Last Monday, this city was briefly overrun with bands of sloganeering, stick-wielding youths. The demonstrators threw stones at police officers, burned car tires and smashed windows. One gang even plundered a 7Up truck, guzzling its goods before transfixed TV cameras. (I watched the footage — slow-mo jets of sparkly liquid, with strains of horror-movie music playing in the background — that night on the Internet.) There was a euphoric edge to the riots, apparent even when they took a grotesquely violent turn with the lynching of two men.
Who were these vandals? And what, if anything, did their actions demonstrate?
If you went by the original news bulletins, they were Christians reacting to a suicide bombing the day before of two churches in Youhanabad, a low-income area of Lahore that is home to some 100,000 Christians. A faction of the Pakistani Taliban claimed responsibility for the attack, which killed 15 people and injured dozens. The rioters’ anger was directed at Pakistan’s state and society, which had repeatedly failed to protect them from Islamist extremists. According to one estimate, in the last two years there have been 36 targeted attacks on Pakistani Christians, 265 Christian deaths from suicide bombings and 21 “persecutions” of Christians under Pakistan’s blasphemy law. To their credit, several TV anchors ran heart-rending montages of recent incidents in which Muslim mobs or terrorists had shot, bombed or burned Pakistani Christians.
But by last Tuesday the conversation had changed, after it was established that the two men lynched by the Christian mob were blameless Muslims who happened to be near the churches when the explosions took place. (Police officers had apprehended the men on suspicion of abetting the bombers, but quickly gave them up to the rioters.) The news of their innocence gave the debates a kind of retributive equilibrium, allowing Muslim politicians to spar with Christian leaders about the other community’s excesses before rolling out their convenient conclusions: All of Pakistan was under threat from Islamist terrorists, even if religious minorities were especially vulnerable; the attack on the Christians was no different from attacks on Shiites and Ahmadis, two sects that have also been targeted by hard-line Sunni groups.
The message — that the bombing of two churches was no big deal in this war-torn country — was not lost on anyone.
But Pakistani Christians have a strong claim to being the country’s most anciently marginalized group, their predicament made all the more intractable by the silence that surrounds it.
This silence is not just about religion; it is also about caste. Most of Pakistan’s 2.8 million Christians are descended from low-caste tribes converted by Anglican and Catholic missionaries during the period of British rule. Dwelling mainly in Punjab Province, these tribes were associated with menial occupations such as sweeping and carcass collection, and had for centuries borne the corresponding stigmas of ritual pollution and “untouchability.” By converting to Christianity — so the missionaries claimed — these long-oppressed peoples were embracing a life of salvation and dignity. (It is true that attachment to the church could enable access to education and the resources of the colonial state, and thereby bring about qualitative changes in the lives of former “untouchables,” many of whom took on Anglo-Saxon names to consolidate their new identities.)
But the creation of Pakistan in 1947 — and its subsequent slide into the exclusionary politics of religion — has proved disastrous for the Christians’ security. Unlike in India, where the pressures of representative government and an ostensibly secular polity have offered some protection to disenfranchised castes, Pakistan’s undemocratic state has never accepted caste as a legitimate political category, preferring to use religion as an all-encompassing tool for mobilization. This has helped its dictators and autocrats amass power — prolonging their tenures, stifling dissent and building nuclear bombs. But it has undermined the country’s most vulnerable community twofold: Pakistani Christians have both lost their claim to caste-based affirmative action and acquired the hazardous, Taliban-baiting title of a “religious minority.”
What we have, then, is the peculiar despair of a people who are unable to articulate their real grievance, a people who have no political parties or voting blocs of their own, who have only churches and pastors and the eternal motifs of suffering and deliverance to see them through this dark period.
To live in present-day Pakistan is to know all this in one’s bones. It is to recognize a welter of prejudices related to the word “Christian,” with its caste associations of waste and blood and a rarely acknowledged but ingrained sense of primordial difference. Indeed, it is to know a long-buried secret about this “Islamic” country, a secret about how religion is used to paper over caste, class and political tensions that threaten, with ever-growing frequency, to rupture the fabric of its society.
Last week’s riots, which were instigated by a religious attack, brought a long-oppressed community’s fury to the fore. In that sense they are a sign of things to come. Anyone walking the streets of Pakistan would do well to remember that.
Ali Sethi is the author of the novel The Wish Maker.