By Yasser Latif Hamdani
Lately, all one watches on TV, reads in print and on social media and hears in private gatherings is about Panama Papers.
We love a good tamasha — a spectacle — and cannot live without one for long. Panama seems to be the new Tamasha in town and with the formation of a Joint Investigation Team (JIT) and growing calls for the prime minister’s resignation, the tamasha is all set to turn into a full blown circus.
Our penchant for Tamashas would be forgivable if there were not many more urgent issues that ought to be discussed. One such issue, staring us in the face, is the growing blood lust of the mob in the country. By the mob, one does not mean the mafia or organised crime. The mob is all of us, the entire Pakistani nation, together, out to lynch anyone it feels has fallen out of line with the mainstream’s idea of a good Pakistani.
Even though our constitution purports to give Non-Muslim Pakistanis equal rights, the reality is that ours is a majoritarian and, therefore, a fascist society that reinforces the idea that this country is for Muslims only. And that Non-Muslims should just put up and shut up. One can go on writing article after article about Mr Muhammad Ali Jinnah and his ideas of an inclusive, liberal, and democratic state, but then one realizes that with his death we ensured that any such fanciful notions were also buried.
An average Pakistani Muslim in the 21st Century believes that there are some opinions or words, if uttered, can justifiably lead to death executed either by the state or by the mob.
This situation is like being at a dead end in an exceptionally dark alley from where we are unable to find our way back. Since Mashal Khan’s brutal murder, there have been two more incidents triggered by blasphemy allegations. The first was the killing of a man in Pasrur by three women, who then proudly confessed to the murder. Then came the incident in Chitral where a man with mental disabilities was almost lynched by a mob over blasphemy allegations. In the past, I have likened Pakistan’s social condition with that of England in the 16th Century when people were burnt alive for heresy. I now see that the comparison is perhaps off the mark. Even in England of the 16th Century, those accused of heresy were seldom disposed off by the mob. They were instead tried by the authorities, ecclesiastical and secular, and there was at least some semblance of due process, however stretched. Later the age of enlightenment ensured that the authorities in the West gave up prosecution of opinions related to religious beliefs. In 1949, Lord Denning stated, “it was thought that a denial of Christianity was liable to shake the fabric of society, which was itself founded upon Christian religion. There is no such danger to society now and the offence of blasphemy is a dead letter.”
Too bad for us the entire fabric of society comes crashing down every time an opinion critical of religion is expressed. For the average Pakistani Muslim, almost every view contrary to his or her opinion is heresy. Indeed if one were to collate these heresies, there may be more heretics living in Pakistan than Muslims. Consider the Barelvis who are thought to be the overwhelming majority amongst Pakistan’s Muslims. They are the ones most concerned about blasphemy and heresy. However, for a significant section of the population they too are heretics, and vice versa. So we are soon going to come face to face with that awkward moment when a heretic kills another heretic for a heresy. Not that it has not already played itself out in our courts. Many blasphemy cases have been filed by Muslims against other Muslims.
What we have seen over the last 30 years is the increasing weaponisation of the blasphemy issue. Make no mistake about it: anyone and everyone can be accused of blasphemy and in this there is no discrimination between an imam and an atheist. It does not matter anymore how good of a Muslim one is. That is immaterial. Facts are immaterial when it comes to blasphemy allegations.
Seven years ago, the law itself was the primary concern — some even dared to seek its repeal. That did not end well. The law is a secondary issue now. In our country, rule of law is a dead letter. Matters are resolved by street violence long before an accused may even get the opportunity to defend their position in a court of law. And when a matter involving blasphemy allegations does make it to a court of law, there is no fair trial. Courts are often mobbed and put under siege. Can any judge withstand the mob in this country? In my practice as an advocate, I have seen even high courts being threatened by mob violence. I have seen the best of judges bowing down to the mob. That is the reality we must grapple with. Pakistan in 2017 is certainly no place for a freethinker or a refusenik. It is not even a place for an independent thinking Muslim scholar. That is why Javed Ahmad Ghamidi now lives in Malaysia. The message is loud and clear: do not ask questions of any kind. Mashal Khan did not get the memo in time.
After all, what does one do when there is a dead end and you cannot turn back because you happen to be chased by a murderous mob? You hide in the shadows and stay absolutely silent. Silence or death! There is no third option.
Yasser Latif Hamdani is a practising lawyer.