Saturday, May 18, 2013

Scholars warn of extreme Islamist threat to religious minorities

By Adelaide Mena

“The Christians are not attacking the Takfiri,” said former Pakistani parliamentarian Farahnaz Ispahani of the situation in Pakistan. “The Hindus are not attacking, the Shi'a are not attacking.”
She emphasized that the trend of extremist violence in Pakistan and elsewhere is not a case of sectarian violence, as it is typically reported, but a drive for ideological “purification” of the country.
Ispahani spoke at a May 15 panel discussion hosted by the Hudson Institute in Washington, D.C. The conversation primarily focused upon persecution of religious minorities in Iran and Pakistan, though other nations were also discussed.
Other speakers included Jamsheed K Choksy, professor of Iranian, Central Asian and Islamic Studies at Indiana University, and Stephen Shwartz, executive director of the Center for Islamic Pluralism.

Ispahani’s presentation focused upon the persecution of religious minorities by the majority Sunni Muslims. Originally, she explained, the Pakistani government included religious representatives for every religious group present in the country, as well as representatives of Muslim minorities in the country.
However, in recent years, she said, there has been a steady rise of attacks on Christians and Hindus permitted by government officials, including forced marriages and conversions, and even the burning down of 100 Christian homes “while the police stood by” watching.
“Pakistan, which literally means ‘the land of the pure,’ is becoming the ‘the land of the purged,’” Ispahani warned.
While laws in Pakistan do, in theory, protect members of all religions, those belonging to religious minorities have faced unequal treatment under the law from government officials and other citizens, she said.
While Pakistani laws penalize “blasphemy against any recognized religion,” with consequences ranging from fines to death, these laws are overwhelmingly exercised against those who are believed to have blasphemed against Islam, she explained, charging that while non-Muslims comprise only three percent of the population, they account for two-thirds of blasphemy charges.
The persecution against minority religions is common in the Shi’a majority country of Iran as well, added Choksy.
While Iran does protect some non-Muslim religions, the scope and protections available are rather limited, he said. Armenian and Chaldean Christians, Jews and Zoarastrians are recognized, and thus protected as “heritage religious minorities,” but they are nonetheless barred from “high ranking” executive or judicial positions.
Other religious minorities, such as Catholics, protestant Christians and Baha’is, are left unprotected and face a number of religious liberty threats, he continued. Members of these faiths are completely barred from government office and are routinely persecuted and imprisoned for their beliefs under charges of posing a “threat to national security.”
Other sects of Islam are also rejected by the Shi’a mullahs, Chosky explained, noting that clerics within the country have begun to restructure Iran’s seminaries to remove and “keep in check” Sunni theology and thought.

Adherents of Sufi thought also face persecution in much of the Muslim world, said Schwartz, a convert to Islam and a follower of Sufi, or contemplative Islamic, practices.
“Nobody cares about the Sufis,” Schwartz said, explaining that group faces intense opposition because “we reject the idea of governance by clerics” that is promoted by some extremist Sunni and Shi’a groups.
On a positive note, he observed that there is hope for “real change” throughout Muslim-majority countries, pointing to “local resistance by moderate Muslims” as a means of combatting extremism.
Schwartz also expressed hope and optimism for countries like Iran and Saudi Arabia who are “growing tired” of the extreme measures enacted by their regimes. In these countries, he said, “if there is a change, it'll be a positive change.”

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