In an event that should shake the conscience of any reasonable individual, a vigilante mob in Mardan, Pakistan, on Thursday thrashed and then killed a university student and seriously injured another for alleged blasphemy. Both students of mass communication at the Abdul Wali Khan University were accused of promoting the Ahmadi faith on social media. The incident occurred in the presence of local police, who were outnumbered by the vicious mob. Reports from Pakistani media paint a rather horrific picture of what took place during this incident. For nearly a century, members of Ahmadiyya community have suffered ostracisation for an interpretation of Islam that differs from traditional orthodox positions of the majority Sunni community. “Ahmadis are prohibited from declaring or propagating their faith publicly, building mosques or even referring to them as such, or making the call for Muslim prayer,” according to Human Rights Watch. Section 295-C of the Pakistan Penal Code, which is popularly known as the blasphemy law, has been used to target religious and sectarian minorities. “Whoever by words, either spoken or written, or by visible representation or by any imputation, innuendo, or insinuation, directly or indirectly, defiles the sacred name of the Holy Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) shall be punished with death, or imprisonment for life, and shall also be liable to fine,” reads Section 295-C. It was under the dictatorship of General Zia-ul-Haq in the 1980s when Pakistan passed down a series of orders to create and sharpen blasphemy laws. It was under General Zia that narrow and bigoted religiosity became state policy. What began during Zia’s tenure did not end with him. The vicious attack on minorities, their place of worship, and subjecting people to incarceration on the mere suspicion of blasphemy, are regular occurrences in Pakistan today. One is not surprised by the arrival of an Islamic State-like ideology into mainstream public discourse. This has raised serious concerns that sectarian violence could further intensify in an already strife-ridden Pakistan. According to Hussain Haqqani, the former ambassador of Pakistan to the United States and a leading South Asia expert, there is already broad support for such an ideology. “While many Pakistanis might be troubled by the violent ramifications of global jihad within the country, broad sympathy in Pakistani society for jihadis remains a reality,” he writes in an academic paper titled, Pakistan and the Threat of Global Jihadism: Implications for Regional Security. “Most Pakistanis support Sharia rule, an Islamic caliphate, and an Islamic state, even if they disagree on the definition of those concepts.”
It is an unfortunate reality that has played itself out in massive public support for Mumtaz Qadri, who was executed on February 29 last year for the assassination of Punjab Governor Salmaan Taseer in 2011. Days before the first anniversary of Qadri’s death earlier this year, thousands of people had prepared to converge at Islamabad to commemorate him. Millions of Pakistani Rupees were collected from all over the country to construct a shrine in memory of the assassin. For the uninitiated, Qadri was working as Taseer’s bodyguard when he shot him 28 times after the Governor spoke out against the country’s controversial blasphemy law. Qadri was sentenced to death by Pakistan’s highest court and subsequently executed. Many of Qadri’s supporters believe that he had done a service to his religion by killing Taseer. Despite the government’s decision to bar Islamist organisations from staging rallies commemorating a killer, it is an unfortunate reality that widespread support for such a violent ideology persists. There are tragic consequences for a country that fails to maintain the distinction between religion and governance. “In Pakistan, post the 1970s Muslim attitudes towards blasphemy allowed theological ideas to be enshrined in law increasingly. What resulted was chaos as a host of groups, using religion as their authority, challenged the state itself. Like India’s current cow hysteria, rumours around blasphemy and Quran desecration often result in violence that the state is either unable or unwilling to control,” says a recent editorial in Scroll.in. Similar fears are coming to light in India with cow protection laws, cow vigilante murders and unconditional support from influential sections of the political class for those who engage in such acts of violence. India’s political class would be well advised to observe what is going on in Pakistan in the name of religion.