Dr. Haider Shah

Opinion is the medium between knowledge and ignorance (Plato).

OVER A COFFEE: We were all there, The Daily Times, November 15, 2014

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When the state has itself declared in its laws that even in the 21st century its citizens can be arrested and given the death penalty if they do not subscribe to a particular set of beliefs, then in what way can we expect illiterate folk to desist from honour killing in the name of religion?

Dr Haider Shah

A handful of burnt bones were all that was left to establish the identity of a woman who was, until a while before, carrying a baby in her poverty-stung body. Her husband had vowed at the time of their wedding to “take her as his lawful wife to have and to hold, from that day forward, for better or for worse, for richer or for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and cherish until death do them part.” And, remaining true to his vow, his body’s ashes also lay now beside hers. What happened at Kot Radha Kishan is a sad story of various shades of human emotions: love, hatred, vanity, frenzy, hope, fear, tragedy. We can see it all there.

I am not in a rush to issue a self-comforting statement of condemnation against the perpetrators and then resume enjoying the usual perks of my life. If Ghalib’s soul had been watching the media coverage of the incident he would have summed it up all in one verse: “Jala hei jism jahan dil bhi jal gaya hoga, khuredte ho jo ab raakh justujoo kia hey?” (with the body consigned to flames the heart too would have burnt, so for what are you raking the ashes now?).

In the past one month, many incidents involving loss of life have occurred in Pakistan. On sectarian grounds, the Shia community was again targeted and on Wagah border a suicide bomber killed a large number of innocent commoners. However, the lynching of a Christian couple by a violent mob in rural Punjab tops the list for many reasons. In sectarian violence or terrorism, the deadly fallout is the outcome of one crazy individual who, in the process, also blasts himself. However, in blasphemy-ignited communal violence, the whole of Pakistani society lends its hand in the commission of the gory offence. When the state has itself declared in its laws that even in the 21st century its citizens can be arrested and given the death penalty if they do not subscribe to a particular set of beliefs, then in what way can we expect illiterate rural folk to desist from honour killing in the name of religion?

Laws represent the social consensus of a society at a given period in time. Jesus was charged with blasphemy and given the death penalty when he failed to satisfy the alarmed clergy of the Jerusalem temple. Sir Thomas Moore was beheaded for not following the new Church of England. In 1656, James Naylor was tried for blasphemy and then sentenced to flogging, branding and the piercing of the tongue by a red-hot poker. However, societies gradually improve their social consensus and sensitivities towards the idea of ‘holiness’ also keep changing. The debate on blasphemy continued in the UK and social consensus kept gravitating towards the side of freedom of expression. Blasphemy was restricted to only contemptuous, reviling, scurrilous or ludicrous matter relating to Christian figures as the law made a clear exclusion that “it is not blasphemous to speak or publish opinions hostile to the Christian religion, or to deny the existence of God, if the publication is couched in decent and temperate language.” The common law offence was, however, formally abolished through the Criminal Justice and Immigration Act 2008.

In UK society we saw a gradual evolution towards the repeal of the centuries old law of blasphemy. However, ironically, in Pakistan we find the opposite trend. Jinnah had assumed — arguably wishful thinking — that if Muslims lived in an independent state, the communal extremism trend that he had observed in the wake of the Ilm Uddin fiasco in the 1920s would vanish and all energies would be focused upon building a progressive and enabling state. In the Ilm Uddin case, Jinnah had pleaded for mercy on account of the accused’s young age and the fact that he was illiterate. The British Indian government then decided to insert section 295 A in the Indian Penal Code to discourage communal riots by making blasphemy against holy figures of any religious community an offence. Fully cognisant of communal tensions, Jinnah still was not happy with this new insertion and expressed his fears in the select committee that the new law might stifle the genuine questioning of certain faith-related idiocies. The government, however, was harder pressed with maintaining law and order, and passed the new law. After Pakistan came into being Jinnah made his intentions for a progressive country very clear with his first speech to the Constituent Assembly. However, instead of gravitating towards an open and secular Pakistan, we registered the gradual slide towards an intolerant theocratic society. Zia introduced new blasphemy insertions into the old law, thus subverting the constitutionally guaranteed right of equality of all faiths in criminal law. Since then, our legislators are unable to change the law nor can our judges declare the law unconstitutional.

When a judge awards the death penalty to an accused, not for murdering another human being but just because the accused uttered some words that the hearer or reader found offensive, or when a member of one sectarian group sprays bullets on a congregation of another sectarian community, or when a mob accuses a man and then lynches him to a gory death, we can find the same sense of dehumanisation running through all these cases. The blood of all those killed on the charge of blasphemy is on our sleeves as we remained silent all these years while the demon kept growing in all directions.

Author: Dr. Haider Shah

Academic, Researcher and Writer

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