This last week – in a move widely celebrated across Pakistani social media – a case was registered inPakistan’s courts in the aftermath of the alleged kidnapping of 4 secular activists, including renowned academic and human rights advocate Salman Haider. The case didn’t revolve around government complacency or abuse in their lack of response for an immediate investigation into the abduction of these citizens, or against control of social media by the draconian Pakistani establishment. It called for the prosecution of these kidnapped individuals under Section 295-C of the Pakistan Penal Code which underlines the mandated punishment for blasphemy – death.
This case was registered by the Chair of the Civil Society of Pakistan, Muhammad Tahir, who justified his actions on the grounds that these activists were admins of social media pages that “not only posted inflammatory content against state agencies but were guilty of the worst kind of blasphemy against Prophet Muhammad (PBUH).” While protests have erupted in the UK and other Western countries with Muslim communities against the abductions and the untimely filing of the blasphemy case, the liberal pushback in Pakistan has been disturbingly lukewarm. Even the most outspoken secular activists have seemed to tailor their message to something along the lines of “we’re not saying they did the right thing, or the blasphemy law shouldn’t be applied in this case, but they should be brought before a court of law”. That is an awfully meek opposition to a law which didn’t even exist for half of Pakistan’s history. But their opposition or lack thereof, is understandable. Surely the murders of Salman Taseer, Sabeen Mehmud, Rashid Rahman and others who stood up are fresh in their minds.
But that is the trap we have fallen into on both sides of the ideological spectrum: that the kidnappings or bursts of violence are in any significant way related to religion. It is about power, and the fact that underpinnings such as religion reinforce it, does not make it any less of what it is. Within this last week, there were reports of another missing person feared abducted - Maulana Abdul Wasim, a prominent member of the Majlis Tahafuz-e-Khatam-e-Nabuwat. This person is no radical liberal vying for a secular Pakistan; in fact, the organization he is affiliated with is linked to attacks against the Ahmadi minority. This break in ‘trend’ is in no way an anomaly. In Baluchistan, thousands of citizens who fall in no way contrary to Pakistan’s religious mainstream have been kidnapped under the infamous ‘missing persons’ controversy. Last year, the Pakistani Parliament passed the controversial Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act, more commonly known as the ‘cybercrime’ law, which gives the government immense agency to put down dissent on social media.
What Pakistani officials need to realize – regardless of whether they were complicit in the kidnappings – is that the power to put down the powerless is not a smoking gun – it is boomerang that will come back and strike them when they abandon the annals of power for those who come after them. We have seen this before in recent history with the seizures and arrests that accompany each successive administration. It is important to keep in mind that the Blasphemy Ordinance was passed by Zia-ul-Haq, a dictator, and we cannot separate the law from the lawmaker. The legislature was intended to reinforce the ruling elite’s grip over the masses, and it continues to do so today. The more powerful the establishment becomes, the worse it is for the present establishment, for people will come and go, but the power of the institution will stay, ripe for exploitation by man or woman of the day.
That is not to say that respect for the Prophet is not paramount – respect for religious ideas and principles is an important facet of theological democracy. However, we do naught but disrespect said religion when we use it to abuse the power that comes with the weight of the blasphemy law.
Religion has been used to justify many of our worst actions in human history. It is time to abandon these pretenses of love and respect for religion before they unravel the religious haven we crafted for ourselves 70 years ago.
Image Source: Guilhem Vellut (Flickr)