Raza Habib Raja
Right now, the news of a Christian young girl (merely 11 years old) being arrested in Pakistan for desecrating Holy Quran is making headlines (http://tribune.com.pk/story/423815/11-year-old-christian-girl-accused-of-blasphemy/). The liberal segment ( increasingly just restricted to facebook and english print media) is expressing outrage and needless to say that its voice is hardly reaching to segments which really matter. What is most regrettable is the overall virtual absence of large scale condemnation despite the fact that Pakistan’s already tarnished reputation has touched new lows with this news.
In that small liberal segment, actually a fringe in our society, the blasphemy law is once again under criticism with calls to repeal it. I would like to point out to all those that they are just targeting a symbolic thing. Culprit is the not the law. Of course law should be repealed, but repealing alone will never solve the issue. For that matter no one has actually been executed after even being convicted. Let’s not forget even if the law was not in existence, people would have simply killed the girl despite her very young age.
In fact in blasphemy cases, people have been even killed in the jail when their cases were in progress. Repealing the law will only remove a symbol of religion’s infusion with state; it will by no stretch of imagination prevent people from becoming violent. For that matter repealing it without addressing the real issue will cause people to become even more bigoted than they are now. In fact the law cannot be repealed through democratic ways in the first place until the major issue is tackled. Lets not forget that laws, even if imposed through dictatorial ordinances can only be repealed through legislature. No party has the guts to do it and one of the main reason is that most of ordinary Pakistanis want these laws. The inhuman laws are the reflection of general Pakistani will and also an unfortunate symbol of extreme reverence of religion. Assuming that even privately a sizeable number thinks that these laws are inhuman, they are completely impotent due to extreme reverence of religion and their inablity to bring any counter argument to conservative religious scholars and Mullahs.
The real issue is NOT the laws but general religious bigotry which is rampant in the society which in turn emanates from the mindset and the overall cultural set up of Pakistan. This cultural set up gives religion extreme reverence and cultivates an identity based on it, which is extraordinarily sensitive on all the religous matters. This reverence of religion and the resulting bigotry is primarily cultural though has state as its major patron. The issue is not restricted to the fusion of religion with state. State is one of the patrons of religion, but is not the sole determinant of its reverence.
The role of religion, particularly the sensitivity arising from it is chiefly coming from our childhood training during which religion is presented as something extremely venerable. A culture of not questioning it is imposed first at home and then later at the schools. The fusion of reverence along with its unquestionable status, cultivates a violent prone and bigotry ridden mindset. It cultivates an atmosphere where a mob can actually get away with extremely violent acts in the name of religion. People even if they do not actually feel the anger, can still get violent to vent out their gutter instincts under the guise of religious honour knowing fully well that no one will be able to stop them. In fact we know that several times Police became a silent spectator when the mob was imposing their “justice” on the victims. What happened at Gojra is still fresh in our memories. Police and the district administration actually became a de facto accomplice.
We cannot address the issue unless we are able to actually desensitize people from religion. And that cannot be done without cultivating a culture where religion can be critically discussed. Unless and until the educated of this country show collective courage and are ready to do that, frankly nothing can change. Moreover, change in this case has to take top down approach. Frankly the elite and the affluent middleclass have to play a role. The political elite which have historically shown impotence and tried to manipulate religious sensitivity to their advantage, have to muster up the courage and promote liberal discourse on the role of religion in the public sphere. Only from such discourse can a change in educational curriculum can take place which in time will promote a culture of tolerance.
Moreover, in Pakistan unlike Turkey, secularism and for that matter even religious tolerance cannot come from either barrel of a gun or other establishment institutions. This is because army in Pakistan has evolved to use Islam as a gluing force within its ranks. A powerful army in Turkey may be the guardian of secularism but this is not going to be the case in Pakistan. The best you can hope is that since army is still not radicalized and uses Islam only for strategic purposes (except during Zia’s time), it will not move in to thwart a critical discourse on religion. Our only hope remains democracy.
Political leaders and parties do not merely reflect public opinion but they are also a medium to engage and communicate with masses.It is important that those who think of themselves as liberals should be engaging the political parties including moderately conservative parties like PML N. Even religious parties should be engaged.
Leaders of liberal parties like PPP have to show the courage. They have the sway over the masses and moreover I think they have to rectify their historical blunders such as 1973 constitution and second amendment. Despite its mistakes, PPP along with other liberal parties remains the only hope. So leaders of PPP, ANP and MQM, all those who claim to be liberal, please come forward and prove your credentials.
Presdent Zardari deserves appreciation for publicly taking a notice of this incidence. But it will take much more than that. The discussion needs to be taken to the mainstream. It is a very long road ahead but at least we have to make a start.