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Posted on Wed 27 March 2024

What is behind the Mobs in Pakistan? - The Round Table - December 2023

Last August, 21 churches were burned, pastors‘ and priests’ homes distroyed, and 500 families forced to flee from their homes which were looted by violent, extremist mobs enraged by an alleged desecration of the Qur’an by two teenage Christian boys.  The evidence for this two half burnt pages on which an unknown person had overwritten comments in red which are alleged to be derogatory.

  These tragic events in Jaranwala in Pakistani Punjub are part of a pattern of mob attacks on Christians and others alleging blasphmy, Such attacts often result in loss of life and serious injury, as well as destruction of property and displacement of people. 

  Church and community leaders have been fearful that the events of Qur’an burning in Sweden and elsewhere would lead to a retaliatory attack on Christians in Pakistan and have been at pains to dissociate themselves from such actions. In spite of assurances to the contrary by leading Muslim cleric, however, the temptation to attack a vulnerable minority, unable to defend itself, has been hard to resist.

 The history of such mob behaviour goes all the way back to the Raj. This is why the British, to avoid communal conflict, enacted laws to prevent religious hatred becoming ingrained in society, The Penalties involved in the conviction, however were moderate, and there were very few prosecutions. These laws have now been radicalised, and shari’a -based penalties introduced which presribe madatory death and life inprisonment punishments for various kinds of blasphemy offences. Both Muslims and non-Muslims have fallen victim to these draconian laws but, in terms of numbers, minorities have been disproportionately affected. 

  The oxygen for these mob attacks is a change in the mentality of large sections of the population. From a largely tolerant, Sufi and shrine-centred Islam, people’s minds and hearts have been turned to an exclusive and intolerent interpretation of their faith. Such a version was very far from the intentions of the founders of Pakistan who had an inclusivist vision, based on the principles of Islamic social justice. It represents, rather, an ideoogy which was opposed to the creation of Pakistan on the grounds that it would divide Muslim strength in South Asia and make the achievement of Pan-Islam more difficult.

  The change has been brought about particularly by a progamme of ‘Islamisation’ of law. Disregarding creative thinking by Muslims about relating Shari’a to the contemporary world, Islamic law has been enacted in its most fundamentalist forms, especially with regard to Shari’a-related offences like blasphemy.  All appeals to give due regard to plural legal traditions within Islam and to Pakistan’s obligations under international law have simply been ignored.

  Minds and hearts have also been changed by the widespead teaching of hate in textbooks, particularly with regard to people of other faiths. This is now strenghened by popular media programmes glorifying jihad and it pioneers and showing those of other faiths and cutures in a poor light 

   A third reason for the boldness of mobs is that successive govenments have repeatedly given in to extremist organisations and to street violence orchestrated by them, accepting their puritanical, ahistorical and extremist versions of Islam. People can see that street violence pays, and it is no wonder they have taken it to themselves.

  As long as this state of affairs continues, Christians and other mInorities are sitting ducks waiting to be targeted each time there is a national or international incident which calls down the wrath of the mob on them. Pakistan has celebrated the 76th anniversary  of its independence. It is well known that Christians and some other non-Muslims supported its founders in their struggle for Pakistan. They believed that Muslims, who had been a mInority themselves in British India , would treat other minorities well. Contrary to the wish and vision of its pioneers, this has turned out not to be the case.

   The only way back is to recover and value the spirit of religious diversity and to reflect it in school text books and in the media. The blasphemy laws need to be reviewed in terms of best Islamic jurisprudence rather than of extremist demands and their misuse prevented by relatively simple administrative action which moves decisions to charge and try such cases, if appropriate, away from local police and courts, who come under intolerable pressure, to central bodies and protected courts,

   I am in favour of free speech, but it may be that, in a country like Pakistan, laws are needed to prevent religious hatred and the violence that results from it. If so, they should be moderate and humane, with the penalties proportionate to the offence and with a presumption of innocence.

   Encouragingly, the authorities appear to have moved swiftly to contain and prevent the violence; they  have, reportedly, offered compensation to the victims. If however, the steps outlined above in policy, law and administrative arrangments are not taken, we will just have to wait yet another outburst of violence against helpless people. Is this what Pakistan wishes to be known for in the world? Surely not.

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