Noted Pakistani human rights lawyer and activist Asma Jahangir has called for a counter-narrative of liberal politics to challenge religious intolerance, which she says has seeped into the politics, policies and institutions in her homeland as well as mature democracies.
Delivering the 2017 Amartya Sen lecture at the London School of Economics on Tuesday evening, Jahangir – who has faced several threats and challenges in Pakistan – referred to religious intolerance as an infection capable of crossing borders.
Jahangir said several “wrong and dangerous lessons” were learnt after the terror attack on September 11, 2001. Some of them involved going for a “regime change” (in favour of a rigid government), painting all Muslims with the same brush (of terrorism and religious extremism), and responding to brutality with an equal measure of intolerance.
“We never learnt the right lessons. We never went to the root of the problem. Once you start politicising religion, you play with fire and get burnt as well. Another lesson we did not learn is that Muslims are not homogenous,” she said in her lecture on ‘Religious Intolerance and its Impact on Democracy’.
Jahangir said religion in today’s world has been politicised to such an extent that it plays a role in everything from electoral politics to policies and institutional proceedings. “One example that has hurt me is that of Aung San Suu Kyi. I admire her a lot, but her unwillingness to protect the Rohingiya Muslims shows how intolerance has seeped into politics and the level at which it has seeped. It immobilises politicians,” she added.
There was “large scale impunity” among those who commit crimes in the name of religion, and this has to be addressed at the national as well as the international levels, the rights activist said. “In 1986, Pakistan got the blasphemy law. So, while we had just two cases of blasphemy before that year, now we have thousands. It shows that one should be careful while bringing religion into legislation, because the law itself can become an instrument of persecution,” she added.
Jahangir rued the polarised place that the world has become, where the freedoms of expression, association and assembly have become difficult not only in countries like Pakistan but also mature democracies such as India and the United States.
Religious intolerance was usurping digital space, Jahangir alleged, adding that the potential for liberal politics in the social media was not being exploited.
Stressing on the need to build public opinion that refuses to tolerate intolerance, she said: “Unless we challenge the undermining of democratic values and the leadership that the new or old democratic system is producing, we will end up living in a world that becomes increasingly oppressive with each passing day.”
Sen, who was also present at the packed event, paid tributes to Jahangir’s works. The Nobel laureate said a big lesson he learnt from his friendship with Jahangir was not to consider any situation – not even the dire one under the Taliban – as hopeless, but to do something about it.