According to the news story, a student of a religious seminary in Chakwal, Junaid Ahmad was arrested for being blasphemous. He was apparently seen burning pages of Quran a week ago, was beaten by a crowd and handed over to the police. Ironically, however, a shaken and frightened Junaid claimed that he was in reality disposing off Quran’s loose pages to save them from desecration.
The story behind Junaid’s action was simple enough. His teacher, who belongs to Tehrik Khuddam Ahl-i-Sunnat, had told him that burning Quranic pages was a legitimate way of disposing them along with putting them in flowing water (stream etc) and burying them. As he was unable to find the other two options, Junaid resorted to the third one. It was just his luck that the man who saw him as he set the pages on fire had heard from another cleric that burning the Quran amounted to desecrating it. What followed is an ominous reminder of sharply converging, and rigid, interpretations among various schools of religious thought.
Diversity, whether religious or cultural, is always a good thing. But here, this diversity of belief within sects and sub-sects is stamped with unflinching righteousness, intolerance, and violent knee-jerk reactions. Leaving the organised sectarianism between Shias and Sunnis aside, these widely varying interpretations in such an environment result in friction and veiled hatred towards other sects within one’s circle. In such a situation, incidents like the one in Chakwal are in reality a mere prelude to what can follow. One of the most obvious possibilities, while remaining within the ambit of law, is the misuse of the blasphemy law against those who are fanatically in favour of it.
This misuse has already started albeit it is infrequent at the moment. In January this year, an imam and his son from Dera Ghazi Khan were convicted for life for committing blasphemy. They were accused of ripping posters from outside their grocery shop which advertised an event to observe Eid Milad un Nabi (the birth and death anniversary of Prophet Muhammad). There was strong speculation that the issue was not of blasphemy but difference of belief. The Deobandi philosophy, to which the imam and his son prescribed, do not believe in commemorating such days. So where the incident might have simply been that of removing a poster from their personal property, it was forcefully catapulted in the sphere of intentional blasphemy.
The problem, boiled down to its essence, is this: In all this ritualistic madness, this manic obsession with the act rather than the intention behind it, these “men of faith” have lost the plot. And that is an under-statement. Here school girls are ostracised for misplacing a dot in a word. Doctors are locked up for throwing away a person’s visiting card who shared the prophet’s name. People are persecuted for greeting others in Arabic language. Supporters of blasphemy laws obsessively defend its need to deter people from taking the law in their own hands; but when a man defies this very logic and kills a sitting governor whom he had taken an oath to protect, they cheer and holler themselves hoarse in his support.
So far, most of the victims of these laws are minorities and those belonging to lower and lower-middle income groups. But it won’t remain the same forever. With ferocious intolerance being allowed to breed unchecked in our country, it was only a matter of time before the factions started using this law to target religious rivals at will.
Right now a broad spectrum of religious right is united in its defence of murderer Mumtaz Qadri. Their slogans, demonstrative of their tunnel-minded support for his actions, should be deafening alarm bells for the rest of us.
It is a matter of time before these stout believers, momentarily united in their hate against “liberal fascists”, turn on each other. With such varied interpretations of religion, how will the courts interpret criteria of blasphemy? Will they take the easiest way out and just continue sentencing people in the hope the High Courts will correct the injustice? Will these cowardly actions really serve as a long-term pre-emptive solution or will the religious factions soon interlock horns?
If there is a legal or public showdown between people of different beliefs, the result will be more bloody, brutal and long drawn out than we can imagine. With all sides equally sure of their virtue and willing to die or kill for it, there might not be anyone standing at the end.
On a sardonic note, that will work out just right for the rest of the country.
Bushra S is an editor based in Lahore and can be found conversing on twitter here