Pope Benedict’s Inappropriate Remarks On Pakistan
The problem in Pakistan is not between Muslims and Christians. It is between two Muslim minorities: liberal extremists and religious extremists. Foreign interference exacerbates this tension and does not help.
ISLAMABAD, Pakistan—Egypt is a moderate Muslim country, even liberal, with zero tolerance for religious extremism. But this week Cairo recalled its ambassador to the Vatican after Pope Benedict XVI called on world leaders to protect Egyptian Coptic Christians after an unprecedented bombing at an Alexandria church on New Year’s Eve.
This was a clear call from the Pope for the world to interfere in Egypt. For years Washington’s second largest recipient of annual US aid, you would think Cairo would be mellow to the call. No way.
Egypt rejected Pope’s call. In a formal statement released by the Egyptian foreign office, a spokesman said, "Egypt will not allow any non-Egyptian faction to interfere in its internal affairs under any pretext," the statement said. "The Coptic question is specifically an internal Egyptian affair."
Cairo’s real concern was that Pope’s statement, coming three weeks after the incident, would revive tensions in Egypt after they had calmed down.
Contrast the Egyptian response with Pakistan’s.
In the same speech, the Pope called on Pakistan to repeal its anti-blasphemy law.
At first look, there is no reason to doubt the good intention of Pope Benedict.
He said repealing the law would help avoid incidents such as the ‘tragic murder’ of Salman Taseer, and tried to generate goodwill by hinting Muslims and Christians worshipped the same God: “… the worship of God furthers fraternity and love, not hatred and division.” That is exactly what Muslims believe, that Jews, Christians and Muslims worship the same deity.
Great words. But the problem is that they come at the wrong time for Pakistan. Instead of calming down the controversy, this would fan it. Let me explain.
This law is not about Pakistani Christians. The anti-blasphemy law traps more Muslims in its net than Christians. In fact, a far larger number of Muslim Pakistanis have been convicted under the law, as the recent case of a conviction of a mosque imam and his son indicates. This does not mean the law should not be amended or repealed. It must be either amended or repealed because it is being abused. For example, the 45-year-old mosque imam and his 20-year-old son were convicted for life this month because they dared remove a poster on their shop window advertising a religious event that contained Quranic verses. It is ridiculous. What mosque imam would commit blasphemy?
So the law itself does not victimize Christians only. And it is not a tool to target Christians.
The real problem over the law is between an extremist westernized minority of Pakistanis who ridicule religion and between another extremist religious minority that takes religion to extreme.
The extremist westernized minority wants no religion at all and keeps talking foolishly about European secularism, which is misplaced in Pakistan. This provokes the religious extremist minority into paranoia and pushes them to extremes, as in the case of the 26-year-old bodyguard who assassinated Governor Taseer. Caught between the two extremes are the majority of moderate, peaceful Pakistanis.
US and other western governments make matters worse by openly siding with the extremist westernized minority in Pakistan, provoking reaction.
The Pope thinks that by making his statement he is siding with the persecuted Christians. But the truth is, by making a statement that leaves no room for amendments to the law, the Pope is actually siding with the Pakistani extremist westernized minority.
And this is not helpful.
Unfortunately, the elected government of President Zardari lacks a single credible face with good understanding of the real problem that could convey this delicate balance to our foreign friends, including Pope Benedict, and ask them, like the Egyptians have done, to stay away from our internal matters.
In fact, the PPP is full of people like Senator Sherry Rehman who are using the controversial law to settle scores against religious political groups. And that is exactly what extremist religious groups are doing, using the law to get back at the extremist westernized minority.
What Pakistan needs is to de-politicize the discussion over the anti-blasphemy law. Extremist westernized Pakistani minority and its religious extremist counterpart must not be allowed to lead the debate or use it for their own political gains. The government can publicly recognize that the controversial law is not a Muslim-Christian issue but an issue between two self-centered extremes who are hijacking it for their own motives. This way, the debate would be brought back to the moderate mainstream.
While we work this out, our foreign friends can help the most by taking a hike.
A word to Pope Benedict: While recognizing your good intention, I cannot but suspect an element of politics to your statement. Nothing has happened to Pakistani Christians that resembles what happened in India to Indian Christians in 2008 and 2009, when hundreds of churches and Christian houses were gutted by Hindu extremist mobs. In some cases, nuns were sexually harassed and violated. These cases are fresh and well documented. Not to mention the horrific case of an Australian priest and his two underage boys who were burned alive by Hindu extremists. We never heard the Pope speak about those incidents. Your diplomats did say something about them but at a much lower level and quite shyly compared to how you spoke on Egypt and Pakistan. This distinction does not help your message, to say the least.