Obscurantism, Fanaticism And Bigotry Stalk Pakistan's Streets: Are There Reasons For Hope?

This nation is still a long way from achieving a society based on religious tolerance and respect for diversity of religion and culture

Obscurantism, Fanaticism And Bigotry Stalk Pakistan's Streets: Are There Reasons For Hope?

The very recent and much publicised attack by a religiously-charged vigilante mob on a young woman in Icchra Bazaar Lahore is a stark reminder that the forces of religious fanaticism and bigotry are active and thriving in this country. This is not the first time that innocent people have been targeted on suspicion of blasphemy and it is once again a wakeup call for the nation and a stark reminder of the creeping menace and a lingering threat to the very existence of the country by the forces of religious extremism.

It was just three years ago that a 49-year-old Sri Lankan man who was lynched by a mob on 3 December 2021 in Sialkot, Punjab, over allegations of blasphemy. Hats off to the young ASP Syeda Shehrbano Naqvi in Lahore, who had the courage and sense of duty to jump into the fray, face the religiously-charged mob and escort the young woman to the safety of the nearest police station. 

This recent ugly display of religious extremism and mob rule has once again highlighted the unfortunate slide of the country into the fierce and ugly inferno of religious extremism and bigotry. Rule of law in the country has been taken over by mob rule and vigilante justice. Meanwhile, the justice delivered by the state is paralysed in the face of super-charged religiously motivated mobs bent on taking the law in their own hands and targeting innocent people accused of blasphemy or disrespect to the religion of Islam.

In the case of the Icchra incident, the young lady in question was wearing a Kurta with words in Arabic written in a calligraphic design, with no religious connotation or such reference. The words on her dress conveyed a message of affection and had nothing to do with religion. This design of dress is quite common in many Arabic-speaking countries, including Saudi Arabia. All previous governments in Pakistan have failed miserably to prevent the misuse of religion and the targeting of innocent people. This has resulted in giving more confidence and power to the ugly forces of obscurantism. Political parties and leaders now very openly use religion for the promotion of their political agenda and the state of Pakistan is a mute spectator to the rise of extremist elements and fanatical forces.

Yet, every cloud has a silver lining and this recent incident in Lahore is an example of hope in this era of extremism and intolerance – where the lives of innocent citizens are at risk at the hands of religious zealots. The brave, timely and decisive action of the young female police officer in rescuing a young girl from the wrath of an enraged mob is commendable for upholding the rule of law and ensuring the safety of our citizens. The situation in Icchra Bazaar could have escalated to the levels of the Sialkot incident, especially at the point when the crowd in the bazaar gathered to falsely accuse the girl of wearing a dress bearing Quranic verses. It was only the timely action of some shopkeepers who sheltered the girl in a shop and then the intervention of ASP Shehrbano Naqvi that saved the life of the girl targeted by the mob. 

Such allegations are capable of igniting forest fires of violence, hatred and chaos. We have witnessed the destruction and burning of entire Christian colonies on the allegation of blasphemy, and people have even been burnt alive on the mere suspicion of having blasphemed.

This most recent incident of religious fanaticism is a stark reminder that even the slightest suspicion of religious disrespect can result in violence and bloodshed. This nation is still a long way from achieving a society based on religious tolerance and respect for diversity of religion and culture. We cannot afford to sweep this under the rug and pretend that everything is fine. Instead, we must confront the uncomfortable truth that bigotry and ignorance still thrive in our midst, and awareness must be spread to avoid such misguided accusations. 

The lesson of this latest incident is that immediate action is needed to handle the very extremist toxic elements that create hatred and breed division in society. This would involve education, awareness and lessons in tolerance with strict enforcement of the existing laws against incitement to violence and hatred. What is needed the most is the moral courage and the political will to stand up to the truth in the ace of ferocious obscurantist forces.

In recent history, that is in 2017, a young university student named Mashal Khan was brutally killed by a mob on allegations of blasphemy in a university in KP. This ugly and brutal incident ignited a great debate in various universities and colleges all over the country on the increase in religious intolerance and the wrong use of the blasphemy laws. Yet, unfortunately, this incident also proved to be nothing but a storm in a teacup, because it resulted in no real action from the state institutions. Killings and mob violence following blasphemy allegations are not new in Pakistan. Indeed, over the decades, hundreds of people have been falsely accused and many killed in targeted sectarian attacks.

After the elections a new government is ready to take charge in the next few days. This new government must adopt a bold and decisive attitude towards the malignant curse of religious extremism that could turn Pakistan into a land of intolerance and hatred based on religion. It is now the duty of the media, parliament, judiciary, civil service and the armed forces to evolve a national consensus in favour of what type of country we want this state to be. The common man has never voted for any religious party in the past and although committed to religious values, the people do not want religious-extremist forces taking control of the country.