Home Lightbox Blasphemy: The State’s Dance of Death

Blasphemy: The State’s Dance of Death

by Khaled Ahmed

Screengrab from one of the videos of the lynching posted on social media

Pakistan will continue to experience crimes such as the mob lynching in Sialkot without extensive discussions on the country’s controversial blasphemy laws

On Friday, Dec. 3, furious workers at a factory in Sialkot tortured to death Priyantha Kumara Diyawadana—the facility’s 48-year-old Sri Lankan general manager for 11 years—after accusing him of the blasphemy of “insulting Islam’s Prophet.” The employees of Rajco Industries, making high-quality sports equipment for the national cricket team, initially staged a protest alleging that Kumara had committed blasphemy.

His “blasphemous act” was removing off the factory wall a poster carrying an anti-blasphemy message often transmitted by the Tehreek-e-Labaik Pakistan (TLP) that believes in inflicting savage punishment on accused in the name of Islamic piety. While the TLP has distanced itself from the lynching in Sialkot, its mobs have been accused of killing innocent victims in the past to bring their traditionally tame Barelvi sect into the limelight.

The brutal crime in Sialkot was not a singular incident but rather “typical” for Pakistan. Earlier in the year, on April 10, police in Faisalabad registered a case against two nurses of the District Headquarters Hospital on the charge of committing blasphemy. Scores of the hospital’s employees had staged a protest demonstration alleging that they had committed blasphemy by removing a sticker with sacred inscriptions inside a cupboard. Some of the unruly agitators attacked the police van parked inside the hospital to grab one of the nurses; the police had locked her inside the van to keep her safe from the rioters.

P.M.’s important reaction

The condemnation of the evil deed in Sialkot was universal in Pakistan except for a rather dim defense minister, Pervez Khattak, who almost justified the lynching. Speaking after manager Kumara’s killers had proudly admitted their crime in front of TV cameras and posted selfies with his mutilated body online, he described them “as boys entering adulthood who were ready to do anything” and “would learn with age how to control their emotions.” Daily Dawn issued a repartee in its editorial: “Such a statement from a federal minister should come as a shock, but unfortunately, we are accustomed to our public officials being in denial about the realities of extremism and violence in the country.”

The list of crimes committed under the blasphemy laws in the state of Pakistan goes back to its origins but became a nationwide concern in 2010 when illiterate, dirt-poor Christian Aasia Bibi was condemned to death for saying something she knew nothing about. It was enough that she was a Christian and the accuser was a man of god, a mullah. The Pope in Rome appealed for mercy on her behalf, only to get an unworthy repartee from Pakistan’s bearded firebrands. Then-president Asif Ali Zardai couldn’t pardon her because he couldn’t challenge the clout of the clergy; he had just signed on the appointment of a harsh cleric to the Council of Islamic Ideology (CII), while a moderate CII former member, Javed Ghamidi, was on the run from Islamic terrorists after criticizing the bad law that handed down death for blasphemy without the normal criteria of justice, such as intent and level of consciousness.

Almost united?

This time around the state did not celebrate the killing of an “insulter” by the mob. Prime Minister Imran Khan went public with his condemnation of the act followed by heads of all the political parties, who called for punishment to the savage mob that had carried out the murder. The prime minister also rang his Sri Lankan counterpart to express his deep regret on behalf of Pakistan, pledging justice to the murdered Sri Lankan citizen. In a press conference, Sri Lankan High Commissioner Vice Admiral Mohan Wijewickrama saw Pakistani scholars, the “ulema,” unequivocally condemn the heinous act. Speaking on the occasion, respected cleric Mufti Taqi Usmani expressed his community’s “heartfelt sorrow over the barbaric incident.”

The almost universal condemnation of the act of killing Priyantha proved effective. Sri Lanka officially appreciated the gesture, with the Sri Lankan High Commissioner saying that Sri Lanka and Pakistan were “close friends” and that the act “would not create any differences between the two countries.” Prime Minister Khan, who called the murder “a day of shame for Pakistan,” took note of one factory manager—who had tried to save Kumara and gotten beaten up in the process—and awarded him the Medal of Bravery. He pledged to compensate the family of Kumara and punish the Sialkot mob that had carried out the killing.

Target: Christians?

It developed that Priyantha was a Christian. There is a pattern of violence against Christians in Pakistan that cannot be ignored. The Christians of Pakistan are the largest religious minority in the country, numbering around 3 million. More than 90 percent of them reside in Punjab, making them the largest religious minority in the province; and 60 percent of them live in its villages, in most cases more indigenous to their areas than the Muslims.

Sadly, laws against blasphemy and desecration of the Quran are often used against them, followed by organized dispossession and destruction of property. In 1997, the twin villages of Shantinagar-Tibba Colony, 12 kilometers east of Khanewal, were looted and burnt by 20,000 Muslim citizens and 500 policemen acting together after an incident of desecration of the Quran was reported. The police first evacuated the Christian population of 15,000, then helped the raiders use battlefield explosives to blow up their houses and property. Sipah-e-Sahaba, later declared a terrorist organization, was blamed by the Christians for that holocaust.

In 2005, the Christian community of Sangla Hill in Nankana district in Punjab experienced a most hair-raising day of violence and vandalism. After allegations of desecration of the Quran, a mob of 3,000 led by the local elected politician and police burnt down three churches, a missionary-run school, two hostels and several houses belonging to the Christian community. Lahore’s archbishop stated that the attackers had been brought there by buses from outside the town.

Taking a stand at last?

In 2011, two members of the ruling PPP had taken a courageous stand at the victimization of Aasia Bibi and the death sentence handed down to her by a sessions judge: then-Punjab governor Salmaan Taseer and MNA Sherry Rehman. Taseer was killed by his own bearded police guard after the clergy joined hands across their sectarian squabbles and issued fatwas of death against him. Rehman, who had proposed a bill in Parliament against blasphemy victimization, was targeted next, after which she was forced to arrange for her security.

Seeing how successful their post-Aaia Bibi campaign was, the clergy closed their ranks demanding that the bill tabled by Rehman be taken back. They also demanded that the government undo a committee formed to discuss the draft of the proposed legislation. Because of the backing of the powerful Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), the clergy then started their nationwide show of strength and increased the temperature of reaction through their patently false argument in favor of retaining the blasphemy law as it was.

General Zia, the punisher

In 1982, Islamist Gen. Ziaul Haq had inserted Section 295-B in the Penal Code of Pakistan, under which “defiling the Holy Quran” became punishable by life imprisonment. In 1986, the dreaded Section 295-C was added, mandating capital punishment for “use of derogatory remarks in respect of the Holy Prophet [PBUH].” After that Aasia Bibi was one of the many Christians targeted by the state. In 2021, Law Minister Farogh Nasim says no one can change the blasphemy laws. Section 295-C of the Penal Code hands down the minimum sentence of death, precluding bail.

The killings are carried out in a kind of self-cleaning ritual of the nation through non-Muslim victims. In 2014, a brick-kiln became the stage for the vigilante killing of Christians Shama and Shahzad Masih. They were burnt alive to elevate the ideology of Pakistan to new heights, their four children left to fend for themselves. Pious mobs came to see the couple being burnt alive to be elevated in their faith. An Anti-Terrorism Court awarded five individuals the death penalty two years later. In May 2019, the Lahore High Court upheld the convictions of three and acquitted two.

The Court tries but…

The Supreme Court of Pakistan delivered a historic “observation” on Oct. 27, 2015 when it decided that asking for “improvements” in the country’s blasphemy law was not objectionable. It thus took a court verdict to enable a citizen to criticize what is the most draconian law in Pakistan, trapping innocent citizens. The court was not breaking new ground however and actually stated: “Any call for reforming the blasphemy law (Section 295-C Pakistan Penal Code) ought not to be mistaken as a call for doing away with that law; and it ought to be understood as a call for introducing adequate safeguards against malicious application or use of that law by motivated persons.”

The court was hearing the case of a policeman who couldn’t be hanged despite a conviction because he had killed a man after blaming him of blasphemy in 2011: Punjab governor Salmaan Taseer. There was the street power of conservative lawyers and religious sects favoring him. In the background, there were more powerful elements with outreach that protected them and scared normal citizens, including the judges: the terrorist organizations that Pakistan first gestated and now feared. Taseer’s killer was finally hanged only to have his grave become the mausoleum of a saint.

In February 2011, in the wake of Taseer’s murder, the late Stephen Cohen, author of a number of books on Pakistan, had this to say: “These are symptoms of a deeper problem in Pakistan. There is not going to be any good news from Pakistan for some time, if ever, because the fundamentals of the state are either failing or questionable. This applies to both the idea of Pakistan, the ideology of the state, the purpose of the state, and also to the coherence of the state itself. Pakistan has lost a lot of its stateness, that is, the qualities that make a modern government function effectively. So there’s failure in Pakistan on all counts. I wouldn’t predict a comprehensive failure soon but clearly that’s the direction in which Pakistan is moving.”

Related Articles

Leave a Comment