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- Wednesday, January 12, 2011 - From Print Edition

Salmaan Taseer’s assassination and the response it elicited across the country, especially from our mullahs, exposes a state and a society that has made its peace with being intolerant and bigoted. Most humans do not rejoice death. But our mullah is a breed apart. It doesn’t matter whether Salmaan Taseer was a good man or not. It doesn’t matter whether his stance on Pakistan’s blasphemy law was correct or not. It doesn’t matter what role he played in the politics of the country. It doesn’t matter whether the brand of religion that inspired the governor’s assassin is a true reflection of Islam or not. What matters is that the constitutional head of Punjab was violently killed for holding on to his personal beliefs and for expressing them (both rights deemed fundamental by the Constitution of Pakistan) and self-proclaimed flag-bearers of Islam in our country rejoice over the brutal killing of a fellow citizen.

What matters is that a majority of Pakistanis are comfortable with the idea that the state should be responsible for enforcing religion (as opposed to facilitating religion or staying neutral). What matters is that a conformist consensus exists within this ‘land of the pure’ that makes it acceptable for some to impose personal religious beliefs on others by persuasion, intimidation or violence. What matters is that crossing the boundaries of law and indulging in criminal activity, including brutalising a fellow Pakistani, has minimal culpability attached to it in public eye, so long as it is done in the good name of religion. What matters is that tolerance for divergent religious views is virtually absent and a violent response to any perceived offence to one’s religious sentiment caused by another’s speech or actions is either viewed as a mark of religious distinction or at least something expected and natural.

What matters is that the state and its law-enforcement agencies have a go-slow policy when it comes to hate crimes committed in the name of religion. What matters is that the manner in which the law is interpreted and enforced provides no deterrence to those holding extremist views and freely engaging in criminal incitement. What matters is that through our tolerance of bigotry, prejudice and criminality we are complicit in creating a society where public representatives condemning the governor’s murder are cautious or fearful and those callously celebrating it are blatant.

The phenomenon of contraction and expansion of religion has been brilliantly articulated by Abdolkarim Saroush. Pakistan’s misfortune has been that the brand of religion that expanded during Ziaul Haq’s regime was ritualistic, regressive and intolerant, and consequently expansion of religiosity went hand-in-glove with entrenchment of self-righteous intolerance. Hate crimes will continue to be perpetrated in the name of religion because our state feels legally obliged to enforce religion and our society fails to distinguish religion, as divinely ordained, from religious knowledge, which is produced by humans. How does reiteration of the claim that Mumtaz Qadri’s crime is also a sin in view of true Islam and that the mullahs celebrating murder do not understand the genuine teachings of Islam help things?

What comprises the true form of Islam will always remain a subjective assessment. So long as we believe that faith can and should be forced upon a populace and that the state has the right and the obligation to do so, we will continue to nurture a vigilante culture where individuals feels encouraged to play God’s hand if the state is seen faltering at discharging its legal and moral obligation. Such socio-legal context cultivates and fuels the-victim-deserved-it thinking that is all too prevalent within our society. Why should the expected threshold of religious sensitivity be so low that any provocation immediately incenses citizens into physical violence and criminal behaviour?

How have we come to internalise this degenerate conception of rule of law wherein the defence of temporary insanity and minimal personal responsibility automatically comes to the rescue of anyone indulging in criminality and violence in the name of religion? Have we collectively slumbered into an extremist society without even realising our downslide into extremism? Can we honestly claim that the mullah brigade has no significant influence in Pakistan merely on the basis of the votes it polls during the electoral process? The manner in which it has hijacked and controlled the debate over reform of our flawed blasphemy law is a clear manifestation of its socio-political and policy relevance.

The state and our security agencies might have patronised the mullah because he has been providing cannon fodder for the jihadi project. The mainstream political parties happily work with the mullah because his vote and support is the most easily purchasable commodity within the political arena. But such patronage and support for the mullah has come at a huge cost to the society. In this bargain we have handed over the corrupt, decadent, ignorant and visionless mullah complete monopoly over the purpose and role of religion within the state and the society. Consequently we have extinguished the vital public space required to have a healthy and open debate about the role of religion in our country as well as the meaning, intent and purpose of divine scripture.

While Pakistan has seen significant evolution of political consciousness, especially due to the civil society’s struggle against Musharraf’s dictatorship and support for the rule of law movement, we have not had a simultaneous development of social consciousness. We have not even begun to acknowledge that many of the ills within our state and our polity could not have crept in or continued to proliferate without our individual and collective encouragement, acquiescence or apathy. The argument that the violence and terror that we witness around us has nothing to do with Islam might help us sleep better at night, but such self-deception doesn’t help our understanding of the problem at hand and consequently doesn’t even take us in the direction of finding solutions.

The intolerance that we witness around us is supported by a certain vision of our religion articulated and propagated by our mullah brigade. The contraction of intolerance that we need will not happen without a contraction of the intolerant brand of religiosity being preached and practiced in Pakistan. Just as ordinary people rallied behind the conception of constitutionalism, democracy and rule of law to make the first phase of the lawyers’ movement succeed, ordinary people will need to support and strengthen a movement for social tolerance and liberty in Pakistan. In the absence of such mass demand for tolerance and liberty, our politicos (even the self-defined liberals) will continue to chicken out when confronted with tidal waves of bigotry. Our mainstream political parties will not lead us to such social change. They will only join in once it is popular.

As a first step we need to wrestle back the public space for debate that we voluntarily surrendered. And for this we will require our thought leaders to exhibit courage. If we choose to be bullied into silence we will be doing so at our own peril. Then we need to demand that the state enforce the law without considerations of fear or favour. Unless those appalled by those showering petals at Qadri outside the court house show up in greater numbers than the bigots and demand that the killer be treated as a killer and seek justice for Salmaan Taseer, the state and its functionaries might not exhibit the courage and the resolve to stand up to the bigots. And ultimately we will need to reconsider Articles 2, 2A and 227 of the Constitution and the interaction between state and religion that they stipulate.

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The writer is a lawyer based in Islamabad.