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The Tragedies of Sacred Violence and Profane Rights

Usman Mahar

Usman Mahar

While non-Muslim minorities seem like the most obvious victims of Pakistan’s repressive   blasphemy laws, in practice the picture is not as simplistic. That is not to say that the existence of these draconian blasphemy laws does not curtail the “substantive freedoms” of the minority groups in Pakistan — they certainly do. How the so called ‘Muslim’ penal code is creating “unfreedom” — to use Amartya Sen’s terminology again — for the minorities in Pakistan is no riddle but, this complex question can in no way be deconstructed in the limited scope of this essay. As such, I want to direct my attention to a much simpler task — one that is — no less important. Through the case of the recent disappearances of political and civil rights activists; in most cases, these were non-violent resistors.

According to the International Commission of Jurists (ICJ) and the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP), the number of unsolved cases of disappearance is in the hundreds, while various other NGO’s claim the number to be in the thousands. The recent disappearances of social media activists and left-leaning intellectuals brought this grave issue of freedom and dissent as a basic human right to the forefront again. Salman Haider — who has now been released by his detainers — went missing from Islamabad along with fellow liberal activists Waqas Goraya, Aasim Saeed and Ahmad Raza Naseer from various cities in Pakistan between January 4 and 7. Reports suggest that the others might have been released by their respective captors as well — though none of them has made a public statement as of yet.

While these disappearances reek of the state’s — and its military apparatus’ — direct involvement, there have been cases where this was not the case and the state and the security were guilty by omission rather than commission.

I will try to unpack two important questions in this brief essay: Firstly, how this kind of extrajudicial violence; threats, disappearances and killings — whether directly sponsored or indirectly encouraged by turning a blind eye — serve as a mechanism of controlling dissent in public opinion. And secondly, how the existence of Pakistan’s draconian blasphemy laws creates justifications for eliminating dissent at a symbolic level.

Perhaps it makes more sense to see the real purpose of Pakistan’s repressive blasphemy laws as a means of controlling the 96.4 % of the Muslim population, rather than a tool for keeping the non-Muslims minorities (together less than 3.6% of the population) in check.

Lets take the example of late Sabeen Mahmud — a prominent social activist known for her fearlessness. With her cold-blooded killing, a clear message was sent out, the senders had communicated at point blank; dissent of any sort shall not be tolerated. While the perpetrators of this heinous crime might have had their own agenda, the states failure to protect social activists is partly a self-serving strategy. After all, dissenters will be dissenters; their non-conformity does not distinguish between state repression and other forms of repression — they will speak out against injustice period.

Violence is used as a means for curbing dissent in both cases — officially and unofficially. This is where unpacking the second question makes sense. The blasphemy laws provide the moral justification to vigilante groups of all sorts — religious, sectarian, and ethnocentric; ’guardians’ of tradition in one form or another. A selective interpretation of blasphemy, dissent and dishonour is carried out and as such, subjective verdicts on who has committed these crimes are carried out. The fact that it is extrajudicial is of little relevance at this point. What is of relevance here is that the death of the dissenter is the symbolic death of blasphemy, dissent and anti-nationalism. The state’s strategic opportunism needs to be brought to light here because most of the time it is the likes of Mahmud and Haider who also happen to shed light on the skeletons hidden in the state and military’s basement; highlighting state sponsored injustices in Baluchistan, Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa as well as the sponsorship of religious extremism.

While another concerning externality of this turning a blind eye strategy by the state for its own benefits is that the killers — the likes of Mumtaz Qadri — are hailed as heroes by the right; the eliminators of dissent. Paradoxically, the legal system only helps in so for that it transforms the status of these killers from heroes to martyrs and saints; perpetuating the cycle of violence. Yes, I believe that the hanging of Qadri did more harm than good — to put it more precisely; I am against capital punishment and the use of violence to curb violence.

Writer: Usman Mahar

The writer is an editor with THE PASHTUN TIMES. He is a [medical] anthropologist at the Ruprecht-Karls-University Heidelberg. He studies the place healthcare and wellbeing within and across different socioeconomic structures and cultural settings. Of particular interest to him is the issue of ageing. His alma maters include Aitchison College, University of Toronto and Utrecht University. His other interests include; issues of identity in a globalised world, a moral-philosophical approach towards politics and human rights and issues of gender and sexuality. He tweets @usmanmahar


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