“…nothing is more political in Pakistan than religion.”
While reading “A White Trail – A journey into the heart of Pakistan’s religious minorities” I realized how much religion influences the degree of acceptance towards certain minorities. As a foreigner, I actually came to Pakistan to get to know its culture, its people and its values better in order to gain my own insights beside the image which is drawn in the international media. Of course religion plays an important role while encountering Pakistanis and their culture, but in the beginning I tried to maintain a certain separation. However, staying in Lahore now for around one month, I realized that it is not reasonable. In contrast, I would suggest that a look at the minorities, their situation and the way they are treated reveals a lot about a society.
Haroon Khalid’s book is divided into five sections, each illustrating one religious minority by describing their main religious festivals, their traditions and their history, situation and obstacles in Pakistan. Overall, the author is taking into account Hindus, Christians, Zoroastrians, Baha’is and Sikhs. The greatest part of the book deals with Hindus and Sikhs as the ‘major’ minorities and those who have to endure the most negative prejudices and propaganda in Pakistani society.
Only three percent of the Pakistani population is non-Muslim. This small percentage underlines that Pakistan is mostly a monolithic country. Despite the fact that Punjab is not as religiously diverse as the other provinces, “A White Trail” focuses on Punjab because the author is based in Lahore. That is the reason why Haroon Khalid emphasizes that his book is not generalizable but provides an insight into the situation of religious minorities in Pakistan.
Beginning with Hinduism, Haroon Khalid points out that many prejudices against Hindus emerged from the re-interpretation of history after the partition of Pakistan and India in 1947. Within literature it is for example often not mentioned that religious followers of Hinduism lived in the current territory of Pakistan before the Muslims arrived. However, this common history is visible in the Punjabi culture which includes many traditions that both Muslims and Hindus are still practicing. These similarities become evident as well on Hindu religious festivals – the similar designs of Sufi shrines and Hindu temples in matters of the decoration are somehow obvious.
Despite those commonalities, Hindus are mostly demonized in Pakistani society, especially since the period of Islamization under General Zia-ul-Haq (1977-1988). Hindus regard their environment with suspicion and are reluctant regarding religious issues like the restoration of abandoned Hindu temples and the public celebration of religious festivals like Holi. This behavior is understandable considering the inequality Hindus face which is further emphasized by the Muslim adoption of the concept of untouchability. Muslims have been considering Hindus as untouchables, people with whom they cannot eat from the same plate or drink from the same well due to their impurity caused by their faith. Unaware of the origin of this concept it seems that people do not question their behavior so much when it comes to religion.
Especially in the case of Hinduism it becomes obvious that the religious tolerance towards Hindus in Pakistan is related to current political ties between India and Pakistan. Fanatic attacks like the one on the Babri Mosque in 1992 and its consequences or the Mumbai terror attacks in 2008 aggravate religious intolerance. The following reduction of religious exchange and dialogue between both countries does not help in overcoming prejudices – in contrast the isolation facilitates radicalism and non-critical thinking.
In the second part of “A White Trail” Haroon Khalid deals with the Christian community in Punjab. Due to the fact that Christians are a greater minority in Punjab than Hindus, they also have more influence on the societal and political life in the province. On the other side Christians are also more exposed to extremist attacks. A common method to silence Christians is the accusation of blasphemy. The blasphemy laws in Pakistan prescribe the possibility of a death penalty. Nevertheless, the social descent that follows a blasphemy accusation is much worse. The accused is under the fear of being murdered by fanatics; his or her family is threatened, as well as their lawyers and even the judges dealing with the case.
Several religious and political leaders already condemned the blasphemy laws. The former governor of Punjab, Salman Taseer, and the Federal Minister for Minorities, Shahbaz Bhatti, supported for example Aasia Bibi who was accused of blasphemy statements. Both were assassinated and in the case of Salman Taseer the so called “silent majority” (p.168) of the population even expressed its support for his murderer. Another example is the first Punjab priest John Joseph who committed suicide in front of a civil court as a form of protest after a twenty-six year old man was convicted of blasphemy although everything pointed towards a property dispute between the Christian and his Muslim neighbor.
Besides that the author describes that several relations and similarities exist between Christianity and Hinduism like the pilgrimage to Maryabad and Mata Durga. On the one hand this is related to the fact that many low-caste Hindus and untouchables converted after the British spread Christianity in South Asia. On the other hand many Hindus became Christians after partition due to security reasons. Therefore, the differences between Hinduism and Christianity became blurry especially in some Muslims’ view and in the following they transferred the principle of untouchability on Christians as well. However, this principle is also applied on Sikhs and in general on non-Muslims as it is used as one way to define the ambiguous identity of the country.
After covering two main religious groups in Pakistan the author gives a short insight into the community of Zoroastrians. Due to their small number of only thirty-five religious followers they almost disappear in between the chaotic environment of Lahore. Moreover, the religious tradition of Zoroastrians demands that they always obeyed the government of India and nowadays Pakistan. That is the reason why they do not protest and stay neutral although they are affected by the laws restricting their freedoms. Nevertheless, the Parsi belief (name for South-Asian Zoroastrians) is tolerant regarding all religions, but one can only become a Parsi if the parents belong to the Zoroastrian community. This requirement reduces the number of the community further and it becomes more and more difficult to maintain traditions and avoid disputes among its members.
Another small community in Lahore consists of Baha’is. This young religion includes a unifying approach by stating that all religions were sent by God and are therefore true. This tolerance regarding other beliefs is also underlined by the tradition that interreligious marriages are accepted. Besides unifying religions, Hazrat Bahaullah, one of the prophets of the Baha’is, believed in a unified world with a global government and a global language. This impression of a small and peaceful community is strengthened by the fact that Baha’is focus on education of their youth, in spiritual as well as in civic terms.
The Baha’i community is seen as neutral given that one of their orders says that Baha’is should not talk about religion. That might be a reason why rumors state that many Ahmadiyas converted to the Baha’i faith due to their precarious situation in Pakistan. The Ahmadiyas believe in Mirza Ghulam Ahmad who declared himself as the promised prophet in 1889. The community which always faced threats supported the creation of Pakistan because they believed that they would be able to practice their religion freely. However, the Ahmadiyas were declared as non-Muslim by a law in 1974 and are constantly exposed to attacks.
The last section of “A White Trail” deals with the Sikh minority. The founder of Sikhism, Guru Nanak, emphasized religious tolerance through his friendships with Bhai Mardana (a Muslim) and Bhai Bala (a Hindu). For centuries these religions existed side by side and shared several religious traditions. However, nowadays common gatherings at religious places are difficult to arrange.
The partition in 1947 affected the Sikh community in many ways. Particularly, the border of India and Pakistan within the Punjab region resulted in a division of holy places in both countries. In the 1980s the demand for a separate state for Sikhs called Khalistan became urgent within India and reached its peak when the Indian government attacked the Golden Temple in Amritsar and killed Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale, the leader of the separatist movement. Afterwards, as an act of revenge the Indian Prime Minister Indira Ghandi was assassinated by her Sikh bodyguards and riots arose in Delhi.
“Guru Gobind told us that we should keep a kirpan (sword) with us all the times for our protection as well as for those who are victimized. Sant Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale told us that we should upgrade our weapons according to the need of the times and keep a gun instead.” (p.224)
Although Pakistan supported the Khalistan movement due to its rising hostility against India after the war in 1971, the Sikh community was not really included in the Pakistani society up to ten years ago. This is emphasized by the fact that only sixteen out of hundred and twenty-five historical Gurudwaras are in function. However, nowadays two movements strengthen the awareness of their rights. First of all more Sikhs become educated to a greater extent and beside their traditional businesses of grocery shops, cloth trading and hikmaat (traditional medicine) they get involved in other fields. Secondly, the Sikhs who were living peacefully in the tribal areas were dispersed through the rising influence of the Taliban. Gathering in Punjab, they now represent a greater community which is utilizing this advantage in the form that for example religious festivals are celebrated more often in public again.
Overall, “A White Trail” gives an insight in the complex relations between the Pakistani state and its religious minorities, as well as in the relations between its citizens. On the one hand, there are developments which indicate a harmonization, but at the moment the intolerance seems to be more dominant. This powerlessness against the current situation is underlined by the author’s descriptions:
“The colour of the sky starts to change. The orange stream diminishes and dark blue takes over. It is almost symbolic of what is taking place in Pakistan. The dark blue sky is the “monolithic” Muslim culture whereas the diminishing orange light is the multi-religious pluralistic society that Pakistan was at her onset.” (p.250)
The inequality of non-Muslim religions becomes evident due to several descriptions of Haroon Khalid which seem to be secondary while reading. However, especially the banality in which they are expressed makes me sit up and notice. For example the impression that minorities are expected to be more tolerant regarding Islam than the other way round.
“Two loud speakers have been placed on the top of the Samadhi, facing the direction of the ground, erected opposite the mosque and the city, perhaps as a respect to the Muslim religion, a respect that is only expected of the religious minorities.” (p.286)
Another time the author underlines that the Pakistani media still illustrates religious festivals of minorities as “exotic” (p.91) events, which do not belong to the mainstream society events and have to be mentioned separately.
These incidents indicate that the two-nation theory is interpreted in the sense that Pakistan is a country only for Muslims and not a state in which non-Muslims can practice their religion without being persecuted. Under these conditions religious tolerance suffers and religious minorities have to prove their loyalty towards Pakistan if they don’t want to be suspected or persecuted.
In general, I hold the opinion that the book is well structured and provides a good overview at least about Hindus, Christians and Sikhs in Pakistan. Personally, I would have preferred more detailed information about the Parsis and Baha’is. Especially, a separate chapter for the Ahmadiya community would have been interesting regarding the persecution they are facing in Pakistan.
I liked that every chapter focused on a religious festival which served as the initial point for personal stories describing the situation of religious minorities. Nevertheless, the descriptions were sometimes too detailed and instead it would have been interesting to get to know more about the everyday life experience of these religious minorities and the problems they are facing. However, on the other hand I can also understand that the author used this stylistic device in order to underline the similarities between various religious festivals and to emphasize that all these religious followers have similar sorrows and expectations regarding their religion. It simply makes them human. In addition, authenticity results from the author’s descriptions which do not idealize Pakistani minorities by hiding behaviors which are considered as non-Muslim like the drinking of some Hindus during Holi. All in all, the descriptive language Haroon Khalid used resulted in impressions of religious festivals which are characterized by beauty and joy.
In the end I got to know many new aspects of these religions and I’m sure that everybody who reads this book will receive a greater understanding of the fact that religious followers are just humans with a faith in different goddesses but their faith is actually unifying them. From my point of view people would recognize the similarities between their religions if they would start again and put more effort into religious dialogues and exchanges. According to the principle that knowledge is the mean to achieve a better understanding I would advise this book as a possibility to got to know more about Pakistani society and its religious diversity.