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When the genie is out of the bottle

Farewell to freedom of expression in Pakistan as religious minorities try to survive amid unlawful interference

When the genie is out of the bottle

Pakistani supporters of Jamaat-e-Islami chant slogans during a protest in Karachi on Nov. 4, 2018, following the Supreme Court decision to acquit Christian woman Asia Bibi of blasphemy. (Photo by Rizwan Tabassum/AFP)

Published: August 20, 2020 06:44 AM GMT

Updated: August 20, 2020 10:55 AM GMT

My recent social justice chat with a nurse, during a routine check-up at a clinic in Lahore, was more intimidating than awkward.

“People prefer Huqooq Allah [God’s rights] over Huqooq-ul-Ibad [human rights], but I am different,” she said.

“Good. Just look at what happened in Peshawar [capital of northern Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province]. A person was shot dead in front of the judge,” I said.

“That was right. Our religion obliges us to kill the blasphemer. People would not have taken the law into their own hands had the courts hanged Asia maloona [accursed],” she replied with a cold stare, referring to Asia Bibi, the Catholic woman acquitted of blasphemy in 2018 after spending eight years on death row.

I felt as if I was suddenly dwarfed. The conversation ended with a simple nod to whatever she uttered later. That’s the lifestyle we are accustomed to these days. While liberals and minorities are certainly free to hold views on human rights and peace, once they step out into the public sphere, they must weigh each word they say to avoid hurting the religious feelings of the majority.

Sentiments are certainly running high since July 29 when an American citizen and a former member of the Ahmadi community, Tahir Naseem, was killed inside a court in Peshawar's Judicial Complex during a hearing for alleged blasphemy, a capital crime in the Islamic republic.

The Ahmadis, viewed as heretical by many in Pakistan, are one of the most persecuted minority communities in the country. Several social media users posted photos of a dead dog with the corpse of Naseem, who had declared himself a prophet possessed with the spirit of Hazrat Isa (Christ).

A few days later, one of my school friends shared a video of a man stoned to death for blasphemy in Afghanistan.

“The Sharia court of Afghan Taliban didn’t give him a concession for three years like our judges and ordered immediate stoning. This is the Islamic judgment of a real Islamic court,” stated the caption shared on the WhatsApp group of classmates in Peshawar.

Another requested all to refrain from such discussions, arguing that we lack “knowledge of all these circumstances and situations.”

Holy warriors

Despite condemning extrajudicial killings in my 15 years of journalism, I remained silent and sent them wishes for Eid al-Adha the next day. Inside I know the genie is out of the bottle and is now roaring loud, silencing those who speak out peacefully for themselves and for others. The state can no longer control religious sentiment and this crisis of fear makes me feel worried for my children.

But what scares me more is the overwhelming love for Faisal (alias Khalid Khan), the shooter arrested by the police at Peshawar court. Photos of the 24-year-old posing with Elite Force police guards and lawyers have been doing the rounds on social media. Even some journalists and activists call him Ghazi, an honorific title for a Muslim warrior. Several lawyers offered their free services while hundreds in Peshawar rallied in his favor.

We witnessed a similar situation in January 2011 when Mumtaz Qadri, a police bodyguard, gunned down Punjab governor Salman Taseer over his opposition to the country’s controversial blasphemy laws. Weeks before his killing, Taseer had met Asia Bibi and vowed to do everything to win her release.

In 2016, Qadri was executed in the early hours to avoid potential protests from Islamist groups who hailed him as a hero. Every year his followers flock in the thousands to his shrine in the sleepy village of Athaal, about five kilometers from Islamabad, to commemorate his death.

Social media also gets flooded with pictures and videos of people praying, praising his commitment to his religion and singing for the militant near his tomb.

Khalid Khan is the product of the Qadri movement that continues to grow and influence this increasingly religious society. He is the new poster boy as Pakistan celebrated its 73rd Independence Day this month.

Dead silence

Catholic bishops hosted interfaith gatherings and made media appearances highlighting historical tropes and references to when Christians contributed to the freedom movement and progress of the country. Even the Catholic bishops' National Commission for Justice and Peace, which usually releases press statements on rising incidents of violence and discrimination against religious minorities, remained silent on the court killing.

The editorial policy of the newly launched news program of Radio Veritas Asia Urdu Service bans news of a political and economic nature as well as reporting against the establishment. The trend of carrying out protests against blasphemy laws died in 2011 with the assassination of Catholic federal minorities minister Shahbaz Bhatti. Ahmadis had already prohibited protests since 1974 when the state declared them non-Muslims.

Farewell to freedom of expression as religious minorities try to survive amid such unlawful interference. Farewell to our right to equal citizenship and to disagree with those in the majority and in power. Farewell to our freedom of thought in the name of counterterrorism, national security and religious sensitivities.

Meanwhile, Punjab has become the first province to draft an interfaith harmony policy on promoting diversity and harmony in the province, home to 70 percent of Pakistani Christians. Archbishop Sebastian Shaw of Lahore was among religious leaders who shared their recommendations in the latest consultation.

The policy will remain just another project unless the authorities take practical steps to implement these recommendations and revive the collective conscience of the Islamic republic. In the words of Lord Buddha: “Your worst enemy cannot harm you as much as your own unguarded thoughts."

Kamran Chaudhry is a Catholic commentator based in Lahore. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official editorial position of UCA News.

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