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SOURCE: NEWSWEEK PAKISTAN

In interview with Turkish news channel, prime minister says he will assure protesting Shia Hazaras of ‘complete support and protection’

Prime Minister Imran Khan on Wednesday said Pakistan wanted the U.S. to be even-handed in its dealings with Islamabad and New Delhi, adding it was “difficult to predict” the trajectory of ties between the two states under the incoming leadership of president-elect Joe Biden.

“That’s all we want,” he said of Washington treating Pakistan and India equally. “What we not want is what is happening now where India is supposed to be this big ally of the Western countries against China,” he added. In a wide-ranging interview with Turkish outlet A News, he said that he could not understand why the U.S. felt the need to shore up support to counterbalance China.

“This policy is difficult for Pakistan because then the whole thing gets lopsided; India is favored, Pakistan’s legitimate rights are ignored,” he claimed, adding that Pakistan had rendered “huge sacrifices” for the U.S. during the Afghan jihad of the 1980s and its aftermath.

Stressing that India was ruled by the RSS-inspired Modi government, Khan claimed that the neighboring country’s current regime believed India was only for Hindus and there was no space for Muslims and other minorities. He said the Kashmir issue remained a lingering cause of conflict between Pakistan and India, and accused Delhi of being the main hurdle to a referendum allowing Kashmiris the right to self-determination.

Hazara killings

During the interview, the prime minister addressed the ongoing Quetta sit-where protesters have blocked a major highway with the bodies of coalminers that were executed by Islamic State militants over the weekend. The protesters have claimed they will not end their sit-in until the prime minister personally visits them and addresses their concerns, but the government has been dithering on the issues, claiming it could set a bad precedent.

Describing the brutal killing of the coalminers—as well as the destruction of a Hindu shrine in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa province by an enraged mob—as “unfortunate” and “terrible,” he said that the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf-led government was committed to protecting religious minorities. He reiterated his stance that minorities in Pakistan were “equal citizens,” and it was the state’s duty to ensure their safety.

Khan attributed the Hazara killings to “the legacy of the 1980s” when Pakistan participated in the Afghan jihad. “One of the worst outcomes of the jihad was [militant] sectarianism in Pakistan. So we have been lumbered with this legacy. We had these militant sectarian groups and the Hazara Shia community in Balochistan was targeted by these Sunni extremist groups,” he said, adding that those groups had now morphed into the Islamic State militant group, which claimed responsibility for the coalmine attack.

The prime minister said he understood the pain of the Hazara community because he had personally visited their sit-in in 2013 when they were also refusing to bury their dead in protest. “We will assure them of complete support and protection,” he said.

Khan also addressed the attack on the Hindu shrine in Karak, noting that the government had “immediately taken action and arrested everyone” as well as funding its rebuilding.

Islamophobia

To questions on Islamophobia in the West, the prime minister said Muslims leaders had failed to address the gap between Muslims and non-Muslims in Western countries. “I saw the evolution of Islamophobia in Western countries and if I have to put a date on it, it was that awful character Salman Rushdie; he wrote this book which insulted our Holy Prophet (PBUH),” he said.

“And since then two things happened: One, in the west they could not understand the reaction of the Muslims when our Holy Prophet (PBUH) was insulted. And because they could not understand it they believed that Islam was against freedom of speech. So they put it on freedom of speech that [a] man can write anything in a book not understanding the love, respect and reverence we have for our Holy Prophet (PBUH),” he added.

He claimed that Muslims living in Western countries were driven to violence due to such offensive acts, adding that they believed their faith was being deliberately targeted. “The fact is that the Western people do not understand, they cannot understand the way we feel for our Prophet (PBUH) because they don’t consider their own holy sacred entities the way we do. In fact, they don’t treat religion like we do, especially in Europe,” he said.

If this gap had been properly addressed in the past, he claimed, the West could have been aware that insults to Islam’s Prophet or the holy Quran in the garb of freedom of speech are bound to provoke a reaction. “Unfortunately, the Muslim leadership did not do so. Therefore this gap over a period of time, especially after 9/11, has just grown more and more and so has Islamophobia. This gap of misunderstanding and Islamophobia have grown together,” he said, and criticized the French government for equating terrorism to Islam. “Marginalization creates radicalization,” he added.

Recognizing Israel

To a question, Khan reiterated that Pakistan had no intention of formally recognizing and normalizing ties with Israel. He claimed that doing so would result in Pakistan losing its moral standing on the Kashmir issue, adding that it also went against Quaid-e-Azam Mohammad Ali Jinnah’s policy of not recognizing Israel until Palestinians were given their own homeland.

He reiterated that no one had or could “put pressure on me” to recognize Israel because Pakistan was a democratic country.

COVID-19

On questions about Pakistan’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic, the prime minister claimed the country had relied on targeted lockdowns that protected both lives and livelihoods. He said the government was in contact with China to procure COVID-19 vaccination on priority basis.

The prime minister also hailed Pakistan and Turkey’s historical linkages, and hoped these would be enhanced further in the future. He stressed that his vision for Pakistan was the same as that of Jinnah—a state based on justice, welfare, education, research, and democracy.