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Bearing witness

April 22, 2018

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THE main persons accused of burning Shama and Shehzad alive in Kasur are in jail, as are the primary perpetrators in Mashal Khan’s murder. In both cases where the victims were accused of blasphemy, people who knew them looked on or filmed or cheered on the savagery, and in both cases, courts have freed dozens of witness-participants, exonerating them from all responsibility.

This is not particularly surprising in a country where until recently the law required acts of rape to be witnessed by four upstanding adult male Muslims in order to award the maximum punishment. Over 30 years ago, a pioneering movie, The Accused, broke ground by establishing the culpability of the bystander in not preventing the crime and cheering it on. We are still not there yet.

The bystander is not incidental. The public endorsement that the bystander offers goes to the heart of the issue, which is the social legitimacy of the act. It is the phenomenon that divorces criminality from deviance. In blasphemy charges, the mass attacks are illegal but socially legitimate, so the usual deterrence against deviance built into society doesn’t work. The legalistic focus on direct perpetrators allows us to be in denial about the depth of the problem: our crisis of intolerance.

In one anecdote, Mullah Nasruddin frequently crossed the border with donkeys laden with immense straw sacks. The authorities suspected him of smuggling and would search every inch of the straw but could not find anything. Years later, one of the officials who had retired since, met Mullah Nasruddin and begged him to end the suspense and tell him what he had been smuggling. “Donkeys,” the mullah answered. We can’t seem to see what’s staring us in the face — and it’s the donkey of dogma.

Moving towards an inclusive, plural model will not undermine Pakistan’s existence.

And while on symbolic animals, ostriches don’t actually bury their head in the sand to avoid danger. It’s a myth. They dig holes in the ground to nest their eggs and when faced with threats, they check in to see if their future kids are okay. Given the state of the country, it’s about time we start checking to see whether our future kids are going to be okay.

They apparently will only if we contour the state around religion. Otherwise all manner of calamities will befall us, such as earthquakes, floods and unmarried women. But how much insurance is enough? We are a declared Islamic republic, and 90 per cent of the population of the country is Muslim. The Constitution and all laws are in accordance with Islam. We have a Federal Sharia Court and Sharia appellate benches. There is the perpetually enthusiastic Council of Islamic Ideology. The study of Islam is compulsory for 10 years of schooling across all academic systems in Pakistan, public or private.

There are hundreds of thousands of madressahs dedicated to religious learning. There are multiple mosques in almost every neighbourhood in the country, thousands of them under government subsidies. The government enables over one million people to go for Haj every year. All Islamic commemorative days are declared government holidays. By law, the head of the state must be a Muslim. Yet people are easily whipped into frenzy by whosoever declares that Islam is under threat in Pakistan.

What then is this insecurity around difference and dissent? Its pathology may originate from the moment of inception. While we can debate whether the country was created for Islam or for Muslims, in either case, keeping religion away from the state would contradict its mobilisation in the public sphere. At the time, there was no other common binding force, not language, not culture, not history, not ethnicity.

Note that the model of the nation-state assumes homogeneity of population. So at least that much leeway we can grant to the founding generations for holding on to what they had.

My maternal grandfather migrated from Bareilly to Karachi and took up a government job where he and his colleagues walked to work, on the way collecting prickly spines from shrubs to use as paper pins and clips in their offices. It’s a country woven together with thorns.

But moving towards an inclusive, plural model now will not undermine Pakistan’s existence. Nor will it be an undo button. India is not going to turn around and confiscate us, the British will not run back and recolonise us, the Muslim world will not freak out and dump us and people will not start organising devil worship.

The importance of secularism will lie in revoking the shelter that extremist thought finds in narratives of national interest. It will not be the magic pill for harmony. Secularism has accommodated slavery and genocide in the past, and India provides an even-as-we-speak illustration that it will not prevent the suffering of minorities. But secularism would sever the implicit link between the state, vigilantes and organised political groups, all of who assume a divine mission. Common goals have fostered an ideological configuration, whether backed by active links or not.

So the Islamabad High Court rules that we all must publicly reassert our faith every time we get a CNIC, or a birth or death registered, or obtain a job in the civil services, judiciary or military because imposters are camouflaged within.

Earlier the Islamabad High Court sarcastically asked if it should stand by and allow secularism to gain strength. Army officers pander to Labbaik party mobs as they hold cities hostage over non-issues, disburse payments to cover their logistic expenses and tell us that political mainstreaming without disarmament and deradicalisation is the best option for dealing with religiously inspired militants.

All political parties have at different points allied and adjusted seats with extremist groups or independent candidates associated with banned organisations, and politicians have used blasphemy allegations against each other.

And citizens have accepted all of the above without any significant opposition, possibly because dissent, as we are told, is against the national interest.

The writer is a researcher and consultant in the social sector.

nazishbrohi.nb@gmail.com

Twitter: @Nazish_Brohi

Published in Dawn, April 22nd, 2018