Raza Habib Raja
Right now, the news of a Christian woman being convicted and sentenced to death by a lower court, are making headlines in some of the liberal segments of society. The kind of sick society we are, I am not surprised that it is not inviting the outrage at a broader level. The Urdu newspapers have hardly given it the coverage but what is most regrettable is the overall virtual absence of large scale condemnation. The newspapers in Pakistan are commercial entities and cater to the “tastes” of their mostly rightwing conservative customers. Heck, even Talat Hussain has to transform into Ansar Abbassi when he writes in our “national” language.
In that small liberal segment, actually a fringe in our society, the blasphemy law is 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 Of course law should be repealed, but repealing alone will never solve the issue.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 woman. 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 In fact the law cannot be repealed through democratic ways in the first place until the major issue is tackled.
The real issue is the 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.
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.