Fear This Fire: It Is No Ordinary One

Fear This Fire: It Is No Ordinary One
Days after a deranged mob of at least 4,000 people in Charsadda set a police station on fire for refusing to hand over a suspect accused of desecrating the Quran (and who, according to local police officials, at least, is clearly suffering from a mental illness), an incident of far more mind-numbing barbarism has surfaced: the lynching of Priyantha Diyawadana, a Sri Lankan national unfortunate enough to have been living in our pure and holy land.

He had been working as a manager of a factory in Sialkot, when, one fine day, he found himself accused of blasphemy, dragged out of his workplace, stripped naked and then bludgeoned to death, mostly by the employees of the very establishment where he had been working for so many years. The killers did not stop there – no, they took his bruised and battered corpse and set it alight for all and sundry to witness their glorious feat.

As the poor man burnt to a crisp, sending plumes of black smoke spiralling into the air, scores of men and young boys gathered around him, leering and jeering, snapping selfies, recording videos of the macabre spectacle, and – lest anyone missed it – chanting, amongst other religious slogans, “Labbaik, labbaik!”

This time, condemnations poured in at lightning speed from every quarter – something that may have to do with the ‘transnational’ character of this particular incident. The state has vowed to exact justice using the “full severity of the law.” Arrests have been made and investigations are being conducted. All this is well and good, and obviously necessary, but simultaneously, attention must also be turned to the ideological underpinnings behind this occurrence. We have been here before – not once, not twice, but many times over.
Ilm Din remains a deeply venerated figure, subject by now to both mythology and hagiography. He has a mausoleum in Lahore, where many come to ask for his intercession. His jail cell commemorates his imprisonment under the British Raj with an official plaque. The foreign ministry has a hostel in Islamabad named after him

Vigilantism may have scores of reasons that ultimately contribute to its manifestation – absence of rule of law, systemic misgovernance, pack mentality and its properties of deindividuation. However, this is not mere vigilantism. Instead, this is vigilantism fueled and backed by a specific interpretation of Islam which sees the murder of alleged blasphemers not as a crime, but as a just and divine cause, an escalator to sainthood and martyrdom.

The ‘advocates’ of this position are not unidentified actors whispering from shadowy corners. They are vocal, they are loud and proud, and they have been thundering terror from pulpits for years, regaling our children with stories of blood and gore and gratuitous violence. For instance, is this not exactly the lesson that Hafiz Khadim Hussain Rizvi had been imparting till his demise?

What other takeaway can there be from the man who lionised Mumtaz Qadri as both ‘ghazi’ and ‘shaheed’, who wheeled across the length and breadth of the country for years to campaign of his release, and who, after the killer’s execution, cultivated a political party whose sole contribution to our political culture so far has been the weaponization of religion beyond any prior precedent and the wholesale spread of anarchy and thuggery.

To justify himself, Rizvi had always compared Qadri and other vigilante heroes to Ghazi Ilm Din, recalled how the latter had been championed by none other than Allama Iqbal (to the point that our national poet felt that the young man had actually one-upped him and his entire ‘literate’ class) and the Quaid (who represented him in his appeal before the high court, be it on technical grounds alone). It is certainly difficult to argue with this logic.

Ilm Din remains a deeply venerated figure, subject by now to both mythology and hagiography. He has a mausoleum in Lahore, where many come to ask for his intercession. His jail cell commemorates his imprisonment under the British Raj with an official plaque. The foreign ministry has a hostel in Islamabad named after him. Only four years ago, Punjab christened the new wing of a public hospital in his honour. This mixed signalling is problematic. A state that speaks in two tongues will stay trapped in double bind forever.

Lines must be drawn and this issue tackled head on. What this requires foremost is a united and non-partisan political front – one that shuns religious extremism in all its forms, one that fearlessly asserts that an offence to religious sentiments is also a subject that will be treated as any other, capable of being discussed and debated and reimagined, and, most importantly, one that understands that the only actual long-term solution to this problem is somehow inculcating tolerance and promoting plurality in our society.

For this to be effective, certain prerequisites must be fulfilled. The Establishment must finally abandon any and all future designs of using rabid groups as pawns in its elaborate game of infinite chess. Politicians must refrain from shamelessly trading their self-professed piety for cheap political mileage. And of course, rogue preachers like Rizvi and his friends must never be allowed to peddle their vicious philosophies ever again.

Radicalisation is ascending in the country at a feverish pace, and consequently, so is blasphemy-related vigilantism. Here is a cursory body count just from the past two years: Imran Hanif, a bank manager gunned down in his office; Tahir Naseem, shot in open court in Peshawar by a teenager (who later inspired lawyers and law enforcers to pose with him for selfies); Taqi Shah, a Shia cleric hacked to death in Jhang; and, a few months ago, Muhammad Waqas, killed by a policeman after being acquitted of blasphemy by the high court.

When will enough be enough for us? This ravenous quest for blood must end. It is time to introspect upon blasphemy laws and the combustible narratives that surround them – regardless of whatever cognitive dissonance this might occasion. If there is failure or neglect or even delay in engaging with this issue with sincerity, openness and intellectual honesty, nothing will be able to stop this senseless feeding frenzy one day.

Please, fear this fire, for soon enough, it will begin to envelop us all. Thereafter, there will be nothing left but charred bodies and the pungent smell of singed flesh.