Blasphemy, barbarism & the burnt brand Pakistan

The savagery in Sialkot where a crazed Islamist mob accused a Sri Lankan factory manager Priyantha Kumara Diyawadana of blasphemy, beat him to a pulp (every single bone in his body was broken) and then burnt his dead body while clicking selfies with his burning body and screaming Islamist slogans has sent shock waves around the world. But it shouldn’t have. Because what happened in Sialkot is something that has been has happened many times in the past in the Land of the Pure. The only novelty of the Sialkot incident is that this is the first time a foreigner has been lynched and murdered by a fanatical Islamist mob. And now that a precedent has been established, other foreigners who are working in Pakistan are open game.

Diyawadana’s Christian faith made his killing so much more palatable for the mob because Christians in Pakistan have been facing the brunt of the attacks in the name of blasphemy. The outrage in social media and the condemnation of the incident by people like Prime Minister Imran Khan, Army Chief Qamar Bajwa, and a host of other politicians and officials really do not mean much. They are at best insincere and at worst disingenuous. People like Imran Khan and General Bajwa have assiduously promoted this fanaticism for political ends. Worse, they have kowtowed to the ideology and the clerics/activists who have weaponized the Blasphemy Laws to become a potent force in Pakistan’s politics. Just a few weeks back the entire state machinery lay prostrate before the Tehrik-e-Labbaik marchers, giving in to all their demands and writing off the murder of nearly a dozen police officers as collateral damage. To expect action, much less justice, from such actors is asking for water in the desert.

What happened in Sialkot has happened innumerable times in the past. Not long back a bank guard gunned down the bank manager after accusing the latter of blaspheming. It turns out the manager had only pulled up the guard for being tardy. A young college professor has been imprisoned for over 8 years because some students accused him of blasphemy. His lawyer, a noted human rights activist, was shot dead because he was defending an alleged blasphemer. A Christian couple was beaten up and in front of their children were burnt alive in a brick kiln. Just a few days back, a police station in Charsadda was burnt by a fanatical mob because some mentally challenged man was accused of burning some pages of Quran. A young Christian girl with Down’s Syndrome was accused of blasphemy by a cleric. An unlettered Christian boy in his pre-teens was similarly accused of blasphemy because he was burning some trash in which there were some pages with Quranic verses. A bright student of Abdul Wali Khan University was accused of blasphemy by his political rivals who were also his classmates and fellow university students. A mob of students dragged Mashal Khan and beat him to death. No inquiry, no arrest, no trial, straight execution. There are countless incidents where blasphemy is alleged to settle scores with rivals. That the Blasphemy Laws in Pakistan is a bad law is not the problem. There are many laws that are bad and liable to be misused. But no one has the courage to reform or amend the law. Not that this would make any difference because more than the law the problem is with the society which has been indoctrinated, fanaticized and radicalized to a point where a mere accusation of blasphemy is a virtual death sentence. The moment someone is accused of blasphemy, a lynch mob is ready to mete out instant punishment – death. If by chance, an accused escaped being lynched, he/she will spend many years in prison because courts are afraid to give bail, lawyers terrified to defend the accused. In prison, every day the life of the accused is in danger from his fellow inmates, many of whom think that murdering the person will win them and their family not only rewards in the afterlife but also an exalted status in this life. Mumtaz Qadri, the assassin of former Punjab Governor Salman Taseer, is a prime example. Qadri has a shrine made in his honour while Taseer did not even get a decent burial because no cleric was ready to administer his funeral rites, and even his political colleagues were afraid to attend his funeral.

Diyawadana’s crime wasn’t that he committed any sacrilege; it was that he admonished some of the workers from not performing their duties and pulled up his attackers for sexual harassment of some women workers. That was enough to target him and the easiest thing was to whip up a mob by alleging blasphemy. The charge against Diyawadana was that he tore some posters of the extremist Tehrik-e-Labbaik-Imran Khan’s party’s Punjab President Ijaz Chaudhry paid obeisance before the TLP Chief Saad Rizvi after the latter was released from jail – in which the name of the Prophet was mentioned. On this basis, anyone who so much as throws a newspaper on the ground is liable to be accused of blasphemy because every newspaper invariably has Quranic verses on its mast head. This is how easy it is to target someone, anyone by levelling charges of blasphemy.

What happened to Diyawadana can easily happen to other expatriate workers. The most endangered are the Europeans and the Chinese. The latter are particularly vulnerable, in part because of the growing sentiment against the treatment meted out to Muslims in China, and in part because of the overbearing manner in which Chinese managers and engineers behave with Pakistanis working under them in CPEC projects. There are already reports of tensions between the mistreated Pakistani employees and the arrogant, haughty and intemperate Chinese. The Chinese managers don’t even need to insult the Prophet or the Quran; all that is needed is for one disaffected Pakistani worker to decide that he can become a hero of Islam by accusing his Chinese boss of blasphemy. The same could happen with an American, or a Frenchman, British, German or any other Westerner, including people working in the IMF. The thing is that Pakistani media and politicians have been inciting hatred against Westerners, especially the IMF in recent weeks. The French have been particularly targeted for the aggressive secularism in that country which has banned any outward symbol of religiosity, including the Burka.

The hand-wringing by top politicians and officials over the Sialkot savagery is hardly convincing. For some years now, the hybrid regime of Army Chief Qamar Bajwa and Prime Minister Imran Khan has embarked on a project to mainstream the fanatics. But by normalizing and legitimizing the fanatics, what has happened is that the mainstream has been fanaticized and radicalized. The rise of the TLP which has been assisted and facilitated by the Pakistani state, has contributed significantly to making the weaponization of like blasphemy and finality of Prophethood a new normal. The bluster of people in government and the military doesn’t hide the fact that they have been watering the plant of Islamic radicalism and extremism. The new curriculum introduced in schools has undue focus on Islamizing the Muslims by drilling in all kinds of Islamism into the heads of young kids. Imran Khan himself has been a flag bearer of Islamism and giving moral lectures from every available stage. For his tottering regime, Islam is the last refuge.

Quite clearly, the heavy dose of Islamism injected into the society has now infected the society. Don’t go by what the fringe English-speaking folk are saying on social media. Go by what is being said by the masses tweeting in Urdu. Go also by the equivocalness in condemnation – “yes, it was a terrible thing to happen, but…..”. This ‘but’ is nothing but the advocacy, apologism, explanation, justification of the barbaric killing of Diyawadana. It is a thinly disguised attempt to downplay the enormity of the incident. What is more, it is a cue to divert and deflect attention from the crime committed in the name of religion and shift the blame to some bizarre conspiracy theory. After the brutal and barbaric killing of Diyawadana, the repercussions are going to be not merely political and societal, but also diplomatic and economic.

Any prospective investor is going to be chary of betting on Pakistan. Imran Khan’s pipe dream of promoting Pakistan as a tourist destination has gone up in the flames that consumed Diyawadana’s lifeless, broken and brutalised body. Diplomatically, Pakistan’s already terrible image has been further tarnished. The international community is well aware of how Imran Khan has been riding on the back of fanatics to come into power, how he has been pandering to them, how the extremists have given immunity from any action by the state. It is clear that Pakistan is incapable of reforming and stepping back from the Islamist path it embarked right from its creation. For nearly three quarters of a century, the world gave Pakistan a free pass and looked the other way. No more. The world needs to use all the economic, political and diplomatic leverages to make Pakistan step back from the brink. This will not be possible without holding out the threat of punitive action until Pakistan brings the culprits to book and starts to walk back on the issue of blasphemy.