The brutal lynching and burning of a body in Sialkot is a continuation of violence in the name of religion that Pakistani state and society have accepted as normal. The remarkably widespread tolerance for heinous crimes and persecution is a result of decades-old policies that have invoked Pakistan and its Muslim majority as guardians of Islamic faith. Every successive regime has competed for that exalted position as the defender of Ummah and Shariah and today we find ourselves in a fix. Even if the ruling classes wish to reverse the historical trends, they will face a hostile public opinion.
That a Sri Lankan national had chosen to work in Pakistan should have been a matter of pride and gratification for in many parts of the world there is a perception that the country is unsafe for travel or work. I personally know many professionals and travellers who have shared their concerns before travelling to the land of the pure.
Sialkot’s gruesome murder by a mob with indirect participation of bystanders, selfie takers and even policemen narrate a tragic story. That murder in the name of religion is both kosher and acceptable. And as many videos have shown also a cause for celebration. Young men who were leading the mob proudly admitted their intent and cited religious reasons for carrying out the murder. And now they have powerful, political voice in the form of Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP), a religiopolitical group enabled, empowered and facilitated by the state itself.
The TLP story is now well-known in Pakistan, and it is a group that seems destined to rise and gain more clout. The efforts to sanction it have failed and with each ‘agreement’ with the state their power has increased. In fact, the group has not been punished for killing policemen and causing damage to public and private property. The political (re)mobilization of the Barelvi majority has opened a new chapter in the polity. Sialkot is just a snippet of what will come next.
The response of the federal and provincial governments attempts to portray this incident as an ‘administrative’ issue whereby criminal prosecution will solve this issue. Dozens of mobsters were arrested after the tragic lynching of Mashal Khan, a 23-year-old student in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa in 2017. Some of them are serving sentences but evidently that has not solved anything. Inaction on religious extremism, the use of weaponization of blasphemy allegations is not just a law enforcement issue. It is directly rooted in state ideology.
Islamic faith has served as a nation-building and a political instrument since the country’s inception. In fact the foundational narrative as taught in textbooks, recited in school assemblies and cantonments and aired on mainstream television highlights the need to defend the faith and the nation – two terms that are interchangeably employed in Pakistan. All nation states rely on propaganda of some kind but in Pakistan the clerics have been deliberately empowered for acquiring state legitimacy, manipulating electoral politics, and managing foreign and security policies. This is why small steps to sight the moon for Eid in a scientific manner or having a debate on an academic campus or television turns into a crisis which has to be managed through appeasement of the right-wing opinion. The political parties and even sections of society play on the same turf and augment the power of ill-informed religious discourses.
After the Sialkot tragedy, the mob was also condemned for taking the law into their hands. But the legal system is no different. Many lawyers and judges, police personnel and those who report on blasphemy cases share the same worldview. Those accused of blasphemy languish in prisons, often in solitary confinement, for years and the eventual outcome is uncertain. Junaid Hafeez, a young Fulbright scholar, has been in prison for years now and Asia Bibi had to spend a decade in solitary confinement. Her release and exit from Pakistan only happened when the Western capitals exerted pressure on the Pakistani state. Otherwise, it is all too known what the courts handled her case – veering between fear and their own religious sentiments. And Asia’s acquittal; by the Supreme Court gave impetus to the mobilization and strengthening of TLP itself!
We need to worry about external trade, financial regulation regimes and the broader diplomatic and security relationships with the world. Sialkot tragedy should be a wakeup call for the incumbent government as well as the all powerful establishment. Whether the erroneous ambition of ‘mainstreaming’ the TLP will be reversed, remains to be seen. But this is the time for a national reckoning that is long overdue. The media has reported that the prime minister wanted to act against the TLP in their recent (November 2021) standoff with the government, but the military was not in favour of it. Hence the helpless PM and his government had to sign another deal of capitulation. But we have to take this narrative with not a pinch but a bag of salt.
Our Aitchison-Oxford educated prime minister and his loyalists in the cabinet were direct beneficiaries of the blasphemy baiting in 2017-2018. They were ardent supporters of TLP not too long ago. In fact, the PM is on record saying that he shares the same mission and to give him due credit for the rare adherence to his utterance he has taken numerous steps to fan religious sentiments from holding grandiose celebrations on Prophet (SAW)’s birth anniversary and creating new religious forums such as a religious authority to counter Islamophobia, among others.
More insidiously, the PM and his team of mavericks have introduced a new national curriculum which has expanded the scope of religious education in public schools at a very young age. Instead of reforming the madrassas or fixing the long-standing issues with public sector schools, the latter are likely to employ more madrassa graduates as teachers. Magistrates are raiding schools to check if Holy Quran is being taught to primary school students. Even the positive aspects of single national curriculum have been overshadowed by the regressive return to more brainwashing as faith-based narratives and nationalism are symbiotic in Pakistan.
Pakistan is a hybrid theocracy where even a basic debate on the draconian blasphemy laws, their abuse and societal impact is virtually impossible. Politicians who tried to generate a debate were either killed or booked in numerous cases. Even under the previous PMLN government the blasphemy card was used against activists. This remains a convenient instrument and as long as it serves that purpose it will continue to fan sectarian majoritarianism and violence within the country.
At least in the immediate term, there are no signs of Pakistan turning into a ‘normal’ state – a phrase which reportedly Gen. Bajwa used in a meeting earlier this year in a meeting with select anchors.