Justice robbed by mobs: Blasphemy in Pakistan - Hindustan Times
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Justice robbed by mobs: Blasphemy in Pakistan

Jun 25, 2024 08:00 AM IST

In Pakistan, religion is seemingly weaponised against fellow Muslims (and other non-Muslim minorities) to derive moral supremacy

On June 20, a local tourist was lynched and burnt alive by a mob in Pakistan’s Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province after being accused of committing blasphemy for allegedly desecrating the Holy Quran. The man, a resident of Sialkot (Punjab), was staying at a hotel in Madyan, a popular tourist destination in the district of Swat, which is dubbed the “Switzerland of Pakistan”.

Women and children look at a spot where a Muslim mob lynched and burned a man over allegations that he had desecrated Islam's holy book, the Quran, in Madyan in Pakistan's Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, Friday, June 21, 2024. The attackers also torched a police station which had held the man in Madyan and burned police vehicles parked there, according to local police official Rahim Ullah. (AP Photo/Naveed Ali)(AP) PREMIUM
Women and children look at a spot where a Muslim mob lynched and burned a man over allegations that he had desecrated Islam's holy book, the Quran, in Madyan in Pakistan's Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, Friday, June 21, 2024. The attackers also torched a police station which had held the man in Madyan and burned police vehicles parked there, according to local police official Rahim Ullah. (AP Photo/Naveed Ali)(AP)

Upon learning that the man had blasphemed, he was apprehended and handed over to the police. Shortly after, announcements about his purported crime were made from mosques via loudspeakers, spurring the mob to gather outside the police station, demanding he be handed over to them. When the police refused to acquiesce, the mob advanced towards the Madyan police station, setting it and police vehicles on fire, following which the cops fled the premises.

The mob then dragged the man out of protective custody and doused his body with fuel before setting it on fire, while the crowd recorded the chilling incident, videos of which were later circulated on social media, leading to global outcry. Later, the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa police formed a Joint Investigation Team to probe the case, and so far, 23 individuals responsible for the killing have been arrested, with 2,000 others listed as unknown suspects, reported Arab News PK.

Grisly and sordid, though not uncommon, this latest incident in a long list of blasphemy-related vigilante justice has sparked renewed concerns regarding the misuse and abuse of blasphemy laws in Pakistan. In less than a week of this incident, a 14-year-old boy reportedly stabbed a man in his mid-50s from the Shia sect, accusing him of blasphemy for speaking against the companions of the Prophet.

The current state of blasphemy laws in Pakistan

As is the case with many draconian laws Pakistan enforces, its blasphemy law, too, dates back to British colonial rule that was further strengthened during General Zia-ul-Haq’s military regime in the 1980s. As part of his broader Islamisation drive, Zia incorporated a slew of blasphemy laws into Pakistan’s Penal Code under Sections 295 and 298. The more notorious section 295-c, for instance, makes the death penalty mandatory for anyone passing derogatory remarks against Prophet Muhammad.

The incident in question falls within the ambit of section 295-b (defiling the Holy Quran), which mandates imprisonment for life. So, even by this standard, the repugnant punishment delivered to the man was not warranted, especially at the hands of the mob, a non-state actor, for his unverified crime. Acknowledging this incident in Pakistan's National Assembly, Defence Minister Khwaja Asif, stated that "no religious minority is safe in Pakistan", calling it "a matter of concern and embarrassment for the nation". Similar cases have become increasingly common in recent times, a telltale sign of the deep rot that persists in the country.

In early June, a Christian man, who was badly injured by a mob on blasphemy allegations, died in Punjab’s Sargodha. In February, a woman was accused of blasphemy and almost lynched in Lahore by a mob for wearing a dress with Arabic calligraphy, which was mistaken to be verses from the Quran. In this case, fortunately, police officer Sheharbano Naqvi, instead of fleeing, bravely rescued the girl from the charged zealots, which got her the recommendation for the Quaid-i-Azam Police medal.

In August 2023, blasphemy allegations triggered large-scale attacks on the Christian community in Jaranwala, located in Punjab’s Faisalabad district

after pages of the holy Quran were found desecrated near the home of two Christians. The far-right religio-political group, Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP), spearheading the blasphemy laws in the country, was believed to be responsible for inciting mob violence against Christians. Once proscribed by former Prime Minister Imran Khan in 2021 — a decision that was reversed a few months later — the TLP’s rise has meant a sharp increase in anti-blasphemy mob justice.

Adhering to the Barelvi-Sunni sect of Islam, the TLP entered electoral politics when Mumtaz Qadri, who assassinated former Punjab governor Salman Taseer over his calls to reform blasphemy legislation, was executed in 2016. One would reckon that TLP’s diminished political fortunes in the 2024 elections equate to a public rejection of its extremist approach. However, incidents like these serve as a grim reminder that they do not necessarily signify a loss of ideological prowess and street power.

Government’s complicity

A 2023 report by the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom evidences that over 2,100 people in Pakistan have been accused of blasphemy since 1987, with 40 currently on death row and at least 89 killed by mobs for such accusations. Mere allegations, that are based on flimsy grounds and at times fabricated to settle personal or political scores, and persecute minorities, lead to vigilante mobs taking the matter into their own hands, even before courts can duly process it. In the case of legal proceedings, judges hearing blasphemy cases and lawyers defending the accused are intimidated and harassed, leading to unfair trials, where they fear delivering verdicts that would offend the hardline Islamists.

Meanwhile, the police have frequently failed to take swift action, despite having prior knowledge of a threat to the suspect’s life and find themselves incapacitated for three key reasons. One, they fear retribution from vigilante mobs; second, their predilection blasphemy laws may make them sympathetic to the mobs, and lastly, which is more predicated on current circumstances, they are understaffed and poorly trained in the face of a surge in terror attacks across the country.

There is little political will to address this issue, as politicians, beyond the obvious danger to their lives and power, exploit it to accuse their opponents of blasphemy. In 2022, following his ouster, Imran Khan — a proponent of the blasphemy law himself - was on the receiving end of such accusations by the Shehbaz Sharif government. To make matters worse, successive governments have made public pronouncements in support of the law, thereby strengthening it further.

In 2023, Pakistan’s parliament passed an amendment, expanding the scope of existing blasphemy laws. Under this, insulting Prophet Muhammad’s family, wives, companions, and the four caliphs could get one prisoned for 10 years, which can be extended to life, with a fine of 1 million, while making the offence a non-bailable one, The New York Times then reported.

It is not a unique phenomenon per se to witness religion holding immense sway in a country formed as a homeland for one particular faith. However, for that to become a divisive tool instead of a unifying force suggests that it has been for decades weaponised against fellow Muslims (and other non-Muslim minorities) to derive moral supremacy. This is particularly the case in the absence of other avenues through which citizens can draw the same due to the state’s inability to uphold its share of the social contract.

The government, instead of pandering to popular sentiment, ought to repeal the blasphemy laws, or at the very least, reconsider the nature and degree of punishment after thoroughly verifying such accusations.

In addition, stern actions must be taken against those inciting mob violence, the failure of which sets a dangerous precedent, allowing non-state actors to operate with impunity. It is certainly a tall order, given the historic usage of religion as a political tool in Pakistan by its leaders since its inception. However, if a complete drift towards extremism is to be staved off, then corrective measures become fundamental to the country’s very being.

Bantirani Patro is a research associate at the Centre for Air Power Studies, New Delhi. The views expressed are personal.

 

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