Murderous mobs

Mary Hunter
Tuesday, Dec 07, 2021

On Friday 3rd November, Priyantha Kumara was tortured and then killed by a mob who accused the Sri Lankan man of blasphemy. Once he had been set upon, Kumara’s body was burned on the streets for all to see. In the twisted next chapter of the story, young men were seen taking selfies with the burning body in the background. One of these young men had a sticker on his phone saying, ‘Apna Time Aayega’ (‘Our Time Will Come’). Based on the swift arrests made by the Punjab police and the vindictive rhetoric, their brief time in the limelight has already led to the incarceration of some and worse is likely to follow.

This is yet another example of how mobs in Pakistan have taken justice into their own hands in cases of alleged blasphemy. The brutal murder has been strongly condemned in no uncertain terms by Islamic scholars as well as the political leaders of the country. Many public figures and celebrities have taken to social media to express their disgust, which is an important reminder that Pakistan cannot be defined by these monsters who considered torture and murder to be proportionate responses to an accusation of blasphemy.

Let’s be clear, the consequences internationally for Pakistan are dire. Prime Minister Imran Khan, and other political leaders, have campaigned frequently on the international stage against Hindutva extremism in India as well as Islamophobia across Europe, especially in France. But what leg does he have to stand on if even a minority of his own people think justice is achieved by such abhorrent actions? After all, the barbaric urges of this mob are no different to those of the mobs who are killing Muslims in India, nor those of white supremacist mobs elsewhere.

Some across social media have responded to this atrocity by saying ‘but this is happening in India too.’ But this is an abdication of responsibility. Torture and extrajudicial murder cannot be justified in any context and actions have been taken to prevent it. Moreover, this is often the line of argument on which so many Pakistanis call for the self-determination of Kashmiris.

Many are discussing why this might have occurred. An important factor is certainly the recent U-turn the government took regarding the TLP, which had been designated a terrorist outfit and then later allowed to contest elections after their protests turned violent. The pardoning of the TLP, who have a tough anti-blasphemy agenda, was to embolden those who use violence as a means of getting what they want because the government bowed down to their pressure. As I have said elsewhere, this will negatively impact Pakistan’s diplomacy because the TLP had called for the expulsion of the French ambassador and the boycotting of French goods.

In this sense, it is significant that Kumara is not Pakistani but Sri Lankan. If Pakistan is to compete internationally, it has to be able to attract talent and be amenable to different nationalities and cultures. Without this basic ability to interact, foreign leaders of industry simply will not travel to Pakistan, never mind move there. Kumara was managing a factory in Sialkot when he was accused of blasphemy as a result of removing posters from the wall which had verses from the Qur’an. This, in the eyes of many non-Muslims, might not seem like a transgression of the country’s blasphemy laws. Indeed, the use of posters with the verses from the Qur’an would be prohibited in some circumstances depending on what their purpose is.

Similarly to the prospects of Pakistan as an international hub, the country is lucky to have such a young population, but incidents such as these will be used to bolster those harmful stereotypes of young Muslim men as violent and vulnerable to indoctrination. Though they are only a minority, perceptions matter and stereotypes have long determined Western foreign policy for Islamic countries like Pakistan. The country may also be held back internally if the number of those who share the same vision of ‘justice’ continues to grow, because resorting to violence and extrajudicial killings will only hamper the development of society and cause further communal division.

Historically, however, this disconnect between Muslims and non-Muslims in Pakistan can certainly be traced to the very basis of Pakistan’s Constitution in the 1949 Objectives Resolution. In this text, a number of clauses were vague and not self-explanatory, especially with regards to what ‘limits’ the state authorities could operate within and what the freedom of minorities actually entailed. This was heavily apparent at the time to those members of the Constituent Assembly who were non-Muslims and they raised these concerns. In the same way, it cannot be assumed that all foreigners and non-Muslims visiting Pakistan have such a thorough understanding of Islamic jurisprudence to know exactly what is and what is not permissible. To help with this, Pakistan’s government must make it clear that this mob in no way represents the penal system of the country.

Though some steps toward Islamization in Pakistan occurred under Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, it was General Zia who properly introduced it through a sustained programme. Though some of his decisions as president have been reversed and some never instituted, Islamic reform became central to Pakistan and this was characterised as a part of Pakistan’s inevitable trajectory as a state made in the name of Islam. The religious parties and Ulema were also given a more prominent role, even if they never won popular support in elections. Though Pakistan’s blasphemy laws were made more stringent as a part of General Zia’s Islamization programme, they are a legacy of colonial-era British India and so this is another example of how British colonialism continues to threaten communal harmony within Pakistan. But cases of alleged blasphemy exponentially increased during and after General Zia’s presidency, and so his regime can be considered significant in making blasphemy more of a concern for the state than it was before, even if the roots of blasphemy laws and their accompanying rhetoric lie in pre-Partition India.

One should not speculate too much until a thorough and impartial investigation has been undertaken. But the rights of minorities within an Islamic style of government are significant and they have an equal right to freedom and protection. It does not appear that Kumara was openly expressing disloyalty to the state of Pakistan nor condemnation of Islam. Even if he was, the removal of a poster can never be grounds for vigilante ‘justice’ involving torture and murder. Whether blasphemy has been used as a guise for some other quarrel is yet to beseen.

In cases such as this, the culpability of the crime must fall upon the individuals who perpetrated it and they must face justice. However, Pakistan’s administration has to understand the devastating consequences which can occur once they give power and impunity to those violent mobs who threaten the very stability of the country, never mind its image internationally, whether it be the TLP or groups such as this. Those Zia and British-India era aspects of law and their continuing influence should also be re-evaluated and deconstructed.

Only one day prior, Prime Minister Imran Khan posted a picture of Baruch Spinoza accompanied by the following quotation: “If you want the present to be different from the past, study the past.” He also added, in Urdu, that “Those who do not learn from history repeat the same mistakes over and over again.” But he himself does not appear to have heeded this lesson. How many more lives must be lost until he and other leaders do?

The writer is a researcher and is currently undertaking a PhD. She tweets @MaryFloraHunter.