Pakistan once again witnessed another disturbing episode of anti-Christian violence over unproven blasphemy allegations, when a large crowd unleashed chaos in Jaranwala on August 16.
In a matter of a few hours, the frenzied mob had vandalised and burned down 19 churches and dozens of Christian homes in the city’s various neighbourhoods, while the police looked on. Scores of Christian families fled their homes to save their lives, only to come back to collect ashes.
The cause of the outbreak of violent events was accusations of blasphemy triggered by the discovery of desecrated Quran pages near the home of two Christian brothers. On the face of it, the violent attacks targeting Jaranwala’s Christian community appear to be incidents isolated to the area and, while police officials shied away from naming any group for inciting the mob, the events point towards the politico-religious group, the Tehreek-i-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP).
The TLP identifies itself as the defender of the honour of the Prophet Mohammad (PBUH) and supports the severest punishment for blasphemers and those who do not believe in the Prophet’s finality.
The TLP has organised many bloody protests and twice blockaded Islamabad since its emergence on the country’s sectarian scene around eight years ago. The blockades were to protest alleged efforts by the two previous elected governments of the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) and the Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI) to change blasphemy laws and over inaction on the publication of insulting caricatures of the Prophet in Europe. In December 2021, the TLP was accused of instigating a crowd to lynch to death Priyantha Kumara, a Sri Lankan factory manager in Sialkot.
The anti-Christian attacks in Jaranwala are not just a reminder of the feeling of impunity enjoyed by perpetrators of religiously motivated violence, but perhaps also of a more insidious trend among Pakistan’s urban underclass
Fuelled by an extremist religious worldview, violence against non-Muslims in Pakistan has escalated rapidly ever since Gen Ziaul Haq made blasphemy punishable by death. Between 1927 and 1986, only 14 incidents of blasphemy were reported in what is now Pakistan. But after the changes were made in the law, the number surged quickly.
At least 2,120 persons are reported to have been accused of committing blasphemy between 1987 and 2022. The pace seems to have increased this year, with 198 persons accused of blasphemy till August 16, when the mob attacked the Christians in Jaranwala. Almost 85 per cent accused of having committed blasphemy are Muslims.
The law has made it easier to accuse anyone of having insulted Islam and the Prophet. While no death sentence for blasphemy has been carried out under the law, mere allegations can incite mobs to violence and lynching, and can cause riots. Recent history shows that the law has often been used to settle personal scores and rivalries.
What happened in Jaranwala is a depressing reminder of the rising religious extremism that is pulling apart the very fabric of Pakistan’s state and society. The mob violence against minorities can be attributed to multiple factors. The first is the laws and policies that discriminate against non-Muslims and the impunity enjoyed by the perpetrators of religiously motivated sectarian violence.
“The anti-Christian events like the one that happened in Jaranwala or the ones like the lynching of the Sri Lanka factory manager are the logical outcome of the state’s adoption of laws and policies that systematically discriminate against non-Muslims,” says a Faisalabad-based Christian rights activist who spoke to me on the condition of anonymity.
“The socio-political environment created by the state itself has encouraged militant, extremist groups to escalate attacks against non-Muslims. These incidents not only underscore the utter failure of the state to protect marginalised minority communities, but also its support for the perpetrators of violence. Who should we complain to?”
Zaigham Khan, a political analyst based in Islamabad, agrees. He says the weaponisation of the blasphemy law is indeed a serious issue in Pakistan. “But the bigger issue is the support extended to the fringe groups, like TLP, by the country’s establishment, to leverage them for its political ends,” he says.
“This support emboldens such extremist groups. The size of these groups or the mobs doesn’t matter much. What matters is the impunity they enjoy for their actions and the [state’s] tolerance for incitement to violence.
“When a crowd knows they won’t be stopped or held to account for their actions or punished, they will frequently indulge in extremist violence against the religious minorities. Those who attacked churches in Jaranwala or burned down homes of Christians had no fear of being stopped or caught, let alone punished for the violence they were unleashing,” says Khan.
He is worried how politicians too don’t hesitate to use religion when it suits their politics, for example to win an election or to discredit their rivals.
The writers of the inquiry report on the anti-Ahmadi violence in Punjab had warned of the escalation in religious violence against minorities as far back as in 1954. Justices M Munir and R M Kiyani wrote in their report that “... and as long as we rely on the hammer when a file is needed, and press Islam into service to solve situations it was never intended to solve, frustration and disappointment must dog our steps.”
They also wrote: “We have dwelt on the subject of [the] Islamic state… with a view of presenting a clear picture of the numerous possibilities that may in future arise if the true causes of the ideological confusion which contributed to the (anti-Ahmadi) disturbances are not precisely located.”
The second factor is the law and order aspect, which assumes that sectarian hatred against other faiths can be dealt with through administrative actions. A journalist who has been covering religious violence for the last two decades for an Urdu-language newspaper blames administrative failure for the escalation in violent attacks against non-Muslims.
“Whenever an issue involving two Muslim sects or non-Muslims surfaces, the top priority of the police is to suppress the issues for another time in the future,” he says, also on the condition of anonymity. “In case of eruption of violent attacks by one group against another or minorities, it always draws the same response from the police authorities: they prefer to watch the events unfold from the sidelines rather than intervene and enforce the law.
“That is precisely what happened in Jaranwala, where the police were deployed late and, once they arrived, they didn’t try to stop the mob from destroying churches and homes,” he says. “Punjab police chief Usman Anwar says law enforcement did not interfere because it didn’t want to escalate the tension in case it led to loss of lives.”
Some are of the view that the Jaranwala incident wouldn’t have happened if the government had punished those involved in other such attacks. However, many argue that lack of law enforcement was just a small part of a much bigger problem.
“Mobs don’t appear all of a sudden,” says Badar Alam, a journalist and consultant. “There are deep-seated socio-economic reasons why Pakistan’s urban underclass is looking towards religion for the solutions to their deprivations and becoming active part of mobs attacking the minorities. Religiously motivated violence is as much a planning and economic issue as a matter of faith.”
The Munir-Kiyani report had also pointed out that “if [the politico-religious group believed to be the main instigators to the violence against the Ahmadis in 1953] Ahrar had been treated as a pure question of law and order, without any political considerations, one District Magistrate and one SP [police superintendent] could have dealt with them...”
Religiously motivated incitement against minorities has always existed in Pakistan. The change in socio-demographics, coupled with growing economic inequalities, however, is pulling the urban lower-middle class, especially the youth, towards the hardline worldview of religious extremists.
The Jaranwala crowd consisted mostly of teenagers or young men in their early 20s. “The people living in or migrating to the smaller towns and cities like Jaranwala or Gojra, where a mob had burned alive eight Christians and destroyed more than 60 homes back in 2009, do not have education or health facilities or employment opportunities,” says Alam.
“The social networks where they can interact with people from the other sects or non-Muslims, such as trade unions, have been dismantled or are disappearing fast,” he points out. “Rising economic disparities and disappearing opportunities for improving their lives have been pulling the majority of the urban underclass towards religion, especially its intolerant, sectarian worldview.
“Violence against minorities is one major reflection of the socio-economic deprivations being faced by a majority of the population in our society, forcing them to embrace religious solutions to their life problems,” Alam insists.
The writer is a member of staff.
He tweets @nasirjamall
Published in Dawn, EOS, August 27th, 2023