How Pakistan got boxed into religion


Originally Published in The Express Tribune

Why do we have a “religion box” on our passport anyway? DESIGN: JAHANZAIB HAQUE

The National Database and Registration Authority’s (NADRA) refusal to change MPA Rana Mahmood’s religion from “Islam” to “Christianity” has many boxed in.

A plethora of questions have arisen. Is this a human rights violation? Will Mahmood be considered an apostate if his records were to reflect that he left Islam? How can you change someone’s faith with a stroke of a pen?

But no one is talking about the real question: Why do we have a “religion box” on our legal documents anyway?

Say that and you essentially open Pandora’s Box. After all, in a 97% Muslim majority country, what good can come out of knowing someone’s religion? What are we really trying to achieve except demonising, harassing, and isolating the 3% of Pakistan’s Hindu, Ahmadi, Christian and other minorities who have made equal if not more sacrifices for the creation and preservation of Pakistan?

When Pakistanis travelled internationally in the 1960s, religion was not mentioned anywhere on their passport. Things were different. We elected our first president, won a war against India and our average annual GDP growth rate was 6.8% – the highest for any decade in the history of Pakistan. Suffice it to say, we were free thinking people who refused to be boxed in.

Then came Ziaul Haq in the 1980s, pitting one Pakistani against another, by creating a “religion box” on the national passport. And do you know what many didn’t know? This box was to devour the whole society, not just the travelling class. So in the year 2000, the box swelled up to encroach on the Computerised National ID Cards (CNIC).

For the present generation of Pakistanis – the one going to universities and applying for jobs – the “religion box” is becoming almost ubiquitous. Whether they are applying for admission in the University of Engineering and Technology, Lahore or looking for a job in reputable companies like Engro or Dawood Hercules, they must face it.

Thanks to the “religion box” in the 21st century, folks like Rana Mahmood will go through unnecessary suffering. A Pakistani Muslim would grudgingly suck up to his Christian servant to buy alcohol, Engro would conveniently bypass a Hindu for a promotion, University of Engineering and Technology would covertly impede Christians from their hallowed grounds, mullahs would blithely prevent Ahmadis from performing Hajj, and 97% of the nation would deliriously sign a declaration that they have no clue about.

Voila: what a fully boxed in country!

The supporters of the “religion box” don’t do as big a disservice to Hindus, Ahmadis, Christians, (or any Muslim sect who might be next on the list to be declared non-Muslim) as they do to Islam itself. This pettiness is an affront to a faith rooted in universality.

And to those who are “proud” of the “religion box” I can only wish some international exposure. Don’t go to Europe and America for a lesson. Just look at the passports, national ID cards and application forms in the most populated Muslim countries – Indonesia, India, Bangladesh, Egypt, Nigeria, Iran, and Turkey – and you won’t find the “religion box” anywhere.  Heck, even Saudi Arabia and United Arab Emirates don’t see a need for it. See how lonely your pride is?

Rana Mahmood’s case did not happen in a vacuum; it is a consequence of a horrible policy. A policy that violates basic human rights, discriminates between equal citizens, tramples over simple logic, and isolates Pakistan internationally.

Changing Mr Mahmood’s faith on his CNIC is like moving him from one box to another.

Instead let him freely embrace his faith and get rid of this box of discrimination from every document and every application form in Pakistan.

This will take someone to think outside the box.

Read more by Faheem here or follow him on Twitter @FaheemYounus

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Faheem Younus

A doctor, a writer, a professor, a student, a family man, a humanitarian – enjoys figuring out the challenges of Muslim American life. Learn more about him at

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