NationalVOLUME 18 ISSUE # 42

Time to check rising extremism

The Christians of Pakistan recently endured yet another horrifying incident of mob violence, which took place in Jaranwala on August 16. In a distressing turn of events, a large and frenzied mob proceeded to vandalize and set fire to approximately 19 churches and numerous Christian residences, all while the police looked on passively.

The trigger for this wave of violence was the discovery of desecrated pages from the Quran near the home of two Christian brothers. This discovery led to accusations of blasphemy, ultimately culminating in the outbreak of violent chaos. Regrettably, some members of a religious party exploited this situation by making public announcements from mosques and other locations, actively encouraging people to launch attacks on churches and homes.

It is worth noting that the party first emerged on the sectarian landscape of Pakistan almost eight years ago. Since then, it has orchestrated numerous violent protests and even twice blockaded Islamabad. These blockades were in response to perceived inaction regarding the publication of offensive caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) in Europe, as well as alleged attempts to amend blasphemy laws by the two previous elected governments of the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) and the Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI). Notably, the religious party was also accused of inciting a crowd to murder Sri Lankan factory manager Priyantha Kumara in Sialkot in December 2021. It is increasingly evident that the state has played a role in creating and nurturing the party to safeguard its own political interests within the country.

Prominent journalist Raza Rumi observes, “The political parties and their parliamentarians, who should be contemplating the grave implications of the misuse of the blasphemy card, are complicit in this state-sponsored project.” Rumi goes on to point out that when the religious party was deployed in 2017 to exert pressure on the former PML-N government and weaken Nawaz Sharif’s voter base, it received praise from Imran Khan. During the 2018 election, its slogans were normalized, and during Imran Khan’s tenure, two agreements were reached after violent protests by the group in response to ‘blasphemous’ French cartoons. Even after Imran Khan’s departure, the PDM-led government continued the policy of appeasement and accommodation. Moreover, under Shehbaz Sharif’s administration, the parliament further fortified the blasphemy laws, making them even more stringent. As a result, Pakistan appears to be inexorably moving towards a majoritarian political landscape, particularly as mainstream parties either face sporadic intervention from the establishment or lose credibility, making this shift seemingly inevitable.”

In response to this recent tragedy, the caretaker prime minister, politicians, and members of civil society have issued their customary condemnations. However, the unfortunate reality is that no one is likely to be held accountable for this atrocity, and like previous attacks in Gojra, Joseph Colony, and the Peshawar church, it may soon fade from public memory.

It is essential to acknowledge the grim history of violence and persecution against religious minorities in Pakistan. The Gojra incident in 2009, where eight Christians, including four women, were burned alive, remains a haunting example of such brutality, resulting in the destruction of 60 homes and a church, with no convictions.

In 2013, Joseph Colony in Lahore witnessed the burning of 18 shops, two small churches, and over 160 homes, causing significant damage. Tragically, 78 people lost their lives, and more than 100 were injured in a suicide bombing at a Peshawar church in the same year.

The rise of extremism in Pakistan can be traced back to the era of Gen. Ziaul Haq, who made blasphemy punishable by death. A 2022 report by the Centre for Research and Security Studies revealed that between 1947 and 2021, 89 individuals were purportedly executed for blasphemy, with around 1,500 accusations and cases during that period. More than 70% of these cases were in Punjab, while other provinces reported fewer blasphemy allegations and murders.

The introduction of the death penalty for blasphemy in 1986 marked a turning point, leading to a significant increase in the number of cases. Between 1987 and 2022, at least 2,120 people were charged with blasphemy. The pace of accusations appears to have accelerated in recent times, with 198 people accused of blasphemy until August 16, when the violent attack on Christians occurred in Jaranwala.

Shockingly, innocent people are often falsely convicted, lynched, shot, or attacked based on mere suspicions of blasphemy, and many perpetrators go unpunished. The Supreme Court has highlighted the need for adequate safeguards against the misuse of the blasphemy law by motivated individuals.

In light of these disturbing trends, it is imperative that politicians take action to protect vulnerable communities from the abuse of the law. Security agencies should reconsider their policies of creating and supporting religious parties, and the media and civil society must raise their voices in support of marginalized communities, particularly the Christian community, which faces institutional discrimination and social exploitation. Safeguarding the rights of minorities is crucial for the stability and inclusivity of any state.