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Irfan Engineer

A mob vandalised and burnt 8 churches and several homes in Pakistan following accusations of blasphemy on 16th August in Faisalabad district’s Jaranwala tehsil in Punjab province. Two Christian men have been charged by the local police under the blasphemy laws for desecrating the holy Quran and abusing Prophet Mohammed. One Christian’s home was vandalised and burnt down following accusation of blasphemy against Islam by him, besides other homes in a Christian colony. Churches vandalised include the Catholic Church, the Salvation Army Church and the Pentecostal Church, United Presbyterain Church, Allied Foundation Church, and Shehroonwala Church. The Moderator Bishop of the Church of Pakistan alleged that the Bible was desecrated and Christians were tortured during the attack. Pakistan’s care taker Prime Minister Anwaar ul-Haq Kakar condemned the vandalism and warned of stern action against those who violate law and target the Christian minority. The National Commission for Human Rights, a government body in Pakistan described the violence as “sad and shameful”. The heinous act on the part of Muslim religious extremist vandalising the churches and homes of poor, marginalised, helpless and innocent Christians must be condemned in strongest words by all right thinking and law-abiding persons.

Not just Christians, but many Muslims also have been accused of blasphemy and lynched to death. Governor of Punjab – Salman Taseer was killed by his body guard after he called for release of Asiya Bibi, a Christian farm worker who was acquitted of the charges of blasphemy by the Supreme Court of Pakistan and spared from the noose. There was a global campaign for release of Asiya Bibi, who refused to drink water offered by two Muslim women. Days later she was accused of blasphemy. Mashail Khan, a student, was lynched to death for being an atheist. 74 people have been killed by mobs since the year 1990. From 1967 to 2014, over 1,300 people have been accused of blasphemy, with Muslims constituting most of those accused.

Vide 1980 amendment to the Pakistani Penal Code, section 298-A was introduced, which made it a punishable offence to defile “by words, either spoken or written, or by visible representation, or by any imputation, innuendo, or insinuation, directly or indirectly”, the sacred name of any wife of the Holy Prophet (Peace Be Upon Him), or his companions or the rightly guided Caliphs. The 1984 amendment targeted the Ahmadi community and criminalised the acts of them referring to any other person except Prophet Muhammad and his companions as Ameer-ul-Mumineen or Khilafat-ul-Mumineen or any other person other than a wife of  Prophet Muhammad as Ummul-Mumineen, and any person other than family members of Prophet Muhammad as Ahle-bait. In other words, no other person can be revered and accorded same degree of sacredness and status as Prophet Muhammad and his family members by the Ahmadi community. This provision directly obstructed the freedom of the Ahmadi community to believe that the founder of their community Mirza Ghulam Ahmad (1835-1908) is the Mahdi (Guided One) and the Messiah expected by Muslims to come at the end of times and bring about the final triumph of Islam.

The blasphemy law was made even more stringent in 1986 by introducing Section 295-C which makes defiling the sacred name of the Holy Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) punishable by death. Death is a minimum and the only punishment and the trial should be conducted only by a Muslim Judge. The definition of defiling was not provided for such a severe punishment and the act of defiling was made very inclusive, “by words, either spoken or written, or by visible representation, or by any imputation, innuendo, or insinuation, directly or indirectly”. More the law was made stringent, more accusations were followed. At least 1,855 people have been charged under Pakistan’s blasphemy laws between 1987 and February 2021. Though there have been no judicial executions under the blasphemy provisions of the Pakistani Penal Code, stringent provisions encourage the religious extremists to carry out extra-judicial executions through street vigilante acts and lynchings, with the vigilantes acting as the judge, jury, and prosecutor. From 1947 to 2021, the vigilantes have killed 89 people, including the Governor of Punjab Province – Salman Taseer, the Minister of Minorities – Shahbaz Bhatti, a High Court judge – Arif Iqbal Bhatti – in his chambers.

The blasphemy laws have enabled the rise of right-wing Islamist parties which compete with each other to defend the stringent provisions and they grow in strength with every frivolous accusation of blasphemy, particularly targeting the Christians, Ahmadis and other minorities, that are often levelled out of personal vendetta. To revive fear of God, affection to the Islamic Prophet Mohammed and service to people with particular emphasis on government officials and cabinet members was one of the 15 points in the manifesto of the Muttahida Majili-e-Amal party. The Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP), a far-right organisation, calls for blasphemers to be beheaded. The rise of TLP has seen an increase in filing of blasphemy cases.

Religion in South Asia has served as a far stronger mobilizational tool in the long run rather than any other cultural unifying factor like ethnicity, language, civic nationalism, or race. During anti-colonial struggle, the idea of freedom and the need to unify people of diverse religions, linguistic groups, and castes, the idea of inclusive civic nationalism and the promise of rights to the marginalised sections of the society had a greater appeal drawing all peoples into the freedom movement. Mohammed Ali Jinnah succeeded in instilling fear among the Muslim minority of getting overwhelmed by the Hindu majority and that Muslims would be forced to live a subjugated life. Jinnah succeeded in using religion as a unifier. Language proved to be a unifying factor for the Bengali speaking in the then East Pakistan as they were discriminated. Tamil language served as a rallying force in Sri Lanka against the Sinhala hegemony in the North Eastern region of the country. Language unified the Tamil people to resist the hegemony of Hindi speaking North in India. With these exceptions, the idea of religion based ethno-nationalism has proved to be a more potent tool. Religion based ethno-nationalism is on the rise in India, and indeed in South Asia. Religion is deeply rooted in the psyche of South Asians and religious establishments are a powerful influence in politics.

Religion is salient in everyday life bringing people together; for some followers, it explains the purpose of life and other existential queries; it is a source of social norms of behaviour, responsibilities, duties and entitlements; it is one of the sources of laws; festivals bring people together for enjoyment and celebrations; parables, epics, narration of stories and shared memories convey the social behavioural norms and ideals of life; it standardizes life cycle rituals from birth to death; it inspires some to render selfless service to the needy; and finally it instils fear of God for deviant behaviour, and expectation of rewards for good behaviour. Religion to some helps overcome alienation by enlarging the notion of self as a social self and defines relations between self and others – often hierarchical relations. The most important reason for salience of religion in everyday life is that an army of religious preachers have a platform to preach, be in regular touch with large number of followers and interpret the text, converse with them in a language they understand using metaphors that make sense to the people and convince them that their way of life, culture and beliefs are natural and best. The army of religious preachers standardise the way of life, furnishing some stability and certainty. Existential anxieties and fear of God is a weapon in the hands of the preachers to standardise behaviour of those belonging to the community.

The community must also stand up for those who are in unfortunate circumstances like natural disasters, manmade disasters or economic conditions, despite their conformity with the believers. The army of gatekeepers of religion make followers of the religion comfortable with their status-quo and their “here and now” existence. Aura of sacredness is essential part of religion to legitimise beliefs. Attack on sacred threatens the whole social existence and can inspire some to sacrifice their life, liberty and property in order to restore the sacred or deter further attacks on the sacred, and to ensure the normal continuity in life. The deeper the notion of sacred, stronger the sacrifice one can make and more violent the community can become. Laws that seek to “protect” the sacred give legitimacy and a stamp of the ultimate, final and universal truth to the beliefs, beyond any critical examination. It raises the expectation of believers that even non-believers and believers of other religions must accept the sacred nature of their beliefs. Finally, it legitimises violence on those who do not accept the “universal” idea of sacred. The blasphemy laws become a tool in the hands of the army of preachers and the self-appointed gatekeepers of the religion to establish their hegemony socially and culturally. The blasphemy laws seeking to protect a particular belief ends up privileging one sect or denomination’s beliefs over the others.

Materialism, acquisition of knowledge from multiple secular sources, and pursuit of selfish interests loosens the community bonds and the will to sacrifice for the notion of sacred reduces. In other words, materialism, selfish interests and knowledge from multiple sources increases the levels of tolerance. Materialism in the South Asian societies hasn’t developed as in the global north.

Protection of beliefs does not necessarily protect religion. It may even cause disservice to the religion sought to be protected. Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism, Sikhism, and indeed all religions have evolved to serve the people and meet the challenges of the time. There is humongous diversity of faith and practices within each religion, leading to many denominations, sects and sub-sects. This diversity emerged as the societies developed technologically, gained new knowledge and new ideas emerged. Some religious establishments adopted and accommodated to the changes, while others resisted. For example, when the telescope of Galileo proved that the earth is moving round the sun rather than the other way round, the beliefs and dogmas preached by the church had to be reconsidered. If the beliefs and dogmas were protected, there would be no further development of knowledge. It would have been impossible to stop research and development of knowledge in order to protect beliefs and dogmas. Doors of other religions would open up that did not impede research and knowledge, leading to migration of the believers. When developments in medical science made organ transplantation possible, religious beliefs were confronted with a now problem – were such procedures in consonance with religious beliefs. If religious beliefs opposed abortions, women needing abortions would migrate out or force a reconsideration of such beliefs. At times religion is protected when beliefs that are not in consonance with the times are revised and reconsidered. Religious beliefs have to march along with the new developments in knowledge. Blasphemy laws therefore may not be in the interest of religion. Law should not protect beliefs or religion, it should rather protect the right of every person to believe. The former privileges the religious establishment, while the later protects an individual’s right to believe, and therefore strikes a balance between protecting beliefs and evolution of religious ideas, theology and knowledge.

A committed believer does not and must not get disturbed when religious beliefs are attacked or what they hold sacred is violated. They would rely on God to take care of such behaviour. When a Jewish woman threw dirt at Prophet Mohammed, neither the Holy Prophet nor his companions or believers wanted her to be punished. On the contrary, when one day she did not throw dirt at the Holy Prophet, he inquired about her and found that she was sick. He prayed for her good health. Similarly, Jesus prayed for forgiving those who crucified him saying they did not know what they were doing. Gandhiji said that he would not kill anyone to save a cow which was sacred for him. He said that he would rather sacrifice his own life to save a cow. Respect for what is sacred to one’s religion by the followers of other religions should come from within and from appreciation of what it means and signifies rather than out of fear of law. Response to attack on what one holds sacred should be dialogue, and explaining the meaning of what it stands for. Ideas should be fought with ideas and not violence – either by the non-state actors, or even the state. However, any instigation and incitement of violence should be punished in accordance with the law.

Violence by the non-state actors who act on their “hurt sentiments” when what they hold sacred is being attacked, do not defend the religion. They defend their hegemony over the weaker and marginalised sections. They enjoy their power and control over the helpless people. They do not want to instil fear of God, but want the already weaker people to fear them.

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