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Sri Lankan Priyantha Kumara’s mass lynching earlier this month reignited public debate on blasphemy in Pakistan

On December 3, an angry mob lynched Priyantha Kumara, a Sri Lankan working as a manager in a garment factory in Sialkot. Kumara’s body was set on fire on the road following allegations of blasphemy. People recorded the frightening tragedy, uploading videos to social networks.

The cold-blooded murder that “put the nation to shame” has potentially reignited the public debate on blasphemy in the country. In such discussions, in general, Pakistani media and civil society focus on two points: the rise of Tehreek-i-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP) on the one hand, and the government’s inability to effectively contain its extremist ideology. and to repeal the blasphemy laws of the other.

The problem with recommendations is twofold. First, they ignore the historical roots of violence in the name of religion. Second, they also overlook how Islam relates to politics and modern ideas such as free speech.

The popular – and somewhat “scholarly” – reaction to these tragic incidents reveals that the state’s capacity to deal with such cases is often, if not always, overestimated. There is not much that a state can do in these areas when a large part of society has the potential to be on the streets: take, for example, the backlash against the question of the holiness of Prophet Muhammad ( PSL). No law can ever punish an entire community. Laws are made to correct serious deviations that potentially endanger the political order, not general patterns of behavior.

Rethinking Pakistani Blasphemy Laws Requires Investigation of Rising Religious-Inspired Violence in the Muslim World and Islam’s Unique Relationship with Politics

Laws cannot and should not be made to correct entire communities or their ideological orientation. In the present case, the great majority, tacitly or not, believe that “blasphemers should be beheaded”. Those who accused Kumara of blasphemy might hold personal grudges, but the hundreds of Muslims on the roads were motivated by religion. They had no personal hostility towards him, and that requires serious discussion.

This piece is an invitation to reflect on blasphemy laws and the rise of religiously inspired violence in the Muslim world, in a historical context, with an emphasis on Pakistan. I do not claim to offer definitive answers. However, what I intend to do is correctly diagnose our multifaceted challenges: that it is not just a matter of state, but that the problem is much more. deep in society and history.

Violence in the name of religion is dangerously endemic in Pakistan. Although the country has not executed any convicts under controversial blasphemy laws, from 1990 to 2021, 70 people accused of blasphemy were killed by mobs. Last month, an indicted mob set fire to a police station in Charsadda district in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa when authorities refused to hand over an alleged blasphemer to the mob.

Previously, in a high-profile case in 2017, a 23-year-old student, Mashal Khan, was lynched and tortured to death by his colleagues on the campus of Abdul Wali Khan University in Mardan, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.

The dynamic of blasphemy has turned into a political movement, especially in recent years. The murder of Salman Taseer, governor of Punjab, by his security agent, Mumtaz Qadri, the decision to hang Qadri for his crime, which helped TLP founder Khadim Hussain Rizvi to launch his party, the release of Asia Bibi, a Christian falsely accused of blasphemy by the Supreme Court of Pakistan and the recent rise in anti-Islam sentiments in France following French President Emmanuel Macron’s statement that “Islam is in crisis” have all contributed to the emergence of the militarized policy of blasphemy in Pakistan.

In an article published on December 12 in Eos, Nadeem F. Paracha wrote an intriguing essay. After giving a detailed historical account of blasphemy laws in the subcontinent, beginning with the very first documented “blasphemy law” of 1860, Parsha maintains that some changes were made to it in 1927, and then finally its scope was made more rigid during the Islamist military dictatorship of General Ziaul Haq in the 1980s.

Historically and from a doctrinal point of view, the impression that the British colonial government and Gen Zia are responsible for creating blasphemy laws appears problematic. The movement for Pakistan had a largely religious expression, the resolution of the goals made it more explicit and the Pakistani parliament declaring Ahmadis non-Muslims in the tenure of Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto is strong empirical evidence that there is has always had a deep and complex relationship between Islam and politics. British rule and General Zia played their part in the historical development of current vigilantism, but they are certainly not the authors of this tragedy.

Muslim scholar Abu Hamid Al-Ghazali

The complexity of the issue requires a historical and broader understanding of violence in the name of religion in the Muslim world. There have always been such cases throughout Muslim history. In the mid-fourteenth century, Ibn al-Khatib, a scholar known as “the man who had two deaths,” disagreed with mainstream scholars who asserted that the Black Death was not contagious in nature. . He interpreted a Hadith to offer proof that the disease was contagious. Unfortunately, the Chief Justice censored Al-Khatib and ordered all of his books to be burnt down. He was later arrested and tortured to death. Although he was buried the next day, an angry mob reopened his grave and set his body on fire.

Part of the problem lies either in history or in the way religion was interpreted in previous centuries. Unsurprisingly, Sunni jurists from the Shafi and Maliki schools of thought have held that the blasphemer should be punished if he does not repent immediately. The Hanbali went further and considered that the blasphemers should be punished even if they repented. Some Hanafis argued that there was no firm basis for the execution of blasphemers; they can only be imprisoned and beaten with sticks. These interpretations were made in medieval times, but they continue to shape the religious discourse and cultural imagination of countless Muslims around the world.

One man who played an important role in making the issue of blasphemy and apostasy more explicit and popular was the eminent 11th-century Muslim scholar Abu Hamid al-Ghazali. He declared several Muslim philosophers, including Ibn Sina and al-Farabi, apostates, liable to the death penalty. His theorizing was used by later Muslim empires to punish free thinkers who were seen as a threat to Sunni orthodoxy in any way.

Turkish-American scholar Prof Ahmet Kuru in his 2019 book Islam, Authoritarianism and Underdevelopment explains Al-Ghazali’s role. He writes that “Ghazali was not the inventor of the idea of ​​declaring a self-proclaimed Muslim apostate, but as a great scholar he helped legitimize it. Kuru also explains that “Al-Ghazali’s main contribution to the ulema-state alliance was its theoretical role in the formation of Sunni orthodoxy.” Through his writings, Al-Ghazali made “orthodox views almost unchallengeable.”

Al-Ghazali himself has been declared an apostate by his detractors for “calling God the ‘true light'” in his book The Niche of Lights. But he had the opportunity to clarify his position, unlike Mashal Khan and other victims of Ghazali-inspired extremism.

In contemporary Pakistan, Al-Ghazali and Muhammad Iqbal are two figures revered for their “correct” interpretation of religion. Literalism inspired by prominent medieval figures not only caused intellectual and cultural stagnation in the Muslim world, but also led to the rise of extremism and fundamentalism in opposition to modernity. He made simple-minded individuals permanent prisoners of history. The young men who lynched Kumara physically exist in the 21st century but, ideologically, they live in the 11th century Muslim empires.

In the Muslim world, the historic process of executing blasphemers remained effective – with few exceptions during the Ottoman Empire – until 1924, when Mustafa Kemal Atatürk attempted to disrupt it with his top-down approach. Reza Shah Pahlavi did the same in Iran. Muhammad Bin Salman follows the same path, but in a different way.

When it comes to the project’s success from top to bottom, current Turkey and Iran are glaring examples of the failure of the modernist project. The Muslim world, including Pakistan, is the victim of ideological battles and the imposition of a selective doctrinal understanding of Islam throughout history.

All political and religious parties – be it Abul A’la Al-Maududi’s Jamaat-i-Islami, Mufti Mahmud’s Jamiat Ulema-i-Islam, Tahirul Qadri’s Pakistan Awami Tehreek or Rizvi’s TLP – are manifestations of Islam’s unique relationship with politics. This is the question we must answer.

There is not much the state can do in the long run in Pakistan unless the Muslim world decides how Islam relates to politics and the art of government. Once this is settled, neither the state will use religion to suppress free thought, nor the extremists will demand the application of the “sharia” law.

The author is a research assistant at San Diego State University, United States.
he tweets @Farah_adeed.

Posted in Dawn, EOS, December 19, 2021

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