committing the same crime and indulge in the same bigotry -- or rather worse -- for which we are criticizing the West. Is this the culture we want our kids to grow up in?” Jibran wrote in the post.
“The Jhelum incident was outrageous, out in the open, and a clear example of extreme thought. Vigilantes in the streets, shouting, in the name of Islam and the Prophet, ‘We shall kill!’ When you see bigots sitting across the Atlantic, in America, they actually quote incidents like this to prove that Islam is an inherently an intolerant religion,” Nasir told International Business Times by phone from Karachi.
“And Pakistan is one of the few countries that uses Islam in its name -- the Islamic Republic of Pakistan -- we set ourselves as so-called representatives of Islam. But our citizens, media, law enforcement, government -- nobody bothers to say anything,” said Nasir. “It is hypocritical of us to demand the West give rights to minorities like Muslims when we don’t condemn atrocities against own minorities here.”
Chaudhry agrees, noting that speaking up for minority rights is the third rail in Pakistani politics.
“The vast majority of people are silent -- that’s the problem. In times like this, being silent is not being neutral. You’re being supportive of oppression. The silence of the educated Pakistani majority is more hurtful than the guns and sticks in the hands of the mullahs,” said Chaudhry.
But other Muslims say they should not have to apologize for crimes that they didn’t commit -- just like many Muslims in the West say they shouldn’t have to condemn or apologize for the acts of terrorists who don’t represent them.
When u are in majority & u are powerful, u show compassion & guard those who are helpless. That is the Islam of my Prophet (SAW) not #Jhelum
— Jibran Nasir (@MJibranNasir) November 21, 2015
The difference, these activists say, is that much of the persecution against Ahmadis in Pakistan, in particular, is institutionalized -- and that Pakistani Muslims have a responsibility to speak out against persecution that is being perpetuated in their name.
“I’m also of the view that we don’t need to justify our religion every time a terror attack happens. But we should at least outwardly condemn and not ignore this when it happens to ourselves,” said Nasir. “Someone from our National Assembly should make a speech condemning what happened in Jhelum. Or pass a resolution that the government of Pakistan condemns such crimes. The fact is, we've allowed this atmosphere to flourish, in which a mob has the audacity to get together, burn down a factory, and law enforcement can't disperse the crowd, assuring them that 'these blasphemers' will be hung in court."
Chaudhry added that attacks against religious minorities in Pakistan are often committed in the name of defending Islam.
“I’m not asking for people to apologize for these acts, but these mullahs who are persecuted Ahmadis are doing this in the name of Sunni Islam. In the name of Pakistani Muslims,” said Chaudhry. “I'm just asking them to stand up and say, ‘not in my name.’ Just like I don’t apologize for ISIS, but I clearly and loudly say that is not my Islam, and their atrocities are not being committed in my name.”
One prominent Pakistani is doing just that. Famed actor and model Hamza Ali Abbasi decried the recent attacks in a series of posts on Facebook: “If you cannot condemn this, then you have no right to mourn for Syria, Iraq or France..It is your duty as a Muslim in an Islamic country to protect their right to practice whatever they believe in,” he wrote. “If you think you have a right to kill Ahmadis for their beliefs, then don’t complain if USA thinks you should be killed for your belief.”
— Jibran Nasir (@MJibranNasir) November 22, 2015
While his posts received thousands of “likes,” the backlash was also swift. Abbasi received threats, comments about how killing Ahmadis was justified, and one TV producer even called him to confess that he was an Ahmadi himself. Abbasi had to assure his fans and followers that he was a Sunni Muslim and did not agree with Ahmadi theology -- only that he wanted to protect their rights as a religious minority.
It’s this backlash that perhaps drives some Sunni Muslims in Pakistan to stay silent. After all, speaking up for minority rights can have deadly consequences, as it did for Punjab Governor Salman Taseer, who was assassinated in 2011 for speaking out against Pakistan’s blasphemy laws.
But Nasir insists that Pakistanis need to be more courageous -- and that doing so in larger numbers may inoculate against backlash.
“It’s always the responsibility of the more privileged and educated to stand up for those who aren’t. In Pakistan, your gender, your sect, your ethnicity can be a privilege. I’m not discriminated against, as a man, as half Punjabi, coming from a Sunni background. I should use that privilege to speak up for those who can’t,” he said.
“Where is our Martin Luther King, Jr.? Where is our Malcom X?” he added. “We need lawyers and academics and other privileged members of society to rise up. We’ve been shying away. It’s our country. That's why it’s our responsibility.”