On Wednesday, October 31, the nation and the rest of the world looked on in surprise as the Supreme Court (SC) acquitted Asia Bibi of all charges concerning her blasphemy case. While the international community celebrated the decision and the end of Asia Bibi’s long confinement in jail, in Pakistan the mood was slightly different. Even though the majority of the Pakistani public whole heartedly supported the SC verdict, they did so with trepidation, as they were well aware how such judgements were interpreted by the religious community in the country. And the Mullahs did not disappoint.
It did not take long before protesters had taken to the streets, blocked roads, and proceeded with the usual spate of violence that people across the country have unfortunately seen multiple times in the past. They saw it during the anti-Ahmadiyya riots in the fifties and the seventies, and more recently during the protests regarding the Khatme-Nabuwat controversy.
Two years ago, the PML-N government passed the Criminal Laws (Amendment) Act 2016, which drew support from the opposition as well. The purpose behind the law was stated as “terrorism, sectarianism and extremism have gripped the entire country and these acts have become the order of the day. The country is passing through an extraordinary situation, which requires stringent measures to be taken to curb this menace that has infiltrated society.”
This law was designed to curb hate speech and incidents of public lynching, especially against traditionally marginalized groups in the country, including women and religious minorities. In cases where offenders deliberately use words to ‘hurt the religious feelings of any person’, the punishment was to be one to three years in jail, and an unspecified fine, which could be extended up to Rs500,000. The law also called for similar punishment for the use of loudspeakers, sound amplifiers or any other such devices to incite religious, sectarian or ethnic hatred.
The amendment went on to highlight the punishment for police officials that failed to uphold these laws and perform their duties in a timely and efficient manner. These included “officers guilty of any violation of duty, willful breach or neglect of any rule, regulation or lawful order made by a competent authority” and the scope of their duties comprised of prevention of sectarian and hate speeches and proliferation of hate material by any person, organized group, organization or banned outfits.
The law even contained a formal description as to what constitutes lynching. “Whenever any individuals, an organized group or a mob by taking the law in own hands inflict punishment on a person accused or suspected of a crime by causing him a hurt or his death, every such individual, a member of such group or a mob is said to commit lynching.”
There is no doubt that the Criminal Laws (Amendment) Act was a welcome move from the otherwise inept PML-N government, yet, as with most things, it is in its implementation where the state has truly fallen short. The law calls for action against groups or individuals that espouse hate speech, yet incidents of this nature have been relatively common in Pakistan, with the Ahmadiyya and Christian communities perhaps the most affected in this regard.
For years, members of these communities have been persecuted for their beliefs, and have had to face racism and violence from almost every prominent Islamist group in the country. Their places of worship have been destroyed, their neighborhoods have been burned and their people have been killed, all in the name of a religion that promotes peace and forgiveness above everything and anything else.
However, it is hard to talk sense to an uneducated, power hungry mullah, and even harder to talk to his fervently blind followers. These supporters are prepared to go to any lengths to ‘protect’ their religion, yet all they are, are mere puppets for their religious leaders to use and discard whenever they like. Their actual purpose is for their duplicitous leaders to showcase their great influence over their actions, and in turn keep the state hostage every time they need to achieve a specific objective.
Cases like Asia Bibi have come to light in the past, and will continue to do so in the future as well. It is only when the government in charge exhibits an actual desire to change this unfortunate status quo that the many disenfranchised communities of Pakistan can finally live in peace. It is time that the state rises up against the forces that seek to divide our society, and cause strife when there is no need for one. A small minority of people should not have the power or the opportunity to shut a whole country down, inconvenience its citizens and make perverse demands, as and when it suits them. Protesting is a right that should be afforded to every citizen of Pakistan, yet not at the expense of law and order. It is high time the people in charge grow a backbone, and ensure incidents like these do not repeat themselves in the future.