If the 1980s is notorious in Pakistan’s history for its so called Islamization, the current decade will probably be remembered as the era of ‘blasphemization’ of Pakistan. Over forty years ago Zia ul Haq deployed Islam to legitimize his illegal coup against a democratic government and proceeded to raise a generation of militants in CIA run training camps funded by Saudi money. This period not only witnessed increasing institutionalization of religion but also the rise of Sunni militancy – the leaders and founding members of notorious organizations like Lashkar-e-Jhangvi and Lashkar-e-Taiba were a product of the Afghan Jihad. In spite of their high profile violence, it was many years before either of these organizations was banned as ‘terrorist’ outfits. It was also not until suicide attacks became a common place occurrence in Pakistan that public opinion finally recognized Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan as a menance rather than ‘mujahideen’ fighting for the cause of Islam. Today we have managed to take up Zia’s tactics to a whole new level through the expansive and mind bogglingly creative deployment of the notion of blasphemy. From imprisoning children, killing governors, ministers, human rights lawyers, filling a case against no less than 67 lawyers and then accusing a TV channel of blasphemy in a grand finale we have pretty much done it all in the last few years. Blasphemy is no doubt the new face of terrorism in the name of Islam. The only difference is that we have yet to recognize it as such.
One of the favorite myths of apologists for vigilantism and the almost daily baying for blood in the country is the idea that this violence is the result of state failure. When the state fails to curb blasphemy ‘offended’ Muslims will ‘naturally’ protest and/or take the law in their own hands. This myth has been used to explain everything from Salman Taseers murder to the recent outrage against Geos allegedly blasphemous morning show. The fact is that the demand to shut down Geo, calls for Shaista Wahidi’s head on a platter and the actions of Mumtaz Qadri are all about as ‘spontaneous’ as suicide bombings by the TTP. Religion is not a pre political site above and beyond the realm of the everyday. Religious sentiments are actively created, fanned and channeled. Teenagers are not born with the dream of blowing themselves up. They are brainwashed into believing that mass murder is a ticket to heaven. Mumtaz Qadri did not magically materialize out of nowhere as much as his mainstream admirers would have us believe that. His fanaticism was produced by the deluge of fatwas against Salman Taseer and the virulent hate mongering campaign which starred the likes of Mehr Bukhari, Hamir Mir and Ansar Abbasi. The fact that the performance of a qawaali on Geo outraged not one but two episodes of Khara Suchh out of Mubashar Lucman when the same content had been previously aired on his own channel as well as Samaa TV should give us a clue about the ‘spontaneity’ of this righteous indignation. Our intelligence agencies have stayed true to the legacy of Zia ul Haq – when an ordinary smear campaign failed to rally massive support, they trotted out the big guns. Nothing guarantees instant stupidity and brain shut down as the magic B-word in the fort of Islam. Bombing people in the name of religion has lost currency so killing them for blasphemy is the new politically viable substitute.
Another popular myth when it comes to religious extremism in Pakistan is the fiction of the ‘illiterate’ and ‘emotional’ masses which under the manipulation of the much maligned mullahs produce the fundamentalism that is threatening to rip apart this country. Even when confronted with the chilling spectacle of lawyers garlanding a self confessed murderer, proponents of this elitist myth were quick to claim that most lawyers come from rural areas and therefore have a very ‘backward mind set’. This openly paternalistic and elitist discourse of the rational, enlightened upper classes as the repository of tolerant Islam is not just misleading, it is downright dangerous. It was not a bearded cleric but Meher Bukhari, who opened an interview with Salman Taseer on national TV with a blatant lie – that countries across the world including Denmark, UK and Canada have laws similar to our own blasphemy laws. In the sickening interchange that followed, she conflated the blasphemy laws with the sanctity of Prophet Muhammad pbuh and portrayed any criticism of these laws as an attack on namoos-e-risalat. This journalist who epitomizes the modern and professional Pakistani woman channeled the same arguments as those made by Mufti Hanif Qureshi, the militant cleric who inspired Mumtaz Qadri to murder Salman Taseer. As far as I know Ms. Bukhari was not trained by the much vilified madrassah system.
But let us come back to Geo. It was the clean shaved Mubasshar Lucman and not a mullah who drew national attention to the alleged gustakhi of Geo TV. After censuring the rival channel for spreading immorality as well as sectarian hatred through its transmission, this paragon of journalistic integrity invited Maulana Ahmad Ludhianvi of Ahle Sunnat Wal Jamaat (ASWJ) to shed further light on recent events. ASWJ is the public face of the proscribed militant Sunni outfit Lashkar-e-Jhangvi and was banned in 2012 due to its association with another Sunni terrorist organization Sipah-e-Sahaba. ASWJ was actively involved in eulogizing Mumtaz Qadri and denouncing the Anti Terrorism Court’s verdict against him. It then participated in the campaign against Geo with the blessings of rival TV channels, intelligence agencies and of course PTI – the harbinger of Naya Pakistan.
In a twist of poetic justice, the proverbial chickens have come home to roast for the Jang Group. It is hard to not be gleeful at the speed with which ‘Dr’ Aamir Liaquat rocketed off to Medinah for damage control. The same doctor sahib once declared Ahmadis wajab ul qatl on national TV – a transmission which was promptly followed by the murder of two Ahmadis in Karachi. And let’s not forget the role played by Hamid Mir in the smear campaign against Salman Taseer. In an article he wrote for the Urdu daily Jhang on 25th November 2010, Mir accused those advocating for a reform of the blasphemy laws of trying to score political points and requested them to quit trying to create fasadaat in Pakistan. The court verdict against Mumtaz Qadri was also followed by a heart wrenching piece by Ansar Abbasi in The News where he waxed eloquent on how Qadri was merely a ‘frustrated individual’ who was forced to kill the governor when the state failed to halt the latter’s blasphemous activities. Similar arguments were made at the various pro Qadri rallies across the country led by the likes of Hafiz Saeed, the internationally notorious terrorist with a 10 million dollar bounty on his head.
It is high time we discard the elitist feel good myth of religious extremism being limited to the ‘masses’ who fall prey to rabid clerics and transform into suicide bombers. The truth is that terrorism has become mainstreamed in Pakistan through the expansive and limitless application of the idea of blasphemy. It is almost comical how those calling for the death of Salman Taseer and then for the release of Mumtaz Qadri and now for the banning of Geo take pains to differentiate themselves from TTP who are apparently the actual terrorists. The latter are the real threat to Pakistan because they attack the institutions of the state and deploy stealth and deceit while those like Qadri are only ‘frustrated Muslims’ who courageously stand for their beliefs and surrender themselves regardless of the consequences. This distinction falls apart when the TTP kills Shahbaz Bhatti for trying to reform the blasphemy laws and supports the pro Qadri campaign. But apparently that is still not enough to open our eyes. We are adamant that terrorism materializes only in the guise of a suicide bomber or the blatant sectarian militant. We are all guilty of this delusion. Especially the so called educated elite who preface their bigotry with statements like ‘oh the state should decide if Veena Malik is now wajab ul qatl… no person should take the law in their own hands because that would be a sin’. The question we all need to ask ourselves is how did we get to a point where the only way to criticize anything distasteful is to declare it a gustakhi and the only way to discipline someone is to declare them wajab ul qatl? When did it become so acceptable to question someone’s right to life?
Published in Viewpoint on 29th May 2014