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Outrage fatigue

Updated April 15, 2017


THE state of Pakistan is in the process of scoring another own goal, and all we can do is watch in helpless, even desperate, silence. Yes, and, like many media colleagues, self-preservation has made me fall in line too and use only the euphemism ie the state.

Pakistan is no doubt an Islamic republic and nobody in their right mind would ever write or say anything blasphemous, whether out of respect for their own faith or for fear of the consequences of offending or provoking the majority.

We are not talking here of the blasphemy law that prescribes the death penalty for the blasphemer — and often those accused of committing such a crime are held in custody without bail and in constant fear of their lives, regardless of the veracity of the charges.

The wrath of the faithful is what I am referring to. You wish to ‘sort’ someone out or get even with them? The quickest way of assuring their capitulation, even destruction, is to pin a blasphemy allegation on them and then sit back and see a highly motivated mob of zealots do the rest.

It is of no consequence if your allegation is no more than that ie an allegation. For which lynch mob in the world has ever asked the accuser, the instigator to first furnish evidence first? Lynch mobs have done what lynch mobs do without batting an eyelid.

Many instances have been chronicled in Pakistan where innocent people have had to face death or serious injury after being accused of blasphemy. In such cases, even the draconian laws were never invoked. Someone made the accusation and the frenzied mob did the rest.

You wish to ‘sort’ someone out? The quickest way of assuring their destruction is to accuse them of blasphemy.

Of course, after each such murder, saner elements in society expressed outrage and, where the allegation was patently untrue, even some clerics have condemned the mobs for taking the law into their own hands — after the event.

In some instances, when the heat-of-the-moment bloodshed was over, journalists and others have investigated the incident and reached the conclusion that the accuser(s) had a property dispute or some other issue with the accused which was what motivated the charge in the first place.

One would have thought that people settling personal vendettas by accusing others of blasphemy and getting them into serious trouble — that has almost always included death threats even if they are not actually killed — was bad enough. But what has followed is a more terrifying nightmare.

By and large, having tamed most of the mainstream media, the discomfort of ‘the state’ seemed to grow to such proportions when faced with criticism by bloggers on social media that it decided to lash out at the critics.

The bloggers were not just ‘disappeared’ and tortured in custody, rumours were also floated that those who had gone missing were responsible for blasphemy on their social media pages and sites. This, of course, was without any evidence.

Also, even in our often criticised dysfunctional judicial system, there needs to be a certain body of evidence to secure a conviction or to get the accused indicted. But, even with no evidence, not much effort is required to give the dog a bad name and hang him. Although freed, the bloggers’ freedom was gone.

It is in situations such as these that I despise myself for saying ‘I told you so’. However, as has been written time and again, from our student days to the present, some of us have cried ourselves hoarse over the perils of ‘deploying’ religious extremists, the non-state actors, to do the state’s bidding.

Often in the past and to an extent even today, anyone raising such issues is quickly labelled anti-state. Instead, one wishes someone had bothered to count the cost in lives and opportunities lost over the years as a result of the folly. Has anyone paused to think of the so-called mainstreaming project now under way and the possible pitfalls?

For the believers, blasphemy is indeed something repugnant and the law of the land says that those convicted of the crime should be punished by death. Equally, false accusations by individuals should incur harsh penalties.

Then, what can one say when the state appears guilty of pinning the blasphemy charge on those who merely disagree with its worldview and criticise its policies? The answer is simple: when an individual does so he can be identified, shamed and have the book thrown at him — at least in theory.

When the state does it, it announces in implicit terms that it sanctions such conduct and encourages individuals to follow suit with impunity — and they do. All we are left with is how to mourn the latest victim, how to express our outrage.

On this occasion it was Mashal, a young life filled with such promise, snuffed out by the frenzy of zealots. We are reduced to observing how stoic his father is, and how sane and sensible. We are desperate and helpless for we can do no more.

I am grateful to PTI leader Imran Khan for expressing outrage; equally to PPP legislators Sherry Rehman, Nafisa Shah and Shazia Marri. Ms Benazir Bhutto’s daughters Bakhtawar and Aseefa also condemned the murder in another example of PPP women stealing a march on PPP men.

Till the writing of this column I was waiting for a similar voice from the PML-N, but then I remembered how MNA (retired) Capt Safdar, the prime minister’s son-in-law, had taken a public position in support of the convicted murderer Mumtaz Qadri.

Whether it was political expediency or outright conviction that prompted the pathetic public position by an influential political figure, it filled one with despair. None among our leaders, civil or military, seem endowed with vision.

Therefore, they must believe that the madness they fan will never touch them. All such instances take me back to Einstein’s definition of insanity. What else can one say?

The writer is a former editor of Dawn.

Published in Dawn, April 15th, 2017