The savagery in Sialkot, where a crazed Islamist mob accused a Sri Lankan factory manager, Priyantha Kumara Diyawadana, of blasphemy, has sent shock waves around the world. Not only was he charged with blasphemy, but he was beaten to a pulp (every single bone in his body was broken) and then burnt alive, while mobsters were clicking selfies with the burning body and screaming Islamist slogans.
However, this shouldn’t come as a shocking surprise, because what happened in Sialkot is something that has happened many times in the past in the Land of the Pure. The only novelty of the Sialkot incident is that this is the first time a foreigner has been lynched and murdered by a fanatical Islamist mob. And now that a precedent has been established, other foreigners who are working in Pakistan are potential victims.
Diyawadana’s Christian faith made his killing so much more palatable for the mob because Christians in Pakistan have been facing the brunt of the attacks in the name of blasphemy. The outrage in social media and the condemnation of the incident by people like the Pakistani Prime Minister, Imran Khan, the Army Chief, Qamar Bajwa, and a host of other politicians and officials really do not mean much. They are at best insincere and at worst disingenuous, given that this fanaticism has been assiduously promoted for political ends. Worse, they have kowtowed to the ideology and the clerics/activists who have weaponized the Blasphemy Laws to become a potent force in Pakistan’s politics. Just a few weeks back the entire state machinery lay prostrate before the marchers of Tehrik-e-Labbaik (TLP), a far-right Islamic extremist political party, giving in to all their demands and writing off the murder of nearly a dozen police officers as collateral damage. To expect action, much less justice, from such actors is asking for water in the desert.
What happened in Sialkot has happened innumerable times in the past, as there are countless incidents where blasphemy is alleged to settle scores with rivals. A young college professor has been imprisoned for over 8 years because some students accused him of blasphemy. His lawyer, a noted human rights activist, was shot dead because he was defending an alleged blasphemer. A Christian couple was beaten up and in front of their children were burnt alive in a brick kiln. An unlettered Christian boy in his pre-teens was similarly accused of blasphemy because he was burning some trash in which there were some pages with Quranic verses. The list is long. That the Blasphemy Laws in Pakistan is a bad law is not the problem, because there are many laws that are bad and liable to be misused. But no one has the courage to reform or amend the law in question. The actual issue at stake here is that society has been indoctrinated, fanaticized and radicalized to a point where a mere accusation of blasphemy is a virtual death sentence. The moment someone is accused of blasphemy, a lynch mob is ready to mete out instant punishment – death. If by chance, an accused escaped being lynched, he/she will spend many years in prison because courts are afraid to give bail, lawyers terrified to defend the accused. In prison, every day the life of the accused is in danger from his fellow inmates, many of whom think that murdering the person will win them and their family not only rewards in the afterlife but also an exalted status in this life. Mumtaz Qadri, the assassin of former Punjab Governor, Salman Taseer, is a prime example. Qadri has a shrine made in his honour, while Taseer did not even get a decent burial because no cleric was ready to administer his funeral rites, and even his political colleagues were afraid to attend his funeral.
What happened to Diyawadana can easily happen to other expatriate workers, the most endangered of which are the Europeans and the Chinese. The latter are particularly vulnerable, in part because of the growing sentiment against the treatment meted out to Muslims in China, and in part because of the overbearing manner in which Chinese managers and engineers behave with Pakistanis working under them in CPEC (China Pakistan Economic Corridor) projects. There are already reports of tensions between the mistreated Pakistani employees and the arrogant, haughty and intemperate Chinese. The Chinese managers don’t even need to insult the Prophet or the Quran; all that is needed is for one disaffected Pakistani worker to decide that he can become a hero of Islam by accusing his Chinese boss of blasphemy. The same could happen with an American, or a Frenchman, British, German or any other Westerner, including people working in international organizations. The French have been particularly targeted for the aggressive secularism in that country which has banned any outward symbol of religiosity, including the Burka.
The hand-wringing by top politicians and officials over the Sialkot savagery is hardly convincing. By normalizing and legitimizing the fanatics, what has happened is that the mainstream has been fanaticized and radicalized. The rise of the TLP has contributed significantly to making the weaponization of like blasphemy and finality of Prophethood a new normal. The new school curriculum introduced in schools has undue focus on Islamizing the Muslims by drilling in all kinds of Islamism into the heads of young kids.
Any prospective investor is going to be chary of betting on Pakistan. Imran Khan’s pipe dream of promoting Pakistan as a tourist destination has gone up in the flames that consumed Diyawadana’s lifeless, broken and brutalised body. Diplomatically, Pakistan’s image has been further tarnished. The international community is aware of how the current leadership has been riding on the back of fanatics to come into power, and how the extremists have been given immunity from any action by the state. Pakistan seems to be incapable of stepping back from the Islamist path it embarked right from its creation. The world needs to use all the economic, political and diplomatic leverages to make Pakistan step back from the brink. This will not be possible without holding out the threat of punitive action until Pakistan brings the culprits to book and starts to walk back on the issue of blasphemy.