Will the Sialkot tragedy change state policy in appeasing religious fanatics?

The brutal lynching and burning of a body in Sialkot is a continuation of the violence in the name of religion that Pakistani state and society have accepted as normal. The remarkably widespread tolerance for heinous crimes and persecution is the result of decades-old policies that have invoked Pakistan and its Muslim majority as guardians of the Islamic faith. Each successive regime has competed for this exalted position as defender of the Ummah and Sharia and today we find ourselves in a difficult situation. Even if the ruling classes wish to reverse historical trends, they will face hostile public opinion.

That a Sri Lankan national chose to work in Pakistan should have been a matter of pride and gratification, as in many parts of the world it feels like the country is not safe to travel or work. I personally know many professionals and travelers who shared their concerns before traveling to the land of the pure.

The gruesome murder of Sialkot by a mob with the indirect participation of passers-by, selfie-takers and even police tell a tragic story. This murder in the name of religion is both kosher and acceptable. And so many videos showed cause for celebration as well. The young men leading the crowd proudly admitted their intention and cited religious reasons for committing the murder. And now they have a powerful political voice in the form of Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP), a religiopolitical group activated, empowered and facilitated by the state itself.

The story of TLP is now well known in Pakistan, and it is a group that seems destined to rise and gain more weight. Efforts to sanction him have failed and with each ‘agreement‘with the state their power has increased. In fact, the group has not been punished for killing police officers and causing damage to public and private property. The political (re) mobilization of the Barelvi majority opened a new chapter of the regime. Sialkot is only an excerpt from what will follow.

The response of the federal and provincial governments tries to present this incident as an “administrative” problem where criminal prosecution will solve this problem. Dozens of mobsters were arrested after the tragic lynching of Mashal Khan, a 23-year-old student in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa in 2017. Some of them are serving sentences but obviously this has not solved anything. Inaction in the face of religious extremism, the use of the militarization of blasphemy allegations is not just a matter of law enforcement. It is directly rooted in the ideology of the state.

The Islamic faith has served as a nation-building and a political instrument since the country’s inception. In fact the fundamental storytelling as taught in textbooks, recited in school assemblies and cantonments and broadcast on mainstream television highlights the need to stand up for faith and nation – two terms that are used interchangeably in Pakistan. All nation states rely on some form of propaganda, but in Pakistan clerics have been deliberately empowered to acquire state legitimacy, manipulate electoral politics, and manage foreign and security policies. That is why small steps to scientifically aim for the moon for Eid or have a debate on a college campus or on television turns into a crisis which must be managed by appeasing right-wing opinion. Political parties and even sections of society are playing on the same ground and increasing the power of ill-informed religious discourse.

After the Sialkot tragedy, the crowd was also sentenced for taking justice into their own hands. But the legal system is no different. Many lawyers and judges, members of the police force and those who report blasphemy cases share the same worldview. Those accused of blasphemy languish in prisons, often in solitary confinement, for years and the final outcome is uncertain. Junaid Hafeez, a young Fulbright fellow, has been in prison for years and Asia Bibi had to spend a decade in isolation. His release and exit from Pakistan only took place when Western capitals put pressure on the Pakistani state. Otherwise, it’s all too clear what the courts have dealt with in his case – oscillating between fear and their own religious feelings. And the acquittal of Asia; by the Supreme Court gave an impetus to the mobilization and strengthening of the TLP itself!

We need to be concerned with foreign trade, financial regulatory regimes, and broader diplomatic and security relations with the world. The Sialkot tragedy should be a wake-up call to the government of the day as well as to the almighty establishment. It remains to be seen whether the erroneous ambition of “mainstreaming” of the TLP will be reversed. But now is the time for a long overdue national assessment. The media reported that the prime minister wanted to act against the TLP during their recent standoff (November 2021) with the government, but the military was not in favor. Hence the Powerless prime minister and his government had to sign yet another surrender deal. But we must take this account with not a pinch but a bag of salt.

Our Aitchison-Oxford educated prime minister and his cabinet loyalists were blunt the beneficiaries of the bait of blasphemy in 2017-2018. It wasn’t that long ago that they were strong supporters of the TLP. In fact, the Prime Minister has publicly stated that he shares the same mission and to give him due credit for the rare adherence to his statement that he has took many steps to stir up religious feelings to possess grandiose celebrations on Prophet (SAW) and the creation of new religious forums such as a religious authority to counter Islamophobia, among others.

More insidiously, the Prime Minister and his team of Mavericks introduced a new national curriculum that expanded the scope of religious education in public schools at a very young age. Instead of reforming madrasas or settling long-standing problems with public sector schools, the latter are likely to employ more madrassa graduates as teachers. Magistrates are raiding schools to check if the Holy Quran is being taught to elementary school students. Even the positive aspects of a single national agenda have been overshadowed by the regressive return to more brainwashing, as faith-based narratives and nationalism are symbiotic in Pakistan.

Pakistan is a hybrid theocracy where even a basic debate over the draconian blasphemy laws, their abuses and their societal impact is virtually impossible. Politicians who have tried to spark debate have been killed or convicted in many cases. Even under the previous one PMLN government blasphemy card used against activists. It remains a practical instrument and as long as it serves that purpose, it will continue to fuel sectarian majoritarianism and violence in the country.

At least for the time being, there is no sign that Pakistan is turning into a “normal” state – a phrase allegedly used by General Bajwa in a meeting earlier this year at a meeting. with selected anchors.


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