Sunday, April 30, 2017

Pakistan: 'Blasphemy' is a smokescreen to crush dissent

Ab roshni hoti hai ke ghar jalta hai dekhain
Shola sa tawaaf-e-dar-o-deewaar karay hai
    — Mir Taqi Mir
[Will it lead to light or the house burning down, we'll have to see
A spark of sorts is circling the walls of our home]
In Gabriel Garcia Marquez's novel 'Chronicle of a Death Foretold, an anonymous narrator tells us about events leading up to the murder of Santiago Nasar, a man killed by two brothers who accused him of having relations with their sister. The narrator records how everyone in the village knew the murder would happen but did nothing to stop it. Marquez's masterpiece explores the morality of the village's collective responsibility for the murder. Today, Pakistan seems eerily like that fictitious village in South America. We all watch as the march of death continues, unable or unwilling to stop it.

Despite this, Mashal Khan's murder has resulted in something unusual around the discourse on blasphemy law in Pakistan: universal condemnation. This has allowed us to begin a conversation on misuse of the law. Incorrigible optimists can be forgiven for thinking that this will last. Alas, new horrors will inevitably replace old ones and the amnesia train will rumble on.

The mere whiff of a blasphemy accusation has been a political kryptonite in Pakistan but it is transforming into something much more sinister. Its lure has proved irresistible for those seeking to harness its fearsome power for political ends. It's apparent that certain enclaves within the officialdom have realised that it is far too useful a tactic and can't be left as a preserve of the garden-variety of religious fanatics. The officialdom has, thus, discovered its new use as a tool of crushing dissent - without needing trials or granting a right of defence and appeal. For years, we lamented how the state was not able to curb the menace of blasphemy. Now it has weaponised it.

These days, fatwas don't just come from pulpits in rural dust towns but are also delivered from the sleek sets of prime-time television talk shows; high benches of the superior judiciary; parliamentary standing committees; mouths of pugnacious 'security analysts'; and joint investigation cells of federal agencies. Amid this building chorus of bloodlust and endless waves of innuendo, accusation, and dog-whistles, an air of inevitability had already been present ahead of the tragedy in Mardan. It was only a matter of time till some other 'authority' - the administration of a university - decided that it too needed its own smokescreen to quash dissent.

Our esteemed interior minister has led the charge more valiantly than others. He has found it incumbent upon himself to hunt down blasphemers and protect the honour of Islam. He has spoken eloquently on the subject multiple times, informing us of his 'personal interest' in the matter and telling us that he will not hesitate to "shut down all social media in the country if the scourge continues". However, it is quite astonishing that this flirtation with extremism does not appear to have been checked in the slightest by a wholly unprecedented and damning indictment of the minister in the Quetta commission report only a few months ago. The amnesia express is certainly a bullet train in Pakistan.

To date, the FIA has at least half a dozen unknown bloggers in its custody on charges of blasphemy. The revolving door of arrests of activists, academics and intellectuals, continues with impunity. The arbitrary arrest of well-known Karachi-based academic and activist, Dr Riaz Ahmed, is the most recent case in point.

There are those who argue that mainstreaming hysteria around blasphemy will have disastrous consequences for the country in the long run. But far from employing tact in light of a delicate situation, Pakistan's federal government has upped the ante by taking the 'battle' global. A convention of Muslim envoys has already been held to ensure that the glory of Islam is not besmirched by anonymous Facebook posts. Chairing the convention, the interior minister said that a formal reference would also be sent to the secretary general of the Arab League and the chairman of the Organisation of Islamic Countries (OIC).

But surely the minister is not an unreasonable or an unintelligent man. He realises that inciting passions on the issue of blasphemy through an office of public trust is akin to playing with fire in a country where young couples are thrown into brick ovens and mutilated bodies dragged through streets.

Interestingly, Chaudhry Nisar's crusade against hate material on internet did not move him enough to act on a glaring recent example of hate speech directed against his own leader. The campaign was so successful that it culminated in a retired Air Force officer raising blasphemy allegations against the PM for attending a holi event. Does the honourable minister not see where is this situation headed? Surely, we have learned some lessons about creating Frankensteins, Mr Minister? In the end, the falcon does not hear the falconer.

I couldn't dare watch the video of the Mardan incident for more than a few seconds, thinking that nothing could be more painful than the sight of a mob lynching an innocent young man. However, I felt a lot more pain on seeing Mashal's parents' plight. I don't think I'll ever forget his dormitory either - an altar of death strewn with emblems of this young man's idealism and sense of wonder. The portrait of his idol Che Guevara must have looked on helplessly as Mashal was dragged from this room. This was the same Che Guevara who had famously said, "If you tremble with indignation at every injustice, you are a comrade of mine". I wonder how many tremble with me on this injustice.

No comments: