Living in fear

Published August 29, 2023
The writer is a lawyer.
The writer is a lawyer.

AMONG the many existential crises Pakistan faces, the plight of its minorities and the downtrodden seems to be the least of the state’s worries. In all the perceived concern for Pakistan’s economic plight and the fundamentals of its Constitution, the people of Pakistan — that is, its constituents — have been left at the mercy of mobs, religious fanatics and feudal lords.

A nation which has continued to vociferously protest against the desecration of the Holy Quran now finds itself condemning the desecration of churches and the homes of its minority Christian community by its own brethren.

Unfortunately, Pakistan’s minorities have had to live their lives in fear — the fear of being subjected to abuse, fear of being killed at the whim of the local cleric, and fear of being accused of religious hate crimes — because their existence is seen as hampering the economic rights of some in the mob.

To put things in context, a mob of ‘religious fanatics’ recently burned the homes and places of worship of the Christian community in and around Faisalabad on the mere allegation of blasphemy. A mere allegation was enough to condemn thousands of people belonging to a particular religion to violence. It forced them to spend the night in the fields, praying for their lives. Pakistan has one of the most stringent blasphemy laws even among fellow Muslim countries. It also has among the highest, if not the highest, number of blasphemy cases reported anywhere in the world, despite the overwhelming majority of its population calling itself Muslim.

The state is at a loss when it comes to exercising its writ.

Unfortunately, for some religious bigots in the country, being accused of blasphemy is the same as being convicted of it. This has meant that tens of people have been brutally murdered on charges of blasphemy even before they had a chance to defend themselves. This has given rise to a sense of fear amongst not just members of the minority community, but also free thinkers and individuals who otherwise wish to be vocal against the misuse of religion. Islam is a religion of peace which codifies every aspect of human life and presents before us the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) as the embodiment of kindness, serenity, respect and love. Yet, its weaponisation by politico-/socio-religious leaders for their own petty political, social or monetary gains has meant that entire generations have been led to believe that they are the ‘true protectors of faith’, when in reality they are individuals with a flawed sense in their practice of religion.

If there are any words of comfort — although even these would be ironic — for Pakistan’s minorities, it is that they are not the only ones bearing the brunt of unbridled lawlessness. Many among the Muslim community have also had to, and continue to, live in constant fear of the violation of their person, life and livelihood. The pages of newspapers are filled with incidents of rape, torture and the general degradation of human values being committed with impunity by feudal lords and the privileged classes.

The recent alleged rape and torture of Fatima, a 10-year-old girl in Sindh, or the alleged inhumane treatment of Rizwana, an adolescent in Punjab, are all examples of the diminishing fear of one’s actions.

All these incidents constitute crimes punishable with lengthy sentences if not death, and yet they continue to be committed one after the other, without fear of accountability. The reason is simple: the diminishing writ of the state.

The writ of the state or the fear of accountability by the state of one’s actions lies at the heart of a successful country. It is as important for the functioning and existence of a country as a country’s territorial integrity. Yet, the state here appears to be at a loss when it comes to enforcing such writ on the religious, political and economic elite.

It is not that there is insufficient legislation or that the Penal Code lacks effective measures to protect the fundamental right to life, and the freedom to practise and propagate religion; instead, the ruling elite lacks the will to ensure these rights, or fears antagonising powerful groups that could lead to retribution or losing their voter base.

This is where the other limbs of the state should come into the picture. The august Supreme Court and other state institutions that are perceived to hold sway and authority in the running of this country must realise that radicalisation, religious intolerance and the unmitigated abuse of power harm the very fabric of society and need to be dealt with as much firmness as the vehemence with which state property is damaged or desecrated. For what is Pakistan if not a collective of its people, a bouquet of flowers made up of the followers of different religions, and diverse ethnicities and circumstances all coming together to emit the fragrance of unity, togetherness and love?

The writer is a lawyer.

Twitter: @sheheryarzaidi

Published in Dawn, August 29th, 2023

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