The barbaric act of mob lynching on allegations of blasphemy in Sialkot on Friday (Dec 3) is another gruesome reminder that we have become a nation held hostage by hatemongers and religious extremists.
Although small in numbers, extremist groups have made both society and state hostage. The state has failed to check the spread of extremist religious ideologies and the subsequent radicalisation in society.
Hardline religious groups and organisations have been exploiting the religious sensitivities of society to garner public support. Over the years, the state has tolerated such groups and their activities to spread hatred in society – they often use violent means to create fear in society. How could a state and the ruling elite stop others from using religion for political interests and purposes when they have continuously used religion as a weapon? Hatemongers spread hatred and jingoism through speeches, writings and sermons using social media and a network of mosques and religious schools.
They might not be involved in militancy and armed struggle, but they are certainly spreading reactionary ideas, instigating the religious sentiments of ordinary people to use violence.
They have assumed the role of police, judge and executioner to punish those ‘accused’ of blasphemy without any trial and evidence. That is what happened on Friday in Sialkot.
Sri Lankan national Priyantha Kumara, who was working at a local factory called ‘Rajco Industries’ as a general manager, was brutally killed by a violent mob. It is hard to watch the videos of brutality and barbarism displayed on the streets of Sialkot. Employees of the factory staged a protest on the premises, alleging that Kumara had committed blasphemy. The angry mob – shouting religious slogans – dragged him out on the road, killed him with kicks, stones and iron rods, and set his body on fire. The lynching went on for over an hour.
The response of the police and the local administration was slow. The police arrived to collect the half-burnt body of the victim. Our ruling class has a similar pattern when responding to such gruesome and disturbing incidents. Now, the police will act promptly and make arrests. As happened in the past, inquiries will be held, committees formed and meetings called. Our ruling elite will condemn the brutal killing and express its shock and anger.
We have never really taken the issue of religious extremism seriously. Our state has made a lot of efforts through the National Action Plan (NAP) to eliminate militancy, but little was done to stop the spread of religious extremism and to change the flawed policies of the past which gave rise to extremist forces.
Unfortunately, we have failed to learn from our past mistakes or, even worse, we are not even ready to accept the use of religion as a political weapon and the spread of religious extremist ideas and the creation and promotion of jihadi ideology and organisations as a mistaken policy which has had devastating consequences for our society.
Jihadi culture, extreme narratives and reactionary ideas spread in society as the result of the reactionary right-wing policies of the state since 1978. All those who dare to challenge or oppose these policies are declared anti-national, foreign agent and anti-religion.
Despite facing devastating consequences, our ruling elite never fully abandoned the use of religion and religious extremist forces to protect its economic, social and political interests.
Our ruling elite allowed non-state actors to become the custodians of our faith and beliefs. These non-state actors use one aspect of religious beliefs and faith to gain ground and spread hatred in society. The Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP) is the latest example of this appeasement and collusion. We need to seriously think about the policy of mainstreaming hard-line religious elements. While militant elements can be brought to the mainstream as an integration policy, this policy must not be used to mainstream hate and reactionary ideas.
The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP), in its statement on this barbaric act, made a right demand that our state cease its collusion with far-right elements. The HRCP in its statement has further said that “the unthinkable savagery with which a Sialkot mob has tortured a Sri Lankan man to death and burned his body on flimsy allegations of blasphemy should bring home once and for all the grim reality of spiraling radicalisation in Pakistan. Regrettably, the state’s response has been cowardly at best and complicit at worst.”
After every such horrifying act, we put the blame on a handful of extremists to downplay the seriousness of the situation we are finding ourselves in. Our policy of appeasement has emboldened religious extremist groups over the years. We are still living in a state of denial.
We have allowed hatemongers and religious extremists to operate in the country with full impunity. We have allowed them to use religion as a weapon to justify their violent acts.
We are still in a confused state of mind when it comes to dealing with the hard-line religious right. The recent dealing of the PTI’s government with the TLP is a classic example of this confusion. First, the PTI government tried to negotiate with TLP leaders. After the negotiations failed, the government alleged that the TLP took money from India and was involved in terrorism.
The government also announced to deal with it as a terrorist organisation. But within a few days, the government signed an agreement with the TLP and accepted most of its demands. The TLP leader and hundreds of its supporters were released. The group was also allowed to operate as a political party.
This is not the first time that a government has retreated. The Pakistani state rendered its authority on religious issues to religious groups and leaders in the late 1970s. Unfortunately, no serious effort has been made since then to back this authority.
The writer is a freelance journalist.
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