Last week millions of Pakistanis received a text message from their country’s telecom regulator asking them to report incidents of blasphemy. This was less than a month after we witnessed a public lynching and the spectacle of several crazed mobs around the country baying for human blood.
It has gotten off to a good start. Over 3000 complaints received in the first week alone. If all these are true it means there have been more instances of blasphemy in the last week than have been documented in 70 years of the country’s existence.And we can be sure this is only the beginning. On a purely operational level one wonders how these complaints will be processed. Will the FIA to whom these crimes are forwarded, investigate each instance separately? How much manpower will they need? Perhaps a centralised blasphemy database will have to be created or even a new federal authority to coordinate a national response?
The farcical nature of this exercise may have provided some humour if it weren’t so serious. Indeed the PTA has not let us down on this score in the past. One is almost nostalgic for the time when all it wanted to do was prevent amorous couples from talking breathily down the phone to each other on ‘midnight [cellular] packages’, or when it decided to filter racy words like ‘tongue’, ‘stupid’ ‘rape’‘joints’, ‘jugs’, ‘fairy’ and ‘camel toe’ from SMS messages. This is a fair bit more sobering.
In sending out this mass message, the Pakistan Telecommunication Authority has effectively put out a public tender for witch burnings.An act so grossly irresponsible, so callously deliberate it is tantamount to throwing a match into a fireworks factory.
A German proverb holds:“where they begin by burning books, they end by burning men”. What about places where they begin by burning men? Where does it end in these places?
PTA officials maintain that it is an awareness raising campaign and they have provided an email address where citizens can report blasphemy ‘instead of taking the law into their own hands’. It’s hard to imagine anyone with a modicum of sanity who thinks this message was intended to promote law and order. The last thing this country needs is a 200-million-strong blasphemy neighbourhood watch. Let us be clear, it is an invitation to lynch: one of a series of recently taken steps which will result in the institutionalisation of blood lust, encouraging thousands to set out gleefully on a macabre treasure hunt for blasphemers.
When the 18th century Lexicographer Dr Samuel Johnson had finished compiling the first English dictionary, he was paid visits by many admirers including a delegation of London’s respectable womenwho came to his parlour in Fleet street and said “Dr we congratulate you on your decision to exclude all indecent words from your dictionary” Johnson replied“Ladies I congratulate you on your persistence in looking them up”. In Pakistan we have decided that we are determined to be offended, even if we must seek it out. Blasphemy is a strange creature, a thing that predicts its self. Mere suspicion of its existence ensures that it exists. Those looking for it are certain to find it. And so on it will go.
One would be hard pressed to recall a more insincere, naked exploitation of religion by the state since General Ziaul Haq. The Sharif government which has otherwise scored surprisingly highly on the progressive agenda has committed a most damaging act- almost unwittingly it seems.The PM appears reluctant, but weakened on other fronts has been unable to resist the horses dragging his chariot in this direction. The chain goes back and the dots are not hard to connect, but in the end he bears the responsibility.
The most frightening thing about this storm of madness into which we are descending is that unlike storms, it is not certain to pass. We know all too well the near impossibility of putting this particular genie back in the bottle. Elapsed time has the effect of making it seem normal, and therefore harder to oppose.If ever Pandora had a suitcase, its just flown out of the chute and flipped open on the conveyer belt. Inviting the entire population to report blasphemy is like placing land mines across the country that could go off at anytime. If there is any chance of preventing this, it must be fought back now, not later.
The children of Zia are alive and well, resolved to claw back power from the shadows. Proliferation of fear is their biggest weapon, the PTA SMS is only the latest gambit- now brace for the Holy month with a freshly sharpened Ehtraam-e-Ramazan ordinance set to debut. The lynching games are just getting started. One thing is for certain; those that seek to use blasphemy as a ‘strategic asset’ have already lost control of it. They are leading us to a fire that will swallow us all. A German proverb holds:“where they begin by burning books, they end by burning men”. What about where they begin by burning men? Where do those places go?
Ziad Zafar is a Journalist and Documentary Filmmaker. He tweets @ziadzafar