By Ailia Zehra
OCTOBER 18, 2018
Supreme Court reserved its judgement on blasphemy convict Aasia Bibi’s appeal against her death sentence last week and the verdict is likely to be announced in the coming days. Extremist group Tehreek-e-Labbaik, which evidently enjoys impunity across the country, has not only warned of launching country-wide protests but also threatened the judges of consequences if Aasia Bibi is released. Their social media pages are posting hateful content against the hapless woman, threatening to kill her if she is acquitted. It is disturbing that the kind of hate speech such groups frequently engage in goes unnoticed by the authorities. The PTI government’s silence over blatant threats being hurled at judges and government officials by the clerics of Tehreek-e-Labbaik and other extremist groups is a reminder of the state of lawlessness in the country. Also disturbing is the fact that Pakistan Telecommunication Authority (PTA) which is otherwise quick to take notice of ‘immoral’ or ‘vulgar’ content on online platforms turns a blind eye to extremist and hateful content.
The bigots baying for the blood of the poor Christian woman are dangerous and need to be dealt with an iron fist. The government should make it clear that any attempts to influence the proceedings of the court or threaten the honourable judges would not be tolerated. Let us hope that justice is served and Aasia Bibi’s ordeal finally comes to an end. Meanwhile, whether the new government repeats history and adopts an apologetic tone while dealing with the said extremist group (in case the verdict is in Aasia Bibi’s favour) is yet to be seen. However, the recent decisions of the PTI government including Atif Mian’s removal from PM-appointed Economic Advisory Council after pressure from right-wingers, are anything to go by, the PTI cannot be counted on to take tough decisions. This might still be a test case for Imran Khan. If Aasia Bibi is acquitted, the way the reaction from religious quarters on the judgement and possible unrest by extremists is handled, will determine if the new government is capable of taking on the religious bigotry which has claimed countless lives in Pakistan over the years. This bigotry and religious intolerance continues to threaten the stability of the country. Therefore, the government ought to do the right thing and thwart the extremists’ ill intentions of creating a lockdown situation.
The PTI government’s silence over threats of violence being hurled at judges and government officials by the clerics of Tehreek-e-Labbaik and other extremist groups is a reminder of the level of lawlessness prevailing in the country
The previous government of Pakistan Muslim League- N (PML-N), when faced with a somewhat similar situation during the sit-in by the same religious group at Faizabad, Islamabad in November last year, resisted the pressure as far as it could. But when the military displayed a reluctance to act against the protesters who had brought the capital on a standstill for weeks, there was only so much the government could do. In a depressing turn of events, the then-law minister Zahid Hamid who was held responsible by the said group for initial removal of the Khatm-e-Nabuwwat oath from the Election Bill, stepped down as per the protesters’ demand. The apologetic agreement between the administration and the extremist group, facilitated by the military, added insult to injury. But again, the then government had to cow down to intimidation by a handful of clerics because, unlike the current government, it did not enjoy popular support and more importantly, it was not on good terms with the powerful military establishment. The current government of PTI not only envoys a level of comfort with the military, but also possesses public support and confidence to a great extent. Prime Minister Imran Khan should therefore adopt a zero tolerance policy towards the violence and hate speech which the extremist groups have long been able to get away with.
Moreover, it is time for the new government to review blasphemy laws and acknowledge the fact that they are conveniently used against the minority groups and other weaker segments of the society out of sheer bigotry and sometimes to settle personal scores. Last year, dissenting activists critical of the establishment’s policies were also falsely accused of blasphemy in a bid to silence them. As soon as an allegation of blasphemy is made, the accused becomes the target of bigots who take it upon themselves to teach the ‘blasphemer’ a lesson and there is a complete absence of fair trial in such cases. The justice system fails the blasphemy accused because the accuser is allowed to act as judge, jury and executioner. According to statistics, a large number of blasphemy accused in Pakistan were killed before their respective trials were over. The lynching of university student Mashal Khan over false allegations of blasphemy last year and the killing of a Christian couple in Kot Radha Kishan in 2014 are two instances (there are numerous others) where allegations of blasphemy led to loss of lives in the most brutal way. In an ideal world, the government in a country where this kind of violence is a norm, would help build a narrative against the practice of taking law into one’s own hands. But governments over the years have done little to address the issue of religious intolerance. On the contrary, there have been announcements from government institutions encouraging people to report ‘blasphemous’ content.
Since the PTI promises to correct all that’s wrong with Pakistan, it should be reminded that a counter-extremism intervention at the state level is long overdue. Meanwhile, it is disappointing that a recently-introduced bill seeking strict punishment for false blasphemy accusations in Senate was withdrawn on PTI’s request. Blasphemy-related violence and injustices will continue if the government does not work towards eradication of intolerance. Introduction of safeguards to stop the misuse of blasphemy law can be a significant first step in the process. But what is more important in this regard is the will to act, which is clearly missing.
Ailia Zehra is Assistant Editor, Daily Times. She tweets at @AiliaZehra and can be reached at email@example.com