The risk of intolerance

November 8, 2020

A look at the effects and consequences of the 'passion' narrative

Photo by Rahat Dar


arlier this week, a bank manager was killed over blasphemy allegations in the Quaidabad tehsil of Khushab. In videos circulating on social media, the alleged killer, identified as Ahmed Nawaz, a security guard at the bank, can be seen leading an excited crowd chanting:

Ghulamiye Rasool Main Maut Bhi Qubool Hai (if subservience to the prophet (peace be upon him) brings death, so be it) and Jo Na Ho Ishq-i-Mustafa Toe Zindagi Fuzool Hai (a life without the love of the prophet is a waste). In other videos, shot from the roof of a local police station, Nawaz can be seen cheering the crowd, and a cleric encouraging the gathering to disperse since the police have agreed not to charge the guard with terrorism, and to only register a case for attempted murder, so that he may be allowed bail.

We have here a man whose life until the day of the murder entailed standing guard at the bank entrance for most of his waking hours for a pittance in wages, barely enough only to fill his belly and those of his dependents. He must have opened and closed doors countless times, for customers many of whom hardly noticed him. Being raised to the status of a local hero, following the murder must have felt very different.

In his work on state power and sovereignty, Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben points out that there was no unified concept of life among the ancient Greeks, who viewed what modern humans simply call life through the twin terms, bios and zoe. He explains that the former depicted a form or way of living proper to individuals or groups, and the latter referred to the simple fact of living common to all living beings (humans as well as animals). The propriety of bios derives from its ability for political engagement, while the simplicity of zoe is grounded in the mere sustenance of bodily functions. Bios or the good life becomes possible by having reduced others to zoe. For the ancient Greeks, the slave was an embodiment of zoe, par excellence. In modern times, former slavery has been banned but capitalist economic relations have effectively reduced countless humans to an existence not much better than Greek slaves – an existence of merely sustaining bodily operations.

With the aid of this detour let us chart an outline for the contemporary bio-politics of Ishq-i-Rasool in Pakistan.

Combined with Ghusktakh Ki Saza, Sar Tan Se Juda (the punishment for a blasphemer is beheading) and Labbaik Ya Rasoolullah, the two slogans heard at the Quaidabad rally, form the wider political culture promoted by Barelvi political parties and social movements. This is a culture that sanctions the ‘lovers’ to assume in their person the sovereign right to kill or let live. It turns the person accused of blasphemy into bare life, an Agamben term for a life stripped of legal protection and liable to be killed with impunity. As the blasphemy accused are reduced to bare life, this bio-politics of ‘love’ doesn’t spare the murderous lovers either. In a twist of irony, the vigilante heroes like Nawaz are often also rendered bare life (as in the case of the ‘police encounter’ of the primary suspect in the killing of human rights lawyer Rashid Rehman). Their bodies become sites for the re-establishment of the juridical order (as in the case of Mumtaz Qadri).

The instances of mob violence over blasphemy allegations appear more complicated because they often entail a co-constitution of the juridical order of state sovereignty and the sovereign exception to this order created through mob action. This is what appears to have happened in Quaidabad earlier this week. It may seem that the power of the mob enables the ‘lovers’ to share with state officials the sovereign power to kill or let live. However, to get a sense of the underlying bio-politics of Ishq-i-Rasool, we must not lose sight of the material conditions of everyday social life sustained by such a co-constitution of state and mob power.

Mob action and blasphemy killings are indeed the spectacular exceptions that sustain the routine in which Qadris and Nawazs live a life of zoe, enabling the bios of state and economic elites, middle classes as well as Islamist political and social movement establishment figures like Khadim Rizvi. The key facts of this political order - blasphemy laws and declarations of faith in Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) as the final prophet - coincide with the Islamic character of the state. As such, calls for legal reforms, let alone repeal, have unleashed protest movements.

So, we have, on the one hand, an Ishq-i-Rasool championed by Islamist parties and movements that enables murderous, but often momentary, empowerment of ‘lovers’ who are exhorted to create sovereign exceptions, kill blasphemy accused, and ultimately sacrifice their own lives. On the other hand, there is the seemingly moderate version of Ishq-i-Rasool of the Pakistani state, reflected in the state leadership’s occasional efforts to rally the global public opinion against blasphemy. The equivalent at home is the state’s use of the notion of Ishq-i-Rasool as a disciplinary tool to produce docile subjects whose hurt and outrage over blasphemy must occur within the juridical framework of state sovereignty. Such a subjectivity resonates best with the conservative upper middle and middle classes, who are too deeply invested in capitalist relations to ever be involved in acts of sovereign exception, but are often found leading economic and social boycott campaigns against sectarian minorities at home and European secularism abroad.

The state and the movement elites may often come to blows, yet the two have enough shared interests in Pakistan’s existing class-, caste- and religious- hierarchies to sustain a working relationship. It’s not without significance that blasphemy, alongside treason and sedition, remains the primary weapon deployed by the state and the movements alike, against dissenters who challenge any of these hierarchies.

The supreme irony in this bio-politics of Ishq-i-Rasool, however, is that figures like Qadri and Nawaz can either (kill and) die and become movement heroes, or live the life of zoe, sustaining their bodily operations only insofar as these bodies can sustain capitalist relations and the political order founded upon them.

The author, formerly a journalist, is currently pursuing doctoral research

The risk of intolerance: A look at effects and consequences of the 'passion' narrative