Office of Religious Freedom is an expression of Canadian solidarity with the oppressed

By: Lal Khan Malik Published on Mon Mar 11 2013 in Toronto Star

The word “empathy” is defined in the Oxford Dictionary as “the ability to understand and share the feelings of another.”

Following the announcement last month of the long-awaited Office of Religious Freedom, columnists and pundits throughout the country offered an array of varying views and opinions about the new office. Some wrote in favour of its noble objectives, while many others criticized its establishment for various reasons.

But all of the analyses, whether supportive or critical, seem to be missing an important factor central to the whole subject: empathy.

I feel a dearth of empathy from the arguments of the various pundits who have criticized this initiative and feel that in order to assess this matter more appropriately, it’s important to understand and give weight to the human side of this whole affair. As Ambassador Andrew Bennett put it, “It’s a human issue”.

While it is hard to imagine what it means to be a hated and helpless minority living amid hardline persecutors, we must strive to be truly cognizant of the suffering our fellow brothers and sisters around the world endure.

It is in the void of empathy that arguments against the office bemoaning its $5-million budget as a waste of money are born. In our country of great affluence, whose federal expenditures amounted to more than $275 billion in 2012, it is nothing short of strange to denounce the new unit, whose lofty mandate is to strive to relieve the plight of those who are oppressed and persecuted for their beliefs, on the grounds that $5 million is too high a budget.

The only reason that I can think of that would lead people to hold such views is a lack of true awareness of the gravity of the suffering that these persecuted people experience.

Basking in the freedom and prosperity of arguably the world’s greatest country can have that effect, especially if you have never experienced any such repression yourself.

That’s why I consider myself fortunate to have known both sides. Living in Canada for the last 25 years, I have experienced the sweet freedom that our country offers, yet it was not always so for me. As an Ahmadi Muslim who migrated from Pakistan, I am intimately aware of the fear and apprehension that can become a part of one’s daily life in an atmosphere of cruelty.

But I experienced both freedom and repression even in Pakistan, for although I was born in Pakistan a Sunni Muslim, I decided to become an Ahmadi Muslim when I was about 20 years old, and started to truly realize way back even then just how tough it was for Ahmadis there.

I had lived my whole life in peace and security yet — overnight — I went from that state of safety to being among the hunted; from being among the strong majority to among the repressed minority.

In 1974, 12 years after I became Ahmadi, Pakistan amended the constitution to declare Ahmadis non-Muslims. From that point on, it was hard even to exist there as an Ahmadi, much less live freely. Till this day, if I were to go to Pakistan, by law, I would not be able to greet others with the traditional Islamic greeting “Assalaamo alaikum,” or call myself a Muslim, or discuss my religion with others, or call my place of worship a mosque. If I were to do so, I could be punished by imprisonment or even death. Even if I hid my faith, there is still nothing preventing a hate-filled fanatic from hopping my fence at night and stabbing me to death as was the case with a certain Ahmadi — among others — who was recently martyred in Pakistan.

With ample support for this oppression from the government and society in general, such tyranny goes unpunished and even unchecked. The police turn a blind eye, and the media must overlook it for fear of the extremist mullahs who control the masses behind all the violence. This is no exaggeration; this is reality for Ahmadi Muslims in Pakistan.
Be it Coptic Christians in Egypt, Baha’is in Iran, or the monks of Tibet, this bleak, hopeless and life-threatening existence is everyday life for millions and millions of religiously persecuted people all over the world, for whom there is no way out and for whom there is no ally near or far.

The words of Jean-Jacques Rousseau ring true as ever, “Man is born free and everywhere he is in chains.”

The fact is that for the countless people who live in such tragic circumstances, countries like Canada (there aren’t many like us by the way) are the only hope they have. If we don’t move into action, then surely some blame lies on us too. As Edmund Burke so famously once said, “All that is required for evil to prevail is for good men to do nothing.”

Therefore we must recognize the importance of this undertaking — the unqualified need to raise our voices against tyranny and become “a voice for the voiceless.” That is what this Office of Religious Freedom is about. It’s about showing our own people and the people of the world that we are dedicated to this ideal and that we will spend our time, effort and resources on this because this matters to us.

So as Canadians, we must foster that empathy within ourselves to recognize the extent of the struggles and torment fellow members of our human family are going through.

Ultimately, it is our level of empathy that will determine whether or not we oppose this office, because we all know that the cause is worthwhile and that there are costs and considerations to be made in any endeavour, but that, regardless of everything, there are some things that we cannot sacrifice, no matter the cost.

Therefore my fellow Canadians, rest assured that our government made the right choice in taking this stand, because, in the words of Prime Minister Stephen Harper:

“The cause is just.”
“The need is urgent.”
“And our responsibility is clear.”

Lal Khan Malik is national president of Ahmadiyya Muslim Jama`at Canada.

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