The rape and murder of little seven-year-old Zainab has shaken Pakistan’s entire social fabric to its core. Typically, our media is full of controversies and dirty politics — yet this particular case saw the fourth estate united in the gravity of what had transpired. A mixture of anger at those responsible for this most atrocious crime and immense compassion for the innocent child cast a shadow over a usually buoyant social media. Indeed, in a matter of hours the narrative of a national tragedy was adopted when talking about what happened to Zainab. Yet society seemingly stood helpless when confronted with the knowledge that all social mores have been crossed. Naturally there have been rebuttals across the board. But this should be recognised for what it is: a red flag warning to the entire nation that more is needed than expressing mere sympathy, forming a JIT, delivering official statements and taking suo motto notices. What is required is nothing less than a reassessment of the very ‘philosophy’ that drives Pakistan. A good place to start might be with religion. For this is truly the opium of the people. Meaning that the nation remains in deep slumber only to temporarily awaken after every crime most unimaginable. Thus we have seen the state make tall claims when it comes to tackling the menace of extremism and other social ills. Back in 2014, after the APS massacre, in which more than 130 schoolchildren lost their lives, the country was firm in its shared resolve to protect both Pakistan’s geographical and ideological boundaries. Just one month before, a Christian couple had their legs broken before being thrown into a brick kiln where they were burned alive. Then in 2015, came what was at the time described as the biggest ever sex scandal to hit the country — involving more than 400 videos in which some 280 children were assaulted. The Punjab government did nothing, with many accusing it of orchestrating a cover-up. We urgently need legislation that would place the responsibility of teaching religion to children in the hands of the public school sector. Additionally, we desperately need a strong criminal justice system complete with a mechanism to award fixed compensation to both victims and their families Zainab is believed to be the 12th child raped and murdered in the area. Thus we have to ask for how long will these collective calls for justice last? After all, the nation managed to go back to sleep after each previous case. To note that a gaping divide exists between the ruling elite and the ordinary citizens would be a gross understatement. There is a perennial scepticism of sorts displayed among certain quarters of the country’s stakeholders, religious groups, the media, intellectuals, lobbyists and liberals in the face of such hard evidence. And this is what has prevented the formation of a national welfare agenda for the greater good. In such circumstances, therefore, lawmakers, religious bodies, the establishment and the media, too, must play their part in updating the administrative blueprint; and it must be one that is acceptable to all regardless of religion, gender, caste or creed. After all, the people of Pakistan have been waiting 70 years — how much longer until nation-building efforts are to get underway? If we are, indeed, to combat such prevailing social ills then we must be prepared to replace specific theocratic taboos with modern amendments. Meaning that our proclaimed pluralism needs to exist beyond paper; for only then will we create a space for tolerance and equality. Unfortunately, when a few individuals take up this cause they find themselves suddenly labelled anti-state actors. Thus they are effectively silenced. Yet if this is not considered a sufficiently serious threat they may find themselves facing blasphemy charges. And as long as this preferred style of governance succeeds — notions of equality before the law can never be guaranteed. Intolerance represents one of the greatest challenges of our times. Indeed, it is responsible for spreading hate, persecution and discrimination against certain quarters of society; thereby resulting in the genesis of a non-professed hierocracy. Within a social set-up, the family unit (as well as extended family) reigns paramount. And it is here where children are first introduced to concepts of good and evil. Religion, considered to play the role of social cohesion, becomes a central force in family life. With parents including learning the Holy Quran as part of early childhood, thereby inducting them into traditions of blind faith. But not only that, there have been many reports of molestation occurring at so-called religious centres. One way to combat such risks is to pass provincial as well as central legislation that would place the responsibility of teaching religion to children in the hands of the public school sector; where a fully-trained cleric would undertake the teaching of the Holy Quran. Admittedly, an ideal social structure always exists as an abstract given that crime is as old as history itself, the world over. Thus the way forward rests in a strong criminal justice system complete with a mechanism to award fixed compensation to both victims and their families. Linked to this, the way law enforcement works must, too, be overhauled. That is, the police and other agencies should have a certain degree of autonomy but be overseen by an independent body, similar to the western model. In addition, education is crucial to fostering a sense of social tolerance. Yet for the last 70 years all we have had are wobbly curricula that have failed resoundingly in producing a balanced nation where patriotic zeal has its place. Instead, it has given us hostility, belligerence and warmongering. Or put another way, it has resulted in a densely populated country that does not really have much love and for one another. When we come to know of heartbreaking tragedies we are emotionally shaken as we vow, ‘never again’. But this is, sadly, nothing but short-lived determination; which may be due to systematic barriers erected by the political leadership with particular vested interests in mind. Thus today’s Pakistan finds itself bound up in a thick sheet of theocracy. This has stifled society to the point whereby those who practice other religions do so at their own peril. Indeed, up until the funeral of little Zainab, both the country’s politicians and leaders of majority denominations issued not any political statements. Then suddenly, everything imploded. Her father, who is likely being manipulated by actors from all sides, political as well as religious, abruptly demanded that the Punjab government remove the head of its JIT. Abu Bakar Khuda Baksh all at once became an unacceptable choice given his Ahmadi faith; something that was possibly not known to many. Thus the message could not be clearer: an individual leading an inquiry is to have his professionalism questioned based on the entirely personal matter of faith. In all likelihood, this turn of events was orchestrated elsewhere and not by the grieving family of little Zainab. But here, in Pakistan, this is how things become all too easily twisted. An ultra-religious culture could not ensure the safety of girls and women. So, in order to deflect from this failure — the call to bigotry is raised. But unless and until the system itself is corrected and modernity is introduced, there can be no guaranteed of lasting positive change. And all the Zainabs will continue to be sacrificed here in this Land of the Pure. The writer can be reached at email@example.com Published in Daily Times, January 16th 2018.