WASHINGTON-In Dera Ismail Khan, a town in Pakistan's North-West Frontier Province bordering Afghanistan, 551 people have died since 2006 as a result of religious violence.
Pakistan, much like what once happened to neighboring Afghanistan, is on its way to becoming a Taliban state, which is devastating news to Pakistani Christians. Violent insurrections incited by an array of militant Islamic groups have plunged parts of the North-West Frontier Province into anarchy. As the Taliban there gains power it markets its own extreme and intolerant brand of Islamic law that condones death for Muslims who convert to Christianity.
With the rise in discrimination against minority religious groups in Pakistan, some observers are calling for increased pressure by the U.S. government.
At a Capitol Hill hearing this week, Middle East experts told members of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) that a continued permissive attitude by the Pakistani government toward religious persecution could have serious repercussions for America's own national security.
Steve Coll, president of the New American Foundation and the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Ghost Wars, told the commission that stability will not come to the region unless ties are severed between official Pakistan and the nation's violent extremist religious groups. He testified that Pakistan erred in allowing strict Islamic law to govern many aspects of daily life and called on the U.S. government to reject Pakistan's appeasement of such intolerant laws.
USCIRF Commissioner Nina Shea said it is difficult to imagine that a nation the U.S. considers an ally and financially supports would continue an official policy that legitimizes violence. Shea said she would like to learn what the Obama administration plans to do to curtail the region's religious persecutions.
But the Obama administration as well as the Pakistani government declined to participate in this week's hearing, a point that irritated several on the commission.
Today, extremist groups, with sympathy and support from religious schools in Pakistan, go around the country taking the law into their own hands under the banner of equalizing justice. To them, justice often means revenge killings done in the name of law and order. Targeted are Christians and other religious groups, forcing many religious minorities underground. Christians are fighting for their lives and being put on trial for their beliefs. Reports from Pakistan reveal that many Christians are beginning to dress and grow beards like Muslims just to blend in.
At the heart of these persecutions are the nation's blasphemy laws, which codifies the ability to punish someone for directly or indirectly going against the teachings of Islam. These laws continue to be used as a convenient, government-sanctioned form of coercion. Widely interpreted, Muslims even invoke the blasphemy law against other Muslims, as well as Christians, as a pretext for seizing another's property or settling power disputes.
Having the blasphemy laws approved by the state give legitimacy to the vigilante violence.
"They have a license to kill," said Shea.
The roots of such behavior can be found at thousands of government-sanctioned religious extremist schools. According to Shea, fanatical intolerance and the obligation to hate is being indoctrinated into an entire generation of Pakistanis, making jihadist ideology the state-approved curriculum in many of these schools. In other words, today's students could become tomorrow's terrorists.
But Azhar Hussain, an expert on Pakistan's religious schools with the International Center for Religion and Diplomacy, did provide some hope at this week's hearing. He said a small minority of the religious schools' teachers, trained under the strict Taliban traditions, have reached out in secret and asked to be included in interfaith workshops.
Hussain recounted the words of one Pakistani teacher after a recent workshop involving Christian leaders: "I have learned Quran all my life. I read it every day and I teach it to hundreds of kids. Before this workshop and this engagement, I never knew many of the [chapters] actually meant to create peace and harmony with minority groups. I was taught . . . a fear of other, and there was no mention of coexistence, which the Quran is all about, from what I can see from this workshop."