Religious vigilantism in Pakistan: Equal vulnerability

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Abdullah Gul

The politics over religion is not a new phenomenon in Pakistan and vigilantism motivated by religion is a common practice. Over the last few years, several dozen people have been charged with blasphemy in Pakistan and there is an international hue and cry regarding cultural diversity under threat. What is being presented, is that Pakistan considers the minority sects as those worthy of nothing. Minorities Rights Group International, a watchdog organization, has ranked Pakistan on the top in the list of countries which are a threat to minorities since 2007.In the following some examples, we will try to find out if these accusations are true or merely a plot to defame Pakistan as a threat to minorities. Is the abuse of blasphemy law only threating the non-Muslims? Let’s find out in the following examples:

December 22nd, 2012. Dadu, Sindh. A man accused of blasphemy is taken out of lock-up by an angry mob, brutally beaten and burnt alive with kerosene oil. Reports suggest that the attack took place in the presence of police officers who had failed to stop the crowd. People stood watching him and made videos, while the man burnt to death. It is important to notice here that this man was a Muslim, and did not belong to any religious minority group.

August 5th, 2009. Mureedkay, Sheikhupura. A factory owner, NajibUllah is burnt alive by the labours. With two of his fellows along with his factory. He was accused of blasphemy when he takes an outdated calendaroff the wall,which had Qur’anic verses printed on it, and places it on the table. He is allegedly desecrating Qur’anic verses according to one of the labours. The labour saw it and went away shouting that NajibUllah had committed blasphemy, and went to the mosques to ask for making loudspeaker announcements about it. According to Human Rights Commission Pakistan: “Many people had gathered outside the factory after listening to the announcements made in the mosque. The police was present there but seeing such a violent mob, they looked the other way to save their own skin. The angry mob, then, was free to beat the owner to death.” It is reported that NajibUllah and his labourers were already having clashes, over some payment issues. This factory owner NajibUllah, was also a Muslim and did not belong to any minority group, either. It is believed to be a controversy of non-payment, where the owner was mobbed and killed by murderers in the name of blasphemy.

Amjad Farooq, a Muslim boy and Hafiz-e-Quran residing in the city of Gujranwala in Pakistan, is accused of burning the pages of the Holy Quran. Everywhere, people can hear announcements from the mosques of that area, asking them to stone Amjad to death. According to these announcements, Amjad has committed blasphemy.  An angry mob comes looking for the boy, they stone him to death, and the body of the Hafiz-e-Quran is brutally dragged on the streets. People stand there, looking. Nobody, not even the police, comes up to stop this madness.

In the stream of victims of this cruelty, the latest is the Christian couple Shehzad and Shama. Both of them worked in a brick-kiln in town 60 kilometres outside Lahore, named KotRadhaKishan. Shama was accused of burning the pages of the Holy Quran. The mosque loudspeakers were used once again to provoke the peopke to take action, and the angry mob burned both Shehzad and Shama in the same brick-kiln in which they worked.

Though the track record of Pakistan was never good with minorities, Hindu families from interior Sindh are migrating from Pakistan. We have witnessed many cases of force-conversion of non-Muslims into Muslims to marry them. The Sikh population is also not safe in KPK province. What we need to highlight at this point, is that what happened at KotRadhaKishan is not a minority Vs majority issue. As already quoted above, Pakistan has seen many such horrific attacks in the name of blasphemy. The Muslims are also facing it equally.

This issue is being given the colour of attack on minorities in Pakistan by the authorities and the media for the sake of hiding the incompetence of governance. An important point to be noticed here is that most of these incidents have their origins in the loudspeaker announcement at a mosque in vicinity of the area.These announcements provoked a violent mob, ready to take law in their hands.A common practice in all these incidents was, that one person, who might be the molvi, or moazan or any other “respected man of the locality” made the announcement, and declared that someone had committed blasphemy, without any proof. This is strictly against the Islamic teachings.My question is:Isthe person who makes the announcement on the loud speaker, certified to do so? Does he have any right to announce the murder of someone who didn’t even go through a single trial in the court? Is it justified for people to take the laws in their hands? And most importantly, does not Islam teach us to never accuse a soul without solid proof? Islam teaches us that the life of a human is worth more than the Holy Ka’ba!

History shows that blasphemy Laws have mostly been abused to settle disputes, many people have lost their lives as a result of a mere accusation. Reports tell that while the announcements were made in the mosques, the roads in the vicinity of Mureedkay were blocked, and the people faced a traffic jam. All mosques in the vicinity were making the same announcement: factory owner NajeebUllah has committed blasphemy and that he has to be executed. Here is a big question mark on the role of provincial and federal governments. Have we ever seen even one case where the people who took laws in their hands were punished? What are the legislative assemblies doing to handle such cases? Can they not give proper rules for the use of loud speakersand make sure they are implemented?

While the government has appropriate preparations and measures to disperse the crowd during any protest etc.like they have water cannons, rubber bullets, and other ways to control the mob, why can’t they make laws and use these tools to deal with people trying to take law in their hands in such blasphemy cases. When a person is being dragged out of a lock-up, and being burned to death, why can’t the police use these rubber bullets then? Who will make these laws and implement them? There is a big question mark on the role of police at this level. Sadly, their criminal silence shows that they approve of these mob violence incidents.

When Police Forces can kill 14 people in the Model Town incident, and they know how to control the situation during political protests, then what stopped them from taking action when Shama and Shahzadwere being brutally murdered by the crowd? What was the role of the security forces then?

What’s even sadder is that after every such incident, all we get from our high ups are “strongly condemning” statements. Or at most, the government would announce a setting up of a committee to fast-track the investigation into the murder, or order additional police protection to the families of the victims. But should that be it? Is the government’s duty fulfilled with these statements? Or will there ever be a proper law to deal with such cases? We have heard these statements in the past aswell, but the question is how many of the murderers were actually executed in the past? Which laws were made in this process?  Although these questions sound simple in their context, they are quite complex in the mysterious thread of society and the government.

Are laws only made to serve the purposes of the people in government and to provide them additional security and privileges? Even the Prime Minister of Pakistan condemned this act very strongly but we are yet to see what action is actually taken to bring the murderers to justice.The three little children of Shama and Shehzad can never get their parents back. But if the government takes solid steps to prevent these inhumane acts in future. Perhaps if they punish the responsible severely now, so then they will turn into a lesson for everyone.

It is the constitutional right of the people to be provided security and justice from the state. And unless the government fulfils this responsibility, many innocentNajibUllas, Amjads andShamas will lose their lives and present an anarchic image of Pakistan to the world. We need to prove to the world that we are not a banana republic based on alien laws which were dictated and left over by erstwhile colonialists. Those inciting violence and trying to take law in their hands need to be punished. It is not about Muslim or non-Muslim, it is clearly the failure of the government in providing justice to the people and ensuring human security. Most of the incidents cited above involve land and business disputes but the criminals use blasphemy laws to settle the score with other party. And thus such acts of individuals must not be reflected as a state policy. We should remember that Islam is perfect. Muslims are not. When Red Cross reports claim of Quran abuse and desecration by US personnel at Guantanamo bay. When incidents like of using the Qur’anic pages as tissue papers are reported. When the Pastor, Terry jones burns the Holy Quran. When the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten publishes cartoons mocking the Prophet Muhammad(P.B.U.H). The world does not consider United States as an extremist state for this blasphemy. We believe that those are individual acts of aggression and does not reflect the Western policy. Likewise, when such cases ofreligious vigilantism appear, they should only be taken as an act of aggression and violent behaviour by the individuals. Presenting the global image of Pakistan as a religiously intolerant state, or a state where the minority is not safe is not fair. The onus of responsibility lies with the state of Pakistan to take action to stop the abuse of blasphemy laws. There is a dire need for replacing the existing practices, and for redefining its policies and laws so that incidents, as tragic as these, are avoided in the future. And a better image of Pakistan is projected in the world.