The blasphemy conundrum

The blasphemy conundrum

The ideological fervour in Pakistan has reached its apex once again, resulting in yet another sad episode of mob lynching of Mashal Khan, a student of Abdul Wali Khan University in the city of Mardan.

Approximately six years ago, Punjab lost its governor on the allegations of blasphemy and for his outspoken take on the misuse of a law that has resulted in a frequent miscarriage of justice. Nonetheless, in what can be described as a sorry spectacle, the late Salman Taseer is still maligned more often by a significant fraction of Pakistanis despite his brutal assassination at the hands of his bodyguard, Mumtaz Qadri. The Mardan episode is no different; in fact what makes it seem worse is that it was merely on the basis of rumours that the student lost his life.

A sneak peek into history offers us some help in understanding this phenomenon. In what has been remarked by someone as a watershed moment in the history of the nation, and a paradigm shift by the deep state on the issue of religious extremism, Qadri was hanged on the order of the Supreme Court of Pakistan in 2016 after the due process. Despite the rule of law being upheld, most Barelvi Muslims felt irate at the present government for the murder of a person whom they viewed as their hero since the honour of the Prophet Mohammed is second to none.

However, a massive attendance at Qadri’s funeral was observed, comprising notably of members of religious parties apart from the Barelvi sect, which was upheld as an antidote to the Wahhabi-Deobandi shade of the tradition. This episode, however, was enough to put the thesis of folklore Barelvi-ism being a soft version and, thus, an alternative to the puritanical Islam. In the famous episode where the late Junaid Jamshed, the popstar-turned-proselytizer, was blamed for having uttered blasphemous remarks about the Prophet Mohammed’s wife, Ayesha, Jamshed was physically harassed at the Islamabad airport, by some people belonging to the Barelvi sect, even though he had sincerely pleaded to the community at large for what he said was a grave error.

Coming back to the present, we have witnessed a new wave of quashing dissent by using the blasphemy narrative as a potent tool by the state itself, which has been perpetuated tirelessly in the media by paragons of controversy such as Amir Liaquat Hussain and Orya Maqbool Jan, the former being accused of inciting violence against Pakistan’s hapless Ahmadi minority a few years back. Even though it is ostensibly a complex web to disentangle, two other characters come to mind: the interior Minister, Mr. Nisar Khan, and the Islamabad High Court Justice Shaukat Siddiqui.  Both self-righteous men have taken it on themselves to protect the honour of the religious figures of Islam, no matter what dire steps may be required. In another episode, secular and liberal bloggers went missing in January this year, but were returned virtually unharmed, though tortured both physically and psychologically. A swarm of right-wing trolls unleashed a massive campaign on social media outlets charging them with “blasphemy”. Thankfully, no such evidence was found; not even a shred of it to be precise, yet it is an echo of the conundrum the nation faces in its hopefully-firm (verbal) resolve in battling such narratives.

Dissent is a part and parcel of any normative, democratic state, but the Pakistani civil and military elite has frequently resorted to clichéd narratives such as blasphemy as a garb to mask their own incompetence, and legitimate criticisms of faulty and failed policies. A continued focal point of sceptics, to this day, remains the issue of radical jihadism and the support it enjoys by various power circles. In an almost paranoid fashion, successive governments have utilized both the media and educational systems, to foster a mindset where any sort of healthy debate is stifled by sketching the critic as having questionable religious beliefs, national identity, or both.

The cycle is virtually endless: any sort of contrarian views on politics, social or religious interpretation, can land anyone in trouble, on the mere accusation of “blasphemy”. Mashal was caught off-guard in this new-found zeal to tackle apostasy, as a service to the faith, triggered by Mr. Khan and Mr. Siddiqui, and propagated shamelessly by the media. The simmering mania eventually boiled over, stamping all bounds of decency and humanity, culminating in a spectacle witnessed by millions on April 13.

The writer is pursuing a doctorate in suspension mechanics at Cornell University.