What Purpose Does the Blasphemy Law Actually Serve?

Source: The Nation

We all know that the blasphemy law is supposed to punish the offenders who desecrate the good name of God and the Prophet, or commit a similar offense against religion. And there is really no doubt that blaspheming against holy persons and entities is indicative of a lack of sensitivity and regard toward religious communities. However, people like to debate whether the offense warrants penalties as strict as death and life imprisonment or even any at all.

There is no debate possible in the country in its present climate whether the blasphemy law should be repealed or not. However, fortunately, many of the people, including some very smart mainstream religious scholars from both Sunni and Shia traditions agree that there are margins of improving the law. In other words, many people concede that the law is being abused or that there is a possibility of abusing it to settle personal scores. This is keeping the next-to-none debate of amending the law alive, where it is important to keep in mind that most people are not willing to compromise on the prescribed penalty.

That is still progress nevertheless. To the common religious conservative citizen, the law must be about penalizing the blasphemer and it becomes a matter of the “rule of law.” However, this is merely an instrument of asserting the political authority of a community. It is basically a reminder of who is in charge, or what is in charge, relevant in this case. There is a reason why blasphemers happen to only target Islam in a country of more than 200 million.

But even if you are in the “amend-not-repeal camp,” I wonder with these motives behind it, people who matter would actually be willing to even agree on any changes to the law. We all know how Senator Sherry Rehman was threatened when she tried proposing her amendments. Even if the majority agrees on such an amendment, the small but forceful minority would see to it that they have their way. There obviously is little hope but to try convincing people to improve the law. However, banking your hopes on that also points toward a fundamental misunderstanding of why the law exists in the first place.

So, if you missed the memo, initiating discussion of the misuse of the law also becomes an offense to the authoritarian religious conservative. That is a fine line to tread on as slips like the late Governor Taseer calling it a black law could cost you dearly. But even if you are super careful and respectful, you are still challenging the very authority that the blasphemy law formulated under Zia is designed to keep, instead of offering an equal opportunity of complaint to all.

While this may have prevented an average citizen from the fanaticism of the minority religious communities, it has made those communities very prone to damage. Especially the helpless individual citizens from those communities who always end up paying the highest cost. It is simply their misfortune that their fellow citizens want nothing to do with knowing their troubles.

The blasphemy law under Zia was passed under the threats of clerics and it is maintained by similar vows. It was a comprehensive push against the secular side of the state, which had since grown weaker by the day. And since the penalties are as per the prescription of the Sharia according to most scholars, amending how the law is enforced would be a push against the sovereignty of the Islamic Republic against secular entities, if not about upholding the word of God. After all, the JI Emir complains that Pakistan is not an Islamic State.

Even when common citizens or scholars agree on the problems with the law, the blame often goes to the secular law enforcement instead of the violence it is encouraging. Vigilantes are arrested alright, but this is seen unfavorably in general, thanks to legends like Ghazi Ilm Deen. However, the act of vigilante violence is disapproved by conservative elites who prefer the victims to hang after a trial. This is why we must have the blasphemy law. Even though they choose to ignore how free our judges are in terms of passing the verdict in such cases and how it encourages religious extremism.

While Mashaal Khan’s tragic killing has opened a window to start this conversation, it is not as if the other side is giving even an inch other than tolerating slightly dissenting comments and pieces in the media. That too, because let’s admit it, Mashaal’s death was too brutal for even most blasphemy law supporting religious conservatives in Pakistan. But the underlying problem remains the same and only time will tell if the ice would break.

We do make a lot of fuss about the blasphemy law and its abuse. While there has been a sharp rise in cases registered since the amendment under Zia, the secular judiciary has refrained from passing many harsh verdicts. Call that denying justice, it hardly matters as hate speech like “Off with the head of the blasphemer” dominate every town in Pakistan. It is almost an article of faith.

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We are at a point far from arguing or talking reason. Perhaps we would be if the intent were just to penalize the offenders.

The post was originally published in The Nation blogs.

The Ignored Mass Hysteria of the Righteous

Source: Telegraph

Source: Telegraph

Not long before the date of the publishing of this post, a woman was lynched and burned alive for burning the Koran by an angry mob of men in Afghanistan. A few days later, another secular Bangladeshi blogger Washiqur Rahman was hacked to death by religious fundamentalists, after Avijit Roy met a similar fate. A few months ago, similar religious justice was dispensed in a small Punjab town near Lahore.

It would probably be fallacious and inappropriate to link allthe religiously motivated mob lynching and killing incidents occurring in these different South and Western Asian countries into a pattern. However, you cannot help but notice the similar convictions and motives driving the angry killers in all of these apparently isolated incidents. Of course, we know that the quoted incidents are just a few of the many such incidents. It cannot possibly be a coincidence that different mobs separated by language and other geographical barriers converge under a common banner of morality.

While it appears that the antitheists only resort to unreasonable bigotry when they blame religion for making good people do terrible things, such incidents of violence only seem to validate their strange claim. It would be very difficult for even the most conservative of critics to actually deny the religious nature of the motivation of the attackers.

It is amazing that these societies, which are apparently obsessed with moral righteousness and justice, let these incidents go largely unaddressed in terms of criticism and outrage. Or actually, some would argue that such strong tendencies are the very factor behind these outrageous cases of mob violence, apparently condoned by the society in their immediate surroundings. Obviously, there are a few who protested all these incidents, but they can hardly engage the majority directly in a reasonable debate over this issue. No wonder why such criticism is largely absent from Urdu language press in Pakistan.

You can understand the occurrence of individual apathetic sociopaths, but it is worrisome when such behavior becomes a socially accepted norm. The degree of violence that is associated with this perceivably divine system of justice is pretty much an insult to humanity by any standard. However, in this day and age, this medieval system of witch hunting is pretty much alive and well.

Would it be too bizarre to claim that these people have been exposed to certain instructions or a common moral code that encourage them to act in this manner? Surely, there must be a common idea uniting thousands of people to come together and target a defenseless person so brutally. Ah, just imagine the horror of a mob beating you up. Imagine the pain and humiliation. Oh wait, let’s not even go there. Invoking the theory of mind is such a cliché, or perhaps hardly of any use in this case.

Or would it be too offensive and inappropriate to question the morality of the community condoning their practices?

It is interesting to note how consistently such faith related killings occur. Yet it is hard to point out the elephant in the room. Probably there really isn’t a pattern, nothing to do with what these people were actually supposed to follow, but you cannot help but notice why it is happening, especially if you find the chants of these mobs at work hard to ignore.

Nevertheless, it would have been encouraging had such behavior been confined to angry and vicious mobs and fringe radicals looking to stone infidels to death. The problem is that some of the states supposed to stop the madness are even worse, putting it into legislation. While the scholars who would conveniently condemn a vigilante witch hunt would happily offer an alternative legal route for the same.

You might be tempted to falsely term this widespread organized righteous behavior mass hysteria, but that would be a gross understatement.

The post was originally published in The Nation blogs.

 

May the Best Rioters Win

Source: @safya777

Source: @safya777

We know that there is not much that we can trust our government with in Pakistan, but there is one thing about which you can be completely certain. You can count on the government to not provide you with any security whenever a violent rioting mob is on the loose.

Now, violent rioters in the sub-continent in general, and in Pakistan in particular are not isolated incidents. It’s a pattern, a culture, which is not just openly practiced, but even encouraged by otherwise seemingly sane individuals and political leaders.

We have invented a million functions of the government from the regulation of online speech to forcing the prices in the market, but sadly we have completely lost focus of the most essential and fundamental one. Establishing law and order and protecting the lives and the property of citizens.

From Gojra riots to Joseph Colony tragedy, Kot Radha Kishan and Sialkot lynch mobs to the Yohannabad violence, and from the Benazir Bhutto assassination riots to May 11 shootings in Karachi, the common winners have been the rioting forces, looters, rapists and criminals. The only losers have been unarmed, defenseless, peaceful, law-abiding citizens.

While it is not hard to understand that the government is almost incapable of blocking terrorist attacks, despite its best efforts, it can at least use its police to stop a riot from culminating. Especially considering the recent examples of police violence on violent political protesters in the PTI and PAT rallies in Islamabad.

However, stopping a riot is not the usual custom. Especially when the riot is of religious nature, the police prefer to witness the complete carnage instead of taking any action and relying on footage captures for trying to catch the criminals afterwards. In all fairness, sometimes the police have valid reasons too, because no one wants to be tried for murder just because they prevented a crime. But largely, it kills the purpose of trusting the police and necessitates civilian arms.

It really does not matter if there are laws encouraging protection of self-defense. It is whether such laws help protect people or not is what is important.

I don’t care who the rioters are in any of the several past or future cases.  I don’t care who or what they associate with. I don’t care what their grievance is. If they resort to threatening people’s lives and private property, they are criminals. Invoking constitutional right to assembly to justify their madness is not only inappropriate and abusive, but also intellectually dishonest.

If they are threatening life and property, the law enforcement authorities are justified to use whatever force is possible to disable and disperse them. Either that, or pay the damages to the victims suffering at the hands of these violent mobs. Sadly, you cannot pay for lost human life with money, if the government ever had the intention to compensate the victims due to their negligence.

I don’t see any harm in shooting at a violent rioting mob to disable and disperse them when they are clearly about to hurt people or threaten their property, and a lot of harm in letting them run loose. There is no other way to deal with such threats to public safety. Unless the police are empowered and adequately equipped to do so with reasonable exceptions, I don’t see any end to this culture of madness in the near future.

The more humanitarian side of our political spectrum could see the condemnation of mob violence as provocation to further violence or even suppressing people’s rights to protest, but encouraging the culture of mob violence is even worse. They should revisit their definition of hate speech as far as political rhetoric and its impact are concerned.

Actually, it is justifying and apologizing for violent riots and tolerating the suspension of law and order which is inviting more unrest and harm. It is precisely the tolerance of state toward violent rioters that brings rioters to the streets more violently than ever before every excuse they get.

The way things are right now, you can only perceive the law enforcement authorities to be inviting people to take it to the streets and indulge in violent riots. Because apparently that is the only way your grievances are going to be addressed in this country and nobody seems to have a lot of problems with it either.

Any group that is not resorting to violent riots is idiotic, as they are missing out on this tremendous equal opportunity to clinch their rights by burning cites to ashes, robbing banks and businesses, and lynching defenseless people to death.

The more enlightened elements of the society are actually losing the battle by just resorting to vigils. If they want something done, say restoring the YouTube, they should begin a riot just like the one that forced the government to ban it.

The more oppressed segments of the society, such as the Hazara, should stop with their peaceful protests already. Christian communities in Punjab should stop turning the other cheek as their colonies are burned to dust and should retaliate by burning some more buildings to ground.

No aggrieved party should wait for the courts to try the murderers of their people. They should be lynched to death and burned alive.

Let the violent mobs run loose on the streets of the country and deliver the swift justice that we have been aching for so badly.

May the best rioters win…

The post was originally published in The Nation blogs.