Politics of religion: Deadly tug-of-war over the religion card

Allegations of blasphemy have rendered every place from Pakistan’s courts and universities to police stations, factories and worship places a potential ‘crime scene’. Given how sensitive and inherently emotive the issue is for a significant segment of the populace, the threat of death extends beyond prisons and the gallows for those accused or convicted. It waits for them in the streets and the open markets, often before a judicial process can even begin.

Despite the utmost sensitivity that the issue should be handled with, the use of the ‘religion card’ has been seen in Pakistan’s political arena for some time now. The use of hate speech to incite populist sentiment, even violence, against one’s political opponents has become just another tool for political leaders to settle scores. Religiously and politically, things are often blown out of proportion and misrepresented without context to sway the public opinion back towards one’s own camp. Tragically, this approach persists even though the bigwigs of various political parties have paid the price for standing up against religious intolerance.

In the on-going tussle between the ruling party and its ousted predecessor, a dangerous precedent is being set. When a crowded mobbed and hurled slogans of ‘chor, chor’ (thief, thief) the members of Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif’s delegation at Masjid-e-Nabvi – one of the most revered sites for all Muslims – the supporters of the ruling party accused the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf of orchestrating the incident. This, they charged, was tantamount to committing blasphemy by completely disregarding the respect for the holy site.

The extent of this disregard, the ruling party’s leaders and supporters claimed, was such that the protestors did not even spare Federal Minister for Information and Broadcasting Marriyum Aurangzeb and used profane language against her. Interior Minister Rana Sanaullah had noted that the public sentiments were badly hurt and the sloganeering drew harsh criticism and condemnation from almost everyone except PTI leadership, especially former premier Imran Khan, who has yet to condemn the incident.

“The state of confrontation has reached such a level that both sides will apparently go to any extent to harm each other with no holds barred,” Ahmed Bilal Mehboob of the Pakistan Institute of Legislative Development and Transparency (PILDAT) said. The PILDAT president said that PTI leadership, including Dr Shirin Mazari, first attacked Dr Miftah Ismail for allegedly insulting religion. Now, Mehboob said, PMLN seems to have returned the compliment.

“Leadership of the parties, especially IK [Imran Khan] of PTI, must realise that this war will hurt both in addition to the country,” Mehboob said. Unless leaders step back and accept political and constitutional process, he said, domestic peace, and law and order will come under greater threat. “It is likely that things remain volatile till some major appointments are made by later half of the year and things normalise thereafter,” Mehboob opined.

Soon after the incident at Masjid-e-Nabvi, the Saudi authorities swung into action and arrested several Pakistanis for their alleged involvement in the incident. Though the incident took place out of Pakistan’s jurisdiction, it caused such an outrage in the country that people asking the law enforcers to register blasphemy cases against the ex-premier and PTI leadership, among others, thronged local police stations soon after. Meanwhile, the videos of people shouting the slogans of ‘thieves, traitors and turncoats’ kept circulating and spreading like fire on social media.

The authorities concerned have reportedly charged Imran Khan, his fellow PTI leaders and others with blasphemy. The move, however, opened up the debate on whether an incident that took place in another nation should have led to the registration of cases in Pakistan, especially when the evidence linking the incident to those nominated in the cases had yet to be conclusively established. On the other hand, the move to register the cases may have shifted some balance and popular support in the PTI’s favour as even those outside of Imran Khan’s support criticised the ruling party. These circles, in particular, stressed that such a step would deepen political polarisation amid the on-going political and economic instability the country is suffering from.

For Nighat Dad, a lawyer and a human rights activist, using the religion card has always been extremely dangerous, especially in Pakistan’s context because of the existing blasphemy laws. Commenting on the different dimensions of the issue, Dad said that there are two things to be considered: one is that the religion card is being played on social media and the second is the impact this dangerous narrative online can have beyond cyberspace, especially when it results in the lodging cases against people under the blasphemy law.

Recalling that the weaponisation of blasphemy laws has taken place in the past as well, Dad said that the most dangerous thing was that once anyone starts using religion card or blasphemy accusations, the security of the person concerned becomes highly vulnerable. “Not only the online presence but offline security of the person concerned is placed in danger and at risk and they start feeling insecure,” she said.

“In a country like Pakistan, it is so easy for a mob to lynch someone in the name of religion and get away with it,” Dad said, noting that the country has seen lynching incidents on several occasions when the mobs attacked students like Mashal Khan, members of various religious minorities, political dissidents and activists. She felt strongly that any use of the religion card puts lives at risks, especially, in the current environment of polarisation where people do not really tolerate each other’s opinion.

The lodging of cases has also raised questions over weaponisation of blasphemy in an already polarised society as the move could pose serious risks to lives of those accused of committing blasphemy even if they haven’t done anything or merely spoken against the misuse of the blasphemy law. The use of blasphemy as a political instrument led to killing of Punjab’s ex-governor, Salman Taseer, by none other than his guard as Taseer had sought to reform the blasphemy laws. Shockingly, the incident highlighted a clear divide in the society over such incidents as the killing of Taseer by his guard, Mumtaz Qadri, promptly drew responses ranging from lament to praise.

Similarly, a student mob of Mardan’s Abdul Wali Khan University dragged 23-year-old Mashal Khan from his dormitory, beating him with wooden sticks and pelting him with stones before shooting him dead within university premises, after some rumours circulated that he had allegedly posted “blasphemous content” on Facebook.

Pakistan Peoples Party’s Senator Mustafa Nawaz Khokhar regretted that weaponizing blasphemy was another low for our politics. “We have seen how blasphemy charges in the past have been used to settle grudges with disastrous consequences,” the Senator said, “it is a dangerous trend and in a society like ours where extremism is rife the government must tread carefully.”

On the government’s reaction over Masjid-e-Nabvi incident, Khokhar said that the incident at Masjid Nabvi had received widespread condemnation. He added that it is up to the Saudi authorities to deal with the hooliganism that took place in their jurisdiction. “To register cases in Pakistan on what took place in Saudi Arabia is not only inappropriate but perhaps also legally untenable,” Khokhar said.

In another heart-wrenching incident, a Sri Lankan national working as a general manager of a garments factory, Priyantha Kumara, was bludgeoned to death by factory workers. The killing and then burning of Kumara’s corpse on a road outside the factory was prompted by allegations of blasphemy. Many, however, have pointed out that Kumara was targeted by his subordinates over a personal grudge and there was nothing to support that he did anything blasphemous – a precious life like many others lost on mere allegations.

Notably, the country has been able to produce only one man, Malik Adnan, who stood up against mob lynching so far. On almost all other occasions, people either stood around the crime scenes as bystanders or worse, were found busy making videos of the brutal lynching of the victims of allegations.

In the political sphere, Tehreek-e-Labiak Pakistan (TLP), whose ideology is thriving on vowing to protect blasphemy laws, has often wreaked havoc when its protests paralysed the country for days at successive occasions. It had even brought the ruling parties – PML-N and PTI – to their knees on the demand of severing ties with France and for the release of its chief before being declared a proscribed organization. Later on, TLP and the government had inked a secret deal to end impasse. Surprisingly, TLP’s intimidation, threats, abuses and hatred to maximise political mileage were given in the open but the agreement allowing release of TLP chief and ‘forgetting’ about the deaths of the law enforcers and civilians has still been kept secret by PTI, TLP and the powers that be.

Political analyst Zaigham Khan regretted that the use of blasphemy charges by political parties against each other was extremely unfortunate. “Though the religion card has been used by politicians and military dictators in Pakistan for the last seven decades,” Zaigham said, “blasphemy been played with so blatantly in politics only in recent times.” Zaigham, who is an anthropologist and development professional too, recalled that the trend of using blasphemy card was witnessed before 2018 elections when some media persons as well as some politicians were accused of blaspheming to settle political scores.

“Politicians of the PML-N were particularly targeted and one minister had to resign,” he said, saying “it appears that the PML-N wants to settle some of the scores while being in government.” Zaigham said that the cases against the PTI leaders on charges of hurting religious sensibilities can be seen in this context, though cases have been registered under less strict British era laws. “It is an explosive situation where a small incident can lead to a serious repercussions,” Zaigham feared. He urged both sides to scale down and said “that can happen only if they sit down and agree on norms that they must follow and [implement in] their politics.”

In Pakistan, the victims facing allegations of blasphemy have at times breathed their last while facing the judicial process inside a courtroom. Or they could not even be protected in custody at police stations as mobs have burned down the same to express their anger over those facing the allegations. Apart from Muslim victims, minorities have mercilessly been targeted over blasphemy allegations and even temples have been desecrated with impunity.

In its annual report for the year 2021, the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) has observed an uptick in blasphemy allegations, saying the misuse of the blasphemy laws have reached a new low with blasphemy allegations against an eight-year-old Hindu boy.

While relying on the data obtained from Punjab police, the HRCP report states that a total of 426 cases of blasphemy took place in Punjab. At another place in the report, HRCP said that police data indicates that 487 blasphemy cases were registered in Punjab alone. The Commission while relying on the data of Sindh police stated that total 113 cases of blasphemy were lodged in Sindh last year. In response to HRCP’s request for information, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa police revealed that 33 cases of blasphemy were registered in the province. Balochistan police told HRCP that only five blasphemy cases were registered in the province in 2021 while the Islamabad Capital Police said that total eight cases of blasphemy were lodged with the capital’s police.

Former minister for human rights Shireen Mazari while commenting on the issue said that the filing of blasphemy cases against former prime minister Imran Khan and his party leadership was politically motivated. She said that the move had not only threatened democracy in Pakistan but also the lives of the former premier and his party’s senior leadership and members. Expressing that her position on the issue was the same as she had wrote to the US special rapporteurs and UNHCHR, Mazari termed the government’s move to register cases of blasphemy against Imran and party leadership using the ‘pretext’ of Pakistanis in Saudi Arabia yelling “thieves” a ‘dangerous’ step. The former human rights minister said that while the incident took place in Saudi Arabia and while five to six people were arrested for sloganeering, no charge of blasphemy has been made against them. “More critical,” she wrote, “this was not a planned incident on the part of Khan or his leadership.” To use the Madina incident as an excuse to file charges of blasphemy means endangering the lives of Khan and party members, Mazari added, stating that it also provides for making immediate arrests. One member of the National Assembly from a PTI-allied party – ex-federal minister Sheikh Rashid Ahmed’s nephew Sheikh Rashid Shafiq – was arrested on arrival at Islamabad airport on blasphemy charges.

While the FIR has not been filed by any government minister, Mazari said, the incumbent interior minister said in a press conference that the government supported these charges being filed and would arrest Khan and others shortly. “FIRs have been done with his blessing and on his orders,” she alleged, saying it is further substantiated because a complaint under section 295A of the Pakistan Penal Code cannot be registered by the police on a citizen’s complaint but requires complaint on government’s order as per 196 of the Criminal Procedure Code. On the misuse of the blasphemy law for political vendettas which endangers the lives of those accused, Mazari has requested the United Nations Special Procedures mechanism to intervene to immediately cease the misuse of the blasphemy law against political opponents endangering not only their lives but the lives of their families.

Commenting on Mazari’s letter to UN, Pakistan Democratic Movement (PDM) spokesperson Hafiz Hamdullah said that she has invited international establishment to intervene in Pakistan’s internal politics and the PDM strongly condemns this undemocratic act and rejects it. Assuring that the law of blasphemy would not be used against anyone, Hamdullah said that no one was allowed to hurt sentiments of Muslims through blasphemy. He reiterated that former premier Imran Khan has neither condemned the incident nor disassociated himself and the party from the people involved in the incident. On the contrary, he said, the former ministers of his party encouraged the people involved in insulting the Prophet’s Mosque with various tweets and statements.

Several leaders of the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N), including the information and law ministers, were requested to share their views but they did not respond till time of publishing.


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