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Beyond blame

If we allow more witch-hunts like that of Mashal’s, we will have nothing left to blame but the fact that we lost the opportunity to close this window to prevent the moral panic that is stealing its way in

Beyond blame
How to end faith-based injustices?

After the rage, comes the blame. Opinions vary and numerous sources are held responsible for faith-based injustices in Pakistan. However, the clichéd blaming on “all of us” and “society at large” only contributes to more delay and a confusion that will not prevent further deaths to come.

Islamic scholars have blamed misinterpretations of fiqh. They want to salvage the 7th century divine laws for the 21st century secular societies. In a world where globalised economics is replacing moralities and ideologies and offering material rewards, these scholars think magic realism is compatible with modern secular modes of life, communications, and gender relations. Excavating academic religious debate makes for good doctoral theses but are politically naïve and ineffective strategies.

NGO activists blame the state. They insist on the “rule of law” and “due process” but this would include respecting the blasphemy law and ‘tolerating’ any injury that is claimed by the pious. These liberals do not want to admit that critical thinking is not about tolerating but being skeptical, profane and sometimes, even offensive. Self-defeatist NGO advocacy on blasphemy cases depends on presuming and proving the innocence of the accused/victim. Ironically, this acts as an obstacle to freedoms of expression and intellectual pursuit because it presumes no one can or will ever hold a secular dissenting thought, doubt or opinion. This short-term strategy stifles and silences for the long run.

Meanwhile, anti-imperialists blame neo-liberal NGOs and ‘elite’ secularists for pursuing divisive religious-versus-secular politics. In their view, only the elite, not the poor and working classes, can have liberal or secular aspirations. Evidently, for these ‘antis’, the contradictions of class and religion will melt away when the class war is fought and won. Until then, faith is the poor man’s weapon. But the inconvenient problem is that most often, the working classes turn this on each other.

Some analyses inaccurately hold Gen Ziaul Haq and his legacies as responsible for the current religious conflict (Aasim Sajjad Akhtar, Dawn, April 21). But under Zia, it was predominantly the state that would deploy the blasphemy laws to intimidate defiant institutions and collude against citizens. It was not Zia but the civilian PML-N that extended the death penalty to the law. Today, the state is rarely a party to such cases and in fact, often attempts to rescue the accused.

While procedural change may reduce the complete impunity enjoyed by the murderous vigilantes, it will not secure the vulnerable minorities, lesser Muslims, secularists, dissenters or thinkers from persecution.

Contradictorily, these analysts deny that Zia-strengthened madrassas and pietist teachings sustain his legacy and, their sectarian narrative penetrates and influences mainstream educational institutions, bar associations and the media, far more effectively than an abstract empathy over Islamophobia in the West (but somehow not the one practiced in China, Philippines or Myanmar).

Then, there are the professional Islamists who blame western culture, gender equality and freedom of sexual and intellectual expression for religious conflict. They concoct a lethal mix of medieval societal norms with the hallmarks of modernity, that is, guns and capitalism.

These occupational theocrats have their defenders. A new generation of scholars has produced a sanitised analysis of Islamists and jihadist politics. They argue that crimes of vigilantism, theft and murders against blasphemy-accused are motivated purely by secular greed. This would mean that those who say they are morally injured are always faking it. If so, then surely, the law is redundant and must go. Or, should we respect that spiritual wounds can be genuine, as many defenders of Muslim sentiment insist? If so, then should the law remain to protect their right against such spiritual injury?

All that the above groups have offered is contradiction, rather than clarity for human rights activism in the country. In the past, activists dealt with religious conflict with discretion but secular lucidity. Global political and capitalist greed are a constant but privileging these in discussions on religious violence and labelling human rights activists who resist Islamists as ‘imperialists’ and ‘liberal fundamentalists’ romanticises the perpetrators.

Along with the attempt to deflect and displace blame on western racism, economics and drones, all this has contributed to the unopposed wave of vicious vigilantism that we face today. The attempt to dilute Islamist hate-preaching and madrassa rhetoric has distracted attention off the full-fledged nexus between Islamists, the legal communities and the khatume naboowat sector. The fact that the majority of blasphemy cases are Punjab-centric is another ignored feature.

Burning witches, heretics, philosophers and thinkers for blasphemy is not new but in Pakistan, the post-Taseer blood-letting turn in blasphemy politics has meant that both maximalist positions — of total repeal or deadly enforcement by the state — have become unviable. The vacuum of opportunity has widened for free-lancing vigilantes.

Burning witches, heretics, philosophers and thinkers is not new.

Burning witches, heretics, philosophers and thinkers is not new.

Reforming the religious Zina laws was possible because of the endorsement of a General of the only other supra power in the Islamic Republic — the military. To bring some semblance of order to the murderous chaos, at the very least, procedural amendments for blasphemy laws have to be introduced by civilian subterfuge, GSP plus pressure, or open military support.

While procedural change may reduce the complete impunity enjoyed by the murderous vigilantes, it will not secure the vulnerable minorities, lesser Muslims, secularists, dissenters or thinkers from persecution. To align our laws with the constitution, either a judicial commission or parallel legislation for review of the law is imperative. This would prevent Pakistani society from slipping into the abyss of fear and street-level anarchy ripe for ISIS-style stoning, lynchings and beheadings.

One lesson of the War on Terror is that, if the state starts losing control over the symbols, narrative, and implementation of law and justice, these are symptoms that a reign of terror is creeping up. If we allow more witch-hunts like that of Mashal’s, we will have nothing left to blame but the fact that we lost the opportunity to close this window to prevent the moral panic that is stealing its way in.

Afiya Shehrbano Zia

aafiya sheharbano
The writer is a researcher based in Karachi.

One comment

  • Beautifully Articulated.

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