History is rife with instances of blasphemy that were aimed at disrespecting Islam, its founder, and other holy personalities. Through statements, cartoons, and books, anti-Islamists have always attempted to demonise Islam and there is no end in sight to this mindless exercise. To counter such acts within its country, the State of Pakistan, with a population of approximately 96% Muslims, introduced anti-blasphemy laws in its Constitution. Historically, the blasphemy laws were enacted by British colonial authorities and Pakistan continued these after its creation. With the purpose to ‘Islamicise’ Pakistan, as is believed, General Zia-ul-Haq supervised the addition of many clauses to these laws and made them stringent. The religious scholars and a large section of society support these laws and consider them as derivatives of Quranic ordains. These laws meant to rein in blasphemy, however, have always been on the radar of Human Right Organisations and civil society, and continue to draw flaks from different quarters, for these laws have been and are being grossly exploited.
The abuse of these laws has made more news than their use. Having blasphemy law is fine but its misuse is terrible. There are several examples to cite where the laws were used to settle personal rivalries and to persecute minorities and people of marginalised sections. The recent lynching of Priyantha Kumara, a Sri Lankan manager at a local factory in Sialkot, is one more addition to the long list of victims of blasphemy. The main problem with these laws is extra-judicial vigilantism. The accused are not permitted to prove their innocence. Law is not allowed to take its course; hence, justice becomes a casualty because the fate of the accused is decided either by some hooligan or by violent mobs. Mostly, neither lawyer nor judge wants to support the accused, to avoid the disaster that could follow, for they are viewed as defenders of blasphemy. If, by chance, the accused is subjected to proper legal process and is finally acquitted of charges, still no one can guarantee his/her security. He may be innocent for a court but for ultra-right groups and their supporters, he remains the same – Gustakh. He/she cannot escape their jaundiced eyes. Even after achieving an honourable acquittal, such people prefer to live in exile. These embarrassing facts have shamed Pakistan in particular and Muslims in general all around the globe.
Pakistan is largely dominated by Barelvis, who in the past enjoyed the reputation of being a peaceful sect. Love of Prophet (PBUH), his companions, visiting shrines of saints, and spread of Sufism were their areas of concern. However, their approach saw a major shift after the murderer of Salman Taseer, Mumtaz Qadri, was sentenced to death. TLP (Tehreek Labaik Pakistan) became their new avatar – the party that claims Mumtaz Qadri as its source of inspiration and with ‘Man Sabba Nabiyan Faktalu’, meaning ‘whosoever disrespects any prophet, kill him/her’, as its motto. There existed radical organisations even before TLP, so it is unfair to say that this party sowed seeds of intolerance in Pakistan. But it is quite true that it has reinvigorated fanaticism. It gained massive support with the help of the firebrand cleric and its chief, the late Molana Khadim Hussain Rizvi, who succeeded in attracting and mobilising masses through his eloquence. Use of religious slogans and sensitive phrases like ‘Namoos e Risalat (SAW) Kay Pehraydaar’ – ‘Watchmen of Prophet’s Respect’, or ‘Namoos e Risalat (SAW) Khatrey Mein Hai’ – ‘Honour of the Prophet (SAW) is in danger’, has worked for the party to influence illiterate, semi-literate, and even literate middle-class Muslims that make up the majority of Pakistan.
Blasphemy constitutes the central plank of this party. However, seemingly, it believes in bypassing the legal procedure as its leaders never commented about who is authorised to pronounce punishment (death penalty). They made inflammatory remarks against the judiciary and contributed to building shrines for the assassin and in his canonisation. In addition, their motto is sufficient to describe their belief and aim, something which does not need exposition. Picking out the ‘weak hadith of qitaal’ among thousands of authentic traditions about tolerance, love, and harmony, and over-emphasising the same reveals the mindset of this group. That its associate Ulmas on no occasion bothered to expatiate upon the term ‘saba’ – ‘blasphemy’ and its criterion has compounded the problem. Neither they tried to explain what amounts to blasphemy nor do they allow the legal system to decide. All this has led to a kind of lunacy that repeatedly manifests itself in Sialkot-like incidents.
Although the party’s new leadership denounced the horrifying Sialkot lynching, yet it is insufficient and seems merely a face-saving tactic. What is required is that they come clean on this issue and interpret the rulings of Shariah about extrajudicial killing, mob lynching, burning corpses, and stoning people to death on mere suspicion or accusation. Only the TLP is not culpable; all other extremist preachers who are hiding behind this organisation need to answer. Even after this heart-rending incident, most of them are tongue-tied. Those who have spoken against it look insincere. Because on one hand they condemned the incident and on the other hand they ‘smell’ in it a conspiracy to get blasphemy laws annulled, as many of them have said. Some of them indirectly defended it by talking about the incompetence of the judiciary to handle blasphemy cases, which according to them forces far-right groups and their votaries to stage courts and award punishment.
Those intellectuals who have been alarming the people about the repercussions of religious intolerance right from the beginning, are once again vocal about it. But it appears they hardly have listeners now, as this culture of barbarism has been normalised. The careless approach of successive regimes of Pakistan, its major political parties, and institutions that never wanted to offend religious ulemas for the sway they have on the people is one of the reasons for this normalisation. Governments always adopted the appeasement policy for these groups mainly for political pursuits. It is not a secret that politicians, from time to time, used such groups for personal interests, emboldened them, and helped them to flourish. If governments had acted with alacrity, taken required and effective measures on time, things would have been in control. Innocent non-Muslims would not have been brutally lynched and then charred to ashes. True Muslims would not have eggs on their faces because of the heinous act committed in their name. Indeed, Pakistan needs course correction if it wants to exist as a civilised nation.
The writer tweets @zeeshan_rk and can be mailed at [email protected]