The madness of Religion

By Nadeem F. Paracha

On Wednesday, 4th of July, a frenzied mob broke into a police station in Bahawalpur (South Punjab). The mob’s target was a ‘malang’ (vagabond), the sort that have been found in and around numerous shrines of Sufi saints in the sub-continent for centuries.

The malang, whom many people of the area also described to be a man not very sound of mind,  had been taken into custody by the area’s police after some people accused him of desecrating the sanctity of the Muslim holy book, the Quran.

So on Wednesday as the malang sat behind bars at a police lock-up and as most of the cops kept giving him sideways glances, cracking vague, pitying grins at the malang’s state of mind and habit of talking to himself, the mob surrounded the police station, demanding that the ‘blasphemer’ be handed over.

The cops refused, pleading that the case against the man shall be decided by the courts. As if already surprised that their fellow Muslims in uniforms hadn’t lynched the ‘blasphemer’ themselves, the mob thrust forward in an attempt to break into the police station.

A few cops rushed out with batons and teargas canisters trying to push the mob back that by now had grown to over a hundred enraged men with an audience of another hundred or so onlookers who, as usual, hang around such situations like silent, inanimate zombies.

As one of the cops frantically pleaded for reinforcements from his superiors on the phone, the mob had already barged into the lock-up. They went straight for the room in which the malang was being held.

Newspapers reported that the room/jail was being guarded by two armed policemen. A reporter of an Urdu daily told me that the cops did raise and point their guns at the approaching mob and wanted to fire, but seeing they were heavily outnumbered they decided to simply block the way.

Of course, how could they have? They were not only brushed away but mercilessly beaten, as the mob finally broke into the room, got hold of the terrified malang, dragged him outside and began to beat him with fists, kicks, iron rods and sticks.

Some witnesses (the mesmerised zombies) told reporters that they could hear the malang screaming and pleading the mob for mercy. But the onlookers stood still and so did the bruised cops, praying that the promised reinforcements would arrive before the mob slaughtered the malang and send him to hell for insulting Islam – the ‘religion of peace.’

The reinforcements did arrive. But by then the mob had had its fill of vengeance and blood. It hadbattered a vagabond and a mentally disturbed person to death. And as if that wasn’t enough to quench its blood thirst, it set the limp, bloodied body of the man on fire!

Deluded as we have become about our religious and national identities and priorities, I’m sure after seeing flames rise from the evil blasphemer’s dead body, many pious men in the mob must have looked at the sky, trying to penetrate their blood-shot gaze into the seventh sky where God resides, expecting the Almighty to begin showering rose petals on them.

That didn’t happen, and no one was willing to suggest that in all probability God had actually been repulsed by the act.

Yet again, the nation heard and saw its faith and holy texts being ‘avenged’ not by God-fearing men, but by a mob of retarded, subhuman filth.

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Almost all leading media outlets in the country carried the horrific story. And so did the western media that continues to scratch its head trying to figure out just how inflammable and helplessly retarded Pakistan’s state institutions, judiciary, politics and society have become.

The self-claimed ‘bastion of Islam’ has gradually mutated into becoming a bastion of deluded messiahs and mindless, violent ranting machines to whom anything, from incoherent malangs to the reopening of Nato supply routes, are conspiracies against Islam.

Even more than 24 hours after the gruesome incident, no-one seems to even know the murdered man’s name.

Who was he? Did he really desecrate the Quran? Or was he too a victim of the many reasons that usually drive conniving men to whip up hatred among impressionable, frustrated people to settle personal and economic scores against enemies by accusing him/her of blasphemy?

Or was the incident part of the 200-year-old battle between the Sunni Barelvi and Sunni Deobandi groups in the subcontinent in which both the sides have denounced each another as heretical?

Ever since the reactionary Ziaul Haq dictatorship began to give shape to laws that would eventually become to be known as the ‘Blasphemy Laws,’ it is believed more than 60 per cent of cases concerning one party accusing the other of blasphemy involve Barelivis and Deobandis pointing fingers at each other.

Various governments that took over after Zia’s demise in 1988, especially those belonging to the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) and the one run by General Pervez Musharraf, have made several attempts to repeal the laws that various moderate and liberal Islamic scholars have insisted has no precedence in the history of Islamic jurisprudence.

 

Javed Ahmed Ghamdi is one of the few well-known Islamic scholars in Pakistan who has publicly insisted that the country’s Blasphemy Laws have no precedence in the history of Islamic jurisprudence, and are entirely man-made (as opposed to being divinely ordained). In 2009, Ghamdi began receiving threats from the country’s various sectarian and Islamist organisations. He had to quietly go into hiding for which he flew out to Malaysia.

For example, during both the Benazir Bhutto governments (1988-91/1993-96), she hinted her desire to at least amend the controversial laws but her attempt was thwarted by religious parties even before she could put up the issue for debate in the parliament.

In the mid-2000s, the Musharraf dictatorship also tried its hand to repel the laws, only managing to push through soft, superficial changes.

In 2010, PPP legislator and current Pakistan ambassador to the US, Sherry Rahman, prepared a bill for the parliament that pleaded changes in the law, but nothing came from it – especially after veteran PPP man and governor of Punjab, Salman Taseer, was assassinated by a crazed bodyguard who believed Taseer had committed blasphemy.

Taseer had sympathised with a poor Christian woman who was arrested after being accused (by those trying to convert her to Islam) for blasphemy.

 

Former Governor of Punjab and veteran leader of the PPP, Salman Taseer, who was gunned down by a crazed fanatic who accused him of committing blasphemy.

Religious outfits such as the fundamentalist Jamat-i-Islami (JI), the Deobandi Jamiat Ulema Islam (JUI) and the Barelvi Sunni Ittihad Council (SIC) have all been at the forefront of resisting any move made by non-religious parties to repeal or even amend the Blasphemy laws.

However, in the last decade or so, a number of sectarian and jihadist organisations along with some prominent media men too have jumped into the fray.

The year Taseer was murdered and there was talk of Sherry Rehman wanting to introduce her bill in the parliament, JI, JUI and SIC held a number of rallies across the country against the move.

Also present at the rallies were leaders from banned sectarian and militant organisations.

What’s more, well-known TV anchors like Aamir Liaqat and investigative reporter and ‘analyst’ Ansar Abbasi and some others in the media have been openly using air time and column space to not only blunt any move to even amend the controversial law, but to also (and actually) blame the victims of the law and mob action partaken in the name of Islam.

Another section of the civil society, the lawyers, still reeling from the euphoria of 2006-7’s ‘Lawyers Movement’ against the Musharraf regime, can now be seen stretching the residue of the movement into the religious domain.

A number of lawyers in various urban centres of the Punjab were caught on camera showering rose petals on Taseer’s murderer. Then, only recently, the Lahore Bar Council actually banned Shezan food products on its premises because ‘Shezan was owned and run by Ahamdis.’

Ansar Abbasi getting angry at a newscaster for repeatedly showing images of a woman being flogged by religious extremists in Swat in 2009. He first tries to suggest that the flogging might have been according to the ‘dictates of Sharia.’ Then he says he disagrees with those who are calling the act barbaric.

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Apart from the fact that the controversial law has witnessed numerous cases in which men have tried to get rid of enemies for economic, sectarian and entirely non-religious reasons by misusing the law against them, another fall-out has been how this law has ended up actually encouraging people to take vigilante action.

When the mentally disturbed malang was murdered by the Bhawalpur mob, this was not the first time that such brutality had taken place in the name of protecting faith in Pakistan.

Interestingly, most cases involving mobs attacking those accused of blasphemy have taken place in central and southern Punjab. Over the past two decades Punjab as a whole has been going through a religious metamorphosis of sorts that is seeing a rise in not only overt religiosity and exhibitionism in the province, but a more rapid mushrooming of jihadi and sectarian outfits.

Civilian political and state institutions seem almost helpless to stem the tide, fearing retaliation and accusations of siding with the ‘blasphemers.’

Apart from the way Taseer was murdered and how Sherry Rehman and late Fauzia Wahab were threatened, the federal government (under a PPP-led coalition) and the one in the Punjab (run by the PML-N), seem clueless on how to keep the proliferation of hate literature and hate sermons in seminaries and mosques in check and under watch.

In fact, non-religious but right-wing parties like the PML-N and Imran Khan’s PTI haven’t shied away from cultivating links with certain sectarian outfits and personalities, some of whom have actually hailed vigilante action against ‘heretics’ and ‘blasphemers’.

 

PTI chief Imran Khan, giving a speech at a PTI rally. Seen in the crowd are flags of the Jamat-i-Islami and the banned sectarian organisation, Sipah Sahaba Pakistan (SSP).

Punjab law Minister and PML-N leader, Rana Sannaullah, seen on stage with the leader of the banned SSP.

Lawyers in Lahore cheer for the killer of Salman Taseer outside a court. They had showered him with rose petals and hailed him as a hero. Many of them had also been part of the ‘Lawyers Movement’ against the Musharraf regime.

Famous TV religious anchor, Aamir Liaqat, was accused by the Ahamadi community for instigating violence against Ahmadis through his show. Four Ahmadis were murdered in Lahore in 2007 and the community accused Liaqat’s show. Though no legal action was taken, Liaqat, who was then a member of the MQM, was fired from the party. He was soon shown the door by the TV channel as well. However, this year the same channel decided to get him back and he is set to revive his show from this year’s Ramazan.

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So who was the malang? What was his name? What did he do? The following is what I could gather from some reporters who were trying to decipher the same.

His name is still unknown, most probably because he came from a poor economic background. According to some reporters, he was well known by at least some of those who decided to kill and then set him on fire.

Many people of the area knew him as a vagabond who was not quite sane. It is still not known exactly who thought that this ragged looking and mentally disturbed man desecrated the holy book.

But one reporter told me that some people of the area were of the view that the malang was an ‘ashiq’ of Mansur Al-Hallaj – the famous 10th century Sufi saint, scholar and poet who was put to death by the authorities in Iraq for committing blasphemy.

 

A painting showing the hanging of Sufi saint and poet Mansur Al-Hallaj. He was hanged by Abbasid caliph, Al-Muqtadir in 922 CE, after the orthodox ulema and molvis at Muqtadir’s court accused Hallaj of committing blasphemy. In a fit of Sufi devotional rite, Al-Hallaj is reported to have shouted ‘Anā l-Ḥaqq’ (I am the truth). The ulema took the statement to mean that Hallaj was declaring he was God. Sufis, however, believe that Al-Hajjaj had simply reached the pinnacle of devotional consciousness and that Muqadir and his ulema got him executed because his unorthodox ways of teaching Islam had become popular with the masses and thus a threat to the Caliphate.

Details about the poor malang are at best sketchy and based on speculations, apart from the fact that he was mentally unsound.

It is also likely that even if this man actually had a family somewhere, it would hesitate to come forward.

Families of those arrested for blasphemy or killed usually become targets of harassment. The ordeal becomes like a nightmare that one fails to wake up from – until the defenders of the faith provide another hell-bound victim so the cycle begins again and the enthusiasm to kill and burn enemies of God remains as animated and constant as ever.

As one distraught friend of mine once prayed: ‘May Allah save Islam from Pakistan.’

DAWN.COM

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