By Kamila Hyat
December 28, 2017
For decades, Pakistan’s blasphemy law has been blatantly misused in the country – to settle a petty dispute, to resolve a business rivalry, to take revenge from a neighbour over some minor matter or for some other trivial issue.
The Islamabad High Court in its ruling on the disappearance earlier this year of five bloggers who were apparently ‘picked up’ from various parts of the country, has noted that anyone making a false accusation of blasphemy also deserves punishment and that the onus of proving the crime lies with the person who brings the charge.
The observation on blasphemy laws by the court is of immense significance in a country where the law is abused again and again. Social activists, such as Jibran Nasir and others with him have been subjected to threats on the basis of having committed blasphemy. People – including, at times, TV personalities – using social media to spread a sense of threat or harassment increasingly level grave charges of blasphemy, endangering lives with just a few words thrown out into cyberspace. They face no fear of punitive action.
And of course, once a blasphemy charge is made, the reactions of people can be shocking. In April this year, Mashal Khan, the young student who had campaigned for the rights of his peers at the Abdul Wani Khan University in Mardan was killed by fellow students who deliberately used false blasphemy charges to whip up a frenzy directed against the boy. The true cause was the threat posed to administrators engaged in wrongdoing by Mashal’s challenge to their activities.
Very little progress has been made in the case since then. Mashal’s sisters are unable to attend their educational institutions because of the threat the entire family faces and neither the PTI-led Khyber Pakhtunkhwa government nor the ANP, after whose leader the university is named, have taken any real action in the matter. In other instances, persons accused of blasphemy had been killed in jails and in May this year, an attempt was made in Hub to kill a Hindu man after accusations of blasphemy against him. The ease with which a few individuals are able to stir up a mob which is willing to take a life is totally horrifying.
This mentality of the mob is not, however, unique. In October 2016, hundreds of students of Pennsylvania State University in the US went on a rampage, trying to search out men dressed as clowns who they believed posed a threat to schools or individuals. The frenzy had been stirred by a social media post suggesting men dressed as clowns could attack a school or that ‘creepy clowns’ were stalking neighbourhoods. There was no proof that any real threat existed. The posts had come from an anonymous account which quickly vanished. Yet spurred on by this, the students, armed with baseball bats, tennis racquets and other makeshift ‘weapons’ marched through the streets with police called out to stop them.
The event puzzled many at the time, and raised questions about social media and its dangers. But well before the times of social media, herd mentality has existed. An experiment carried out by a US high school teacher in the late 1960s, at a time when ‘free thinking’ was all the rage, and showed how easy it was to convert a group of ordinary students studying World History into a neo-Nazi mob. As a means to teach how fascist ideas could quickly take hold of societies, such as Germany of the 1930s, other teachers have conducted similar experiments, proving that even well-educated, thinking students could quickly resort to irrational behaviour when converted into a mob.
But how is this mob created? In 2008, at Leeds University, an experiment was carried out in which different groups of people were placed in a hall and asked to walk around it randomly. They were not permitted to talk or gesture to each other. Within each group, five percent of the people had been given a map or diagram to follow as they paced the premises. Within a very short time, the rest of the group began following them because they seemed more confident or more knowledgeable about their actions. The same phenomenon occurs when even the smallest group of individuals within a society, perhaps even a single person, points a finger accusing someone of blasphemy and brings in others, possibly a cleric or two, to back the claim.
When the person targeted is a member of a minority community, the other feelings which exist about such groups makes it easier to drive home the murderous charge, regardless of whether any grounds to hold such beliefs exist at all. Most of the hundreds accused of blasphemy and today held in jails across the country are, however, Muslim. Rationally speaking, there is of course no reason for anyone of sound mind to commit blasphemy or deliberately insult religion. Rationality, however, disappears when a mob is involved. The presence of a law which can swing into force virtually without check, with police generally too terrorised to carry out any form of investigation, of course adds to the risk.
Hate is astonishingly easy to create, even in societies which are more open and have a longer history of democracy and free speech than ours. Presently in the US, 917 hate groups function in 22 states, targeting people of colour, Jews, Muslims, and others. Of these, at least 42 are active units of the sinister Ku Klux Klan founded in the 1800s whose members don conical white hoods and capes and have been involved in crimes which include the lynching of black people, setting their homes on fire, or otherwise threatening them. Their emblem, a cross set on fire, has been seen in US states once again today.
Hate, then, is not easy to crush. Psychologists involved in undoing the brainwashing of neo-Nazis in Norway and other Scandinavian countries, Muslim extremists or members of various cults who hold a range of extreme beliefs say it can take years to successfully pull someone away from the mindset which has captured them. In some cases, members of these groups who have been able to break free say they themselves understand how illogical their thinking was, but convincing others still in the hold of such beliefs is a painstaking task which requires expertise and a huge amount of patience.
In our country, irrationality and the creation of a particular mindset which is not open to thought has helped create the mob mentality which spurs on blasphemy allegations. The failure by the state to act against it has encouraged people to use it for all sorts of purposes. They know that simply bringing a charge of blasphemy will destroy a life and wreck a family. Fighting against this mindset is a demanding task. The state does not help when it permits people to be whisked away or when it issues warnings regarding content on the internet but fails to take the same measures against content which glamorises extremism.
The trend is a hugely dangerous one. A means to stop it has to be found. Right now, we do not seem to possess the requisite weaponry, requisite will or the requisite expertise to succeed.