The Class Politics of Blasphemy in Pakistan: Fatima Tassadiq

Guest Post by FATIMA TASSADIQ

The brutal murders of Shehzad and Shama, a Christian couple in the village of Kot Radha Kishan in Kasur district on 4th November, spawned predictable outrage in the press and social media. The rush of horror, the diagnoses and prescribed course of action against such violence involved the familiar paternalistic discourse of the ‘illiterate masses’ whose ‘ignorance’ evidently leaves them particularly vulnerable to the manipulation of the much maligned mullahs. Such a narrative serves the dual function of reducing religious violence to the faceless masses while at the same time reaffirming the educated urban upper class as the rightful custodian of Islam and Pakistan. This construction conveniently ignores the role played by the state and the elite in producing religious violence and feeds the class-based blind spots that exist in our understanding of what constitutes religious extremism.

Most of the outrage that follows such incidents is directed at the apparent misuse of blasphemy accusations to settle personal scores. The unknown, probably semi-literate kiln owner who apparently had a financial dispute with the couple is easy to hate. It is much harder to vilify the suave, Oxford educated Imran Khan when he accuses Geo Television of blasphemy to score political mileage from the channel’s stand off with the intelligence agencies. When Hamid Mir, a Geo TV journalist, accused the intelligence agencies of trying to assassinate him last summer, the establishment naturally accused the reporter and the media group in question of treason and ‘anti-Pakistan’ activities. However, when an ordinary smear campaign failed to rally massive condemnation, the establishment returned to its time honored strategy of mobilizing support through religious idioms and manufactured a blasphemy case against a morning show aired by the TV channel. In the ensuring brawl, the debonair Imran Khan joined hands with every other militant outfit in the country to condemn Geo’s abuse of Islam and Prophet (pbuh)’s family’. Mubasshar Lucman, a celebrity journalist from a rival media channel, took the lead in protecting the sentiments of Muslims and invited Maulana Ahmad Ludhianvi of the Ahle Sunnat Wal Jamaat (ASWJ) to plumb the depth of the depraved media group. ASWJ was banned in 2012 due to its association with the Sunni terrorist outfits Sipah-e-Sahaba Pakistan and Lashkar-e-Jhangvi. It’s twitter account has been extremely busy over the last few weeks condemning the ‘terrorist’ and ‘apostate’ Shia processions during Muharram. These days Mubasshar Lucman is often to be found on top a container alongside Imran Khan as the latter appeals to the urban elite to help him usher in ‘Naya Pakistan’. Both these gentlemen and their adoring fans have condemned the Kasur incident and the misuse of blasphemy laws.

Our other Oxford trained political leader Bilawal Bhutto Zardari has also expressed ‘deep grief and shock’ at the twin murders in Kot Radha Krishan. Muttahida Qaumi Movement’s Farooq Sattar insisted that misuse of the blasphemy laws was tantamount to blasphemy itself. The two are obviously unaware of the antics of their fellow party workers who were until recent busy trying to decide if Syed Khursheed Shah was a blasphemer for insulting the term ‘mohajir’ or those who criticized him were blasphemers because insulting a Syed – a decedent of Prophet Muhammad –  could also be considered blasphemy.  These are our only two mainstream secular political parties ladies and gentlemen.

Then there’s the argument that Shama had accidentally burnt some verses of the Quran when she was trying to destroy amulets used for black magic by her mother and had no idea what was actually in them. But the frenzied mob never gave her a chance to explain. Those people are barbarians whereas the elite obviously put in a lot of thought regarding intentionality before making similar accusations. You can clearly see the profound cogitation exercised by Imran Khan before demanding action against Geo. Pakistan Tehreek-s-Insaf’s fans naturally followed their captain’s lead. An acquaintance and Youthiya carefully explained why intentions were irrelevant when I objected to his blood thirsty demands for the TV show anchor’s execution. According to his ‘rationale’ those mocking Islam will always insist that they are only joking hence it is pointless to investigate the intentions of the ‘blasphemers’. If our so called educated elite can spew such IQ-blasting drivel why can’t the poor think along similar lines and decide that attending to intentionality will only make it harder to indict the blasphemer? And given the state failure to deter all kinds of crimes it makes even more sense for the mob to dispense quick ‘justice’ on its own. But wait, how dare we equate that illiterate stick wielding mob with the largely urban, upper middle class professionals that form PTI’s support base? The latter did not call for vigilantism. It would of course be unacceptable for anyone to take the law in their own hands. The state must deal with all blasphemy accusations in accordance with the country’s penal code. This argument enables the elite provocateurs of violence to absolve themselves of all consequences of their incitement.  Urdu textbooks in Khyber Pakhtunkhuwan issued under the collaboration of PTI and Jamaat-i-Islami glorify Ilm Din but with the important qualification that his actions were commendable at that time due to the absence of the blasphemy law. Now that we have Section 295-C to protect the Muslim majority from the less than 3% minority there is no need to put oneself to so much trouble.

Now lets take a look at this blasphemy law. Most of our elite bemoaning the ignorant masses who insist on taking the law in their own hands probably do not know or do not care that Section 295-C makes absolutely no requirement for the establishment of deliberate malicious intent. The absence of such a requirement has led to the indictment of mentally unstable persons in the past thereby demonstrating the excruciatingly flawed nature of these laws. In other words, the text of the law much like the lynching mob in Kasur, MQM, PPP  and PTI in their respective political disputes couldn’t care less about the intentions of the accused. Had Shama been tried under this law she would probably have been found guilty and sentenced to death anyways. Far from ensuring some semblance of order and accountability, the blasphemy laws actively promote the persecution of minorities where the mere accusation of blasphemy is enough to justify death – judicial or otherwise.

Such elite delusions are hardly surprising and testament to our tendency to privilege the horror of a single incident over structural violence. Many of those apparently shocked at the murders are probably less upset at the fact that two innocent people are dead and more horrified at the way they were killed. Had the two been arrested, tried, convicted  and left to rot in prison until they were either executed by the state or a fan of Mumtaz Qadri – we would have seen less outrage on social media.  It is only the specter of  the out of control, unwashed masses that has disturbed the urban social and political elite. How many of us saw Facebook statuses and press releases dedicated to the allegedly blaspheming Shia prisoner axed to death by a cop in Gujrat days after the murders in Kasur? The state following its familiar incident oriented approach has declared itself a plaintiff in the case. It’s response to the political grievance of minorities ends with this grand gesture.

There is little to see here except sheer hypocrisy and our collective schizophrenia. A bearded cleric making blasphemy accusations is a jahil mullah. A clean shaved politician doing the same is representing the people. Incitement on social media is acceptable especially if done in impeccable English. That done from the mosque pulpit is not. The victims of village mobs deserve justice. Those caught in political battles do not.  Shehzad and Shama command sympathy because they were actually killed. A TV show anchor does not because she managed to flee the country.

The blasphemy laws and their accompanying violence are not likely to change, not because our leaders are scared but because they are smart. They know that it’s too good a political weapon to neuter. Meanwhile, the rest of us, the self proclaimed repositories of moderate Islam will continue to shake our heads  and wax eloquent on maniacal masses and fanatical mullahs.  There will be little introspection about the pervasive paranoia and ideological myths that cut across class boundaries and sustain existing power hierarchies.

Fatima Tassadiq studied cultural anthropology at Columbia University and is currently a doctoral student of anthropology at the University of Pennsylvania. She tweets @fatimatassadiq and blogs at fatimatassadiq.wordpress.com.

5 thoughts on “The Class Politics of Blasphemy in Pakistan: Fatima Tassadiq”

  1. Your column ignores the fact that when people call for repeal of blasphemy law, they demand it from the state and the government. It also fails to explain the national celebration over death of Salman Taseer one of the richest man in Pakistan and Shahbaz Bhatti a minister who stood up for a poor Christian lady

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    1. The blasphemy laws in Pakistan and their accompanying violence is a thesis worthy topic with many aspects. In this particular column my aim was to point out the hypocrisy of much of the outrage in response to the Kasur murders specifically by comparing it to how the social and political elite have used similar accusations for similar ends recently.

      And even though I do not talk about Salman Taseer’s murder, I think the points I make about the blasphemy laws enabling a dangerous environment which cuts across class boundaries is relevant to the response to Salman Taseer’s murder. For the record I would hesitate to call the response a ‘national’ celebration as the murder was met with widespread condemnation across the country. It is hard to tell if the majority condemned the murder or supported it because the public space following the murder was dominated by right wing/militant groups. Given the dangerous environment, those appalled by the murder could hardly take out rallies without seriously risking their lives.

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  2. I’m sorry but aren’t there any moderates in Pakistan working for change of the rather primitive laws which focus on religion, religion and more religion? Pretty much every Pakistan-related blog I read seems to be written by Pakistanis residing abroad. If things can change in India, why can’t they change anywhere else in the world?

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    1. ginindia, there are many moderates in Pakistan working for a fairer society, Asma Jahangir, Ayesha Siddiqa and Ansar Burney come to mind immediately. It is also common for South Asians to study social sciences and humanities abroad for various reasons.

      In general, activism in Pakistan might be more limited than in India due to the repeated bouts of military rule and excessive interference by the forces of political Islam since the creation of the country.

      But its not like civil rights organizations in India are thriving either, but thats another matter.

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