Pakistan Lynching: Muslims Should Call Out Their Own Theology

Those who argue that this is not about Islam are part of the problem; they should be called enablers of such incidents

A mob stormed the Nankana Sahib Police station, dragged man accused of blasphemy, and lynched him. (Screengrab)
A mob stormed the Nankana Sahib Police station, dragged man accused of blasphemy, and lynched him. (Screengrab)

As I watched the video of the Pakistani man lynched few days ago, I could not but come to the painful realization that something is rotten in that society. A man, beaten to death, dragged through the streets and then set on fire seems to be a page out of medieval punishment. The horrific images though are from this year; the man being punished in this brutal fashion is accused of blasphemy, a term which can be stretched to include almost anything and everything with some imaginative interpretation. Blasphemy is punishable with death in Pakistan, as it is in many other Muslim countries of the world. According to the Centre for Research and Security Studies, a Pakistani think tank, 18 women and 71 men were killed extra-judicially over accusations of blasphemy till last year. A majority of such cases have come from Punjab, where the Barelvis have made blasphemy into a political issue. If anyone is still under the illusion that Barelwis are moderate, they should just see what they are doing in many parts of the world.

Only last week, the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan had released a report underlining an alarming increase of cases related to blasphemy. Despite similar reports arguing that in most cases, the accusation is the result of personal vendetta, very little has been done in order to raise the bar of evidence regarding blasphemy related cases.

Even if the report’s suggestion is implemented and the bar is raised, it will do little to curb the menace of public lynchings. Ordinary Pakistanis seem to be convinced that if the accused goes through a legal trial, then he or she might be let off. And indeed, this has been the case; many accused of blasphemy have been let off by the courts for lack of evidence. It appears that for the ordinary people of Pakistan, the legal process does not matter at all. An accusation of blasphemy is enough for these people to pounce on the victim and rob him of his dignity, human rights and even his life. Asiya Bibi was lucky that her case went to court and received international attention; eventually she was freed. The Sri Lankan Hindu, Priyantha, was not so fortunate. His own workers killed him and consigned his body to flames.

This case was no different. Muhammad Waris, a man in his thirties, was accused of desecrating the Quran. He was taken into police custody but a murderous mob kidnapped him from there, killed him and set his body on fire. Any analysis which understands this problem as a failure of the Pakistani police to implement the rule of law is simply bogus. This is a clear case of majoritarian will being imposed on state institutions, as it happens in other South Asian countries. We need to understand that even those police personnel who were supposed to protect the victim, are themselves part of the Islamic system. Hence, their action or inaction should be understood in the context of increasing Islamic fanaticism in Pakistan.

The video is extremely gory to say the least. What is most problematic is the participation of local population in this act of religious lynching. It is as if everyone wants to have a share of the piety, each one present there is convinced that killing this man was an act of supreme devotion to Allah. This is a generation which has been fed on a kind of Islamic education which transforms people into unthinking robots. Worse, they were acting like zombies, devoid of a soul, very much like the undead. As if they have been emptied of all their rational faculties and they are just following the orders of someone who is whispering into their heads. One can see even children participating in this religious frenzy. One shudders to think what kind of adults they will become and what kind of citizenry Pakistan is going to eventually get.

Sorry to say, but in the civilized world, this no longer happens. In many ways, medieval Europe was as brutal, but as a collectivity, today they see such things with righteous indignation. What differentiate the Europeans from us is precisely that they have moved beyond religion. Religion is no longer a cradle to the grave arrangement for them. In conducting their daily lives, they have made religion largely redundant and irrelevant. For an average Muslim though, this is far from comprehensible. We are yet to evolve intellectually in order to realize that one can lead perfectly normal live without the aid of any religion.

Also, as a community we are intellectually dishonest because we are still in denial of the effects of giving so much power to Islam over our lives. How else should we understand the claim, after every such brutal incident, that this is not Islam; those indulging in such behavior do not understand the true meaning of this religion. We are being told, almost on a loop, that Islam is about peace and tolerance. This is pure nonsense. And pure hypocrisy. Religions talk of peace but they also talk of violence; Islam is no different. Those burning the body of Muhammad Waris were Muslims and they were doing this they believe that it was the right thing to do according to the precepts of Islam. They burnt his body because it is also part of Muslim belief that by doing so, a person will be condemned to hellfire for all eternity.

There is a long history of killing for blasphemy in the Muslim world and it starts with the prophet of Islam himself. According to narrations within Islamic traditions, Muhammad ordered the killing of some who had disparaged against him. For this reason, he even forgave a Muslim who killed his pregnant slave because she had disrespected the prophet. Islam in many ways is about following the prophet; if Muhammad himself sanctioned these killings, are we in any position to say that this is un-Islamic? It might have been a matter of contention if these records were not part of our tradition. The fact remains that our most hallowed Ulama have recorded these narrations and now they are part of Islamic theology. And that’s why there is consensus that anyone who disparages Islam must be killed.

Islam is therefore fundamentally implicated in any blasphemy related killing. Muslims would do well not to escape this discussion. It is only through an acceptance that this is a problem within our society that we can do something about it. As Muslims, we must declare unanimously that such proclamations do not apply to us any longer.

Arshad Alam is a writer and researcher on Islam and Muslims in South Asia.

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