Religion, Choice, and Pakistan: The Curious Case of Fishel Benkhald

“First milestone has been achieved”, proclaimed Mr. Fishel Benkhald, a resident of Pakistan’s coastal hub Karachi, this week. The statement sounds like hyperbole to an outside observer when one realizes that Mr. Benkhald is talking about what we have almost universally taken for granted – the right to practice his religion. If one were to delve into the religiously discriminatory intricacies in Pakistani law however, one would join in Mr. Benkhald’s celebrations.

Faisal – or Fishel as he has strived to be known –is a self-proclaimed Jew. He is an affable man by appearance, bucking the traditional Pakistani trend by declaring his camaraderie with the feminist cause on Twitter and works as an engineer by profession. Most of Mr. Benkhald’s family lives in Canada while he resides in Karachi, the hometown of his parents who passed away two decades ago. His passion for religion is high as is orthodox in Pakistan – his conundrum however, is that it isn’t the ‘right’ religion.

Over the past few years, Mr. Benkhald has made repeated appeals to the National Database and Registration Authority (NADRA) to correct his CNIC (ID) card to reflect his true religious affiliation, Judaism. According to the powers that be however, Mr. Benkhald was guilty of ‘the sins of the father’ in a less biblical and more Quranic sense. 

Mr. Benkhald’s father was a Muslim while his mother practiced Judaism. According to NADRA regulations, a child is automatically registered with the same religious affiliation as the father in accordance with Islamic law, while the Jewish faith dictates that the child adopt the religion of the mother. When Mr. Benkhald declared his association with Judaism, the stage was set for a clash of faiths, but with Pakistan as the battleground, the outcome was a foregone conclusion.

Until March of 2017, Mr. Benkhald’s appeals for an official recognition of his faith were continuously rejected by the authorities. He is known as Faisal in his identity documents and in census data, and his appeals to the wider public for support have sometimes led to even more persecution. In March 2015, he was invited by a gentleman to a local restaurant in Karachi to continue an online discussion on religious freedoms in Pakistan. According to reports, Mr. Benkhald arrived to find a mob awaiting him which proceeded to assault him. Perhaps predictably, the authorities arrived to take away Mr. Benkhald blindfolded and handcuffed, and interrogate him for the next 17 hours over allegations that he was a foreign agent trying to incite unrest in Pakistan.

Of course, in many cases these attitudes at the state and individual level are reinforced in legal doctrine in Pakistan. According to an REF Report on forced conversions in Pakistan:

‘[the British Pakistani Christian Association stated that] although it is theoretically possible to change religions, in practice it is "not really" possible "in the eyes of the state" for a Muslim to convert to Christianity because the "state apparatus hinders" the process. The organization explained that the national ID card system allows citizens to change their religion to Islam but does not permit registered Muslims to change to another religion. This information is corroborated in a news article by Compass Direct News, which explains that the law establishing Pakistan's National Database and Registration Authority, which records the religion of citizens when they apply for a national ID card, prohibits Muslims from changing their religion.’

Before accusations of falsehoods perpetuated by the West fly in, here is a direct quote from religious scholar and JUI-F senator Mufti Abdul Sattar: “If the claimant is adult and never practiced Islam (as claimed by Benkhald that he never practiced Islam his whole life except Judaism) then he is free to adopt any religion of his choice”. The obvious question to Mr. Sattar then, is what would have happened if Mr. Berkhald had attended a Jumma prayer or two.

Even more problematically, the Express Tribune also referred the following comments on applying for a religious conversion to the esteemed senator: “Punishment, according to him, includes a three-day jail to rethink the decision, but if that person still insists he would be punished to death.”

The state's decision to accept Mr. Benkhald's plea this week isn’t just significant because it is a terribly rare exception to the rule (Mr. Benkhald has been deemed as ‘The Last Jew in Pakistan’ by media outlets across the world). It raises other broader questions over the intertwining of religion and politics in Pakistan. Both the Pakistani state and the public at large need to realize that religious identity is not national identity, and that a person isn’t a country. Pakistan’s conflict with India for various political and economic reasons should not influence its treatment of Hindus in Sindh. Similarly, the hate of the public at large for the state of Israel - grounded simultaneously in conspiracy and in fact – cannot manifest itself in acts of violence against individuals such as Mr. Benkhald.

More importantly, Mr. Benkhald stands for much more than just an individual religious identity. For the past several years, he has worked with other minority groups for greater religious freedom in Pakistan, and also significantly contributed to the preservation of Jewish heritage sites across Karachi. As averred to above, he has also taken up the cause of opposing institutionalized sexism in Pakistan. Ironically this member of a minority who has been put down time and time again by his country is the embodiment of the best founding ideals of Pakistan – empathy, brotherhood and tolerance.

If the Pakistani public can’t empathize with these grand theories of religion and politics, here is an excerpt of what Fishel said about his early childhood memories of his mother reciting blessings over Shabbat candles:

“When she used to put her hands over her eyes it felt so serene as if she has no worries of worldly life, reciting the blessing welcoming the holy day. Her lovely eyes and smile looking at me are engraved in my memory, I always prayed with her.”

Perhaps, the tale of a mother’s love can inspire some to take up the cause of greater religious freedom in the Land of the Pure. Pakistan will be that much better for it.


Source Image: Masjid Wazir Khan by Waqas Mustafeez (Flickr