Reports of murderous assaults on Christians in Pakistan—like the Easter massacre last Sunday in Lahore—have focused on the Pakistani government’s double-dealing with the Taliban, or its intelligence failures, or the supposed blowback effects of U.S. drone attacks on terrorist cells in Pakistan. Most of this analysis evades the deepest threat confronting the government: a culture of religious extremism supported by Muslim leaders and underwritten by the Pakistani state.
To make matters worse, whatever influence the United States might have in fostering a more tolerant society in Pakistan is being squandered through ignorance or indifference to the problem.
The latest attack by the Taliban killed 75 people, including 29 children, all of them civilians. It follows an attack in January at Bacha Khan University, which killed 22 and injured 19. Last year the Taliban targeted a school in Peshawar, killing 145, most of them children. Although Muslims were among the slain in the Lahore assault, Christians were clearly the target. “It was our people who attacked the Christians in Lahore, celebrating Easter,” said a Taliban spokesman. “It’s our message to the government that we will carry out such attacks again until sharia [Islamic law] is imposed in the country.”
Why do the Taliban believe they can impose their radical, Islamic ideology upon a nation of 182 million people? Because Pakistan, like other Muslim-majority states, enforces a legal regime that criminalizes apostasy: Anyone accused not only of renouncing Islam but questioning or criticizing the Prophet Muhammed or the Quran faces arrest, imprisonment, torture, and possible execution. Apostasy laws are perfectly consistent with the Taliban’s totalitarian vision—an ideology based on fear and loathing of “the other,” meaning anyone who dissents from established Islamist orthodoxy.
There is only one conceivable result of this policy. “Religious minorities in Pakistan face pervasive societal and institutional discrimination and the threat of violence,” explains Mervyn Thomas, chief executive at the London-based Christian Solidarity Worldwide. “This situation is exacerbated by a culture of impunity and the unchecked influence of extremist groups.” Imams, political leaders, federal ministers—all have incited mob violence against religious minorities.
Pakistan receives about a billion dollars a year in U.S. military assistance, in addition to hundreds of millions of dollars in economic aid. What are the conditions for this support? The Obama administration’s posture is a loathsome mix of silence, confusion, and paralysis.
While condemning “in the strongest terms” the terrorist attack in Lahore, the State Department once again made no reference to Islamic extremism. Once again, State Department spokesman John Kirby failed even to mention the fact that Christians were overwhelmingly the victims of the attack. After being criticized, Mr. Kirby “clarified” his comments the next day: “We have no indications that their [the Taliban’s] claims of responsibility are false,” he said. “Therefore, I have no indications that the motivation that they claim was the reason is also false.”
This is what qualifies in the Obama White House as condemnation “in the strongest terms.” Neither President Obama, nor his secular-minded diplomats, dare to remind the Pakistanis of their obligations to protect the basic human rights of all their citizens—regardless of religious belief. It does not occur to most U.S. diplomats to praise the cultural importance of Christians and other religious minorities to Muslim-majority countries. Yet even the liberal Washington Post, in reporting the Easter massacre, made this observation:
The Christian minority has also contributed greatly to Pakistani society. Many of the best schools and colleges in Pakistan were established by Christians and attended by the country’s Muslim elite, and Christians have been among the most decorated and celebrated members of Pakistan’s military since independence.
Why is it so difficult for President Obama—or anyone else in his administration—to unapologetically proclaim America’s democratic values and to utter these words? There are ideological reasons for this silence, which will have to be unpacked another time. But there is also a widespread blindness to the importance of religious freedom in building stable and just societies.
Take one recent example: In a State Department briefing last November, spokesman John Kirby was asked about pending executions in Saudi Arabia for individuals accused of renouncing or insulting Islam, specifically the Palestinian poet Ashraf Fayadh. Mr. Kirby read from a prepared text explaining that “the United States strongly opposes laws, including—” He stopped and stammered, obviously uncertain about how to pronounce the next word of his text.
A reporter lent a helpful hand: “apostasy.” Mr. Kirby continued: “Apostasy laws, thank you,” and then stoically read from the remainder of his text about U.S. support for the exercise of “freedom of expression and religion.”
Think about that unscripted revelation of ignorance. We are nearly eight years into the Obama administration—eight years of Islamic extremism, sectarian civil wars, ruthless assaults against religious minorities, beheadings, crucifixions, terrorist attacks in the heart of Europe and on American soil—and a top State Department official does not know the meaning of the word apostasy.
We cannot “win hearts and minds” in the war against the ideology of Islamism if our own minds are not engaged in the battle. We cannot defeat militant religion with a strategy crippled by an uneducated secularism. We need national leaders who are “as wise as serpents and innocent as doves”—not the other way around.
Joseph Loconte is an Associate Professor of History at the King’s College in New York City and a Senior Editor at Providence. He is the author of A Hobbit, a Wardrobe, and a Great War: How J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis Rediscovered Faith, Friendship, and Heroism in the Cataclysm of 1914-1918.
Photo Credit: View from Wazir Khan Masjid Mosque in Lahore, Pakistan by Wasif Malik via Flickr.