INVISIBILITY cloaks featured in the Grimms’ fairy tale of the 12 dancing princesses; the trickster Umro Ayyar from Tilism-i-Hoshruba had one, and so does Harry Potter. The wearer drapes it to do what he wants without being detected. That’s how the blasphemy accusation works in Pakistan, a veil of virtuosity concealing what is underneath. Below it almost always lies the property case, the promotion, the money or material gain, the spurned offer or the prior enmity.
Since reason shuts down at blasphemy accusations, objectivity might be possible in examining another context where violence has an aura of religious communion — the pattern of lynching escalating in India where suspicions of cow slaughter and possession of beef is enough to get people killed. Pratap Mehta writing in Indian Express on gau-raksha terrorism shows the accusation works to “criminalise the victim”, resulting in vigilantism where a “group of people claim direct sovereignty: they act above formal law and feel entitled to enforce morality”, and that such attacks are undertaken “to spread the fear that it can happen at any moment, anywhere”. The similarities stand out.
The blasphemy law is just the starting point for redress. People participating in mob violence are not trying to implement existing laws, nor does the state have such behavioural control over the people that overturning the law will halt mob lynching. What the law does is to allow the state to hide behind religio-legalities and prevent its framing as a human rights issue, positioning the state as another antagonist instead of the protector and guarantor of life. We know the blasphemy law was rushed through parliament under Zia without debate, that it is historically contentious and there’s no consensus on it even among religious scholars, as shown by Arafat Mazhar in a series of articles on Dawn.com.
Hidden in blasphemy accusations lie the property case, the enmity...
But changing the law will lead to a showdown because right-wing religio-political parties are latching onto the issue to revive their flagging importance. Look inside the Jamaat-i-Islami for instance. Their ideological core is no longer as vibrant as many have passed away or drifted away, and few nazriyati are left. Their radical followers have given up on electoral processes and have either joined the armed militants of the Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan, Al Qaeda or Islamic State to fight off the ‘evil West’, or distanced themselves from politics altogether with the Tableeghi Jamaat.
The younger generation of the Taliban no longer considers JI leadership as authority, and even attempted a suicide attack against its late leader Qazi Hussain. Takfir divides some into smaller camps, where sectarian agendas triumph over pan-Islamist agendas. Meanwhile, JI’s previously middle-ground supporters have gravitated to the PTI, leaving the party to frantically swing from firebrand leadership to conciliatory politics. Plus JI’s importance for the establishment has diminished. The blasphemy battle cry is also a gamble for relevance, to rally causes that allow them control over the national narrative.
Changing the law is not impossible. It has happened in the not too distant past with the Hudood Ordinance. Till 2006, the law criminalised adultery and blurred the boundary between rape and consensual relations, where a woman’s inability to prove a rape accusation (through finding four Muslim adult male witnesses) was taken as an admission of adultery. While the law is still there, the Women’s Protection Act (passed despite vocal opposition by religious parties) made its implementation near impossible.
The blasphemy law will eventually be changed, once it is untenable for the power elite. Punishments for vigilante killings will also come as they start comprehending that these weaken the state, that riding the tiger is not a strategic skill because it makes as much sense as balancing on a landmine. Meanwhile, the price of the wait will be paid for by the likes of the father of Mashal Khan, in his fight for justice, and by the likes of scholar Junaid Hafeez, languishing in prison for years, his career and life wrecked over a flimsy charge — one tortured and killed by society, the other destroyed by the state.
But by the time they decide to take up the challenge, it may be too late to address the one issue the state cannot control at will: there are people who can be roused into killing their neighbours, colleagues, friends, relatives. These are not paid professional killers who dispassionately take down people they see as contracts or targets. Mashal Khan was tortured and killed by students, acquaintances he may have thought were friends, people he met every day. Shama and Shehzad were beaten and burnt to death by villagers and neighbours who knew them well. It shows there’s a latent vein that can be tapped for igniting, to borrow Philip Roth’s phrase, “the ecstasy of sanctimony”. Not all problems can be legislated,
encounter killed, banned, suo motu-ed or dharna-ed into compliance.
The writer is a researcher and consultant in the social sector.
Published in Dawn, July 23rd, 2017