What is up with our blasphemy obsession, asks Fayes T Kantawala

It’s been a tough week but as my Sibyls tell me, Mercury retrogrades usually are. Miscommunications, depressive bouts of self-doubt, technological disasters, the loss of momentum and considerable delays are just some of the varied hells that Mercury wreaks on us all four times a year. There are also periods where you tend to go back into your past and sift through the debris to see if you lost something important. This was the topic of conversation at the talk “Retrofit your Retrograde” which I happened upon while visiting Enchantments, the Wiccan store that is a block away from my apartment.

I’m not sure if we’ve spoken about Enchantments, but it’s a strange little shop devoted to all things Witchcraft and looks like something out of a Halloween/teen-angst magic show. They have candles, tarot cards, books on star-gazing, blessings and curses; fake skulls next to anthems and platters with pentagrams drawn on them. For added authenticity, three jet-black cats roam about the bookshelves and store cupboards with no apparent interest in anything but themselves. The talk was given by an astrologer/Wiccan who works in the area, and she didn’t say very much that was earth-shattering. Mainly to lie low and trust the downtime and apparent delays the retrograde can inspire (in which part of your life these delays will occur depend on your personal horoscope) to figure out what you need to do in the future. She ended talking about her Wiccan community and its continued persecution (apparently the Witches of the US are not over Salem or the Middle Ages). She then looked right at me and said how wonderful it was to see likeminded strangers, which sadly drew everyone’s attention to me just as I was trying to move the cat away from my suede shoes and kicked it in the jaw instead. I left, sensing the energy of the group had changed towards me.

Hysteria and violence around witches, leading to witch-hunts, lasted well into the early-modern era in the West

I’ve wondered whether things like cities or countries also go through retrogrades. According to some of the astrologers that appear regularly on TV in Pakistan, they do. Election results and periods of turmoil are calculated, codified and predicted for countries the same way that they are for people, depending heavily on their date of birth - which makes sense since most modern countries have one. Pakistan is a Leo, a fire sign drawn to displays of power, honesty, delusionary confidence and a slight air of stubbornness vastly muted by ineffable natural charm. If you’re more into Chinese astrology, Pakistan was born in the Year of the Pig, which is deeply funny for many reasons.

While watching TV in Lahore over the winter, I remember seeing these Astrological segments on TV shows and wondering how long they would be allowed to continue. It would only be a matter of time before something like this too would be whipped up by an insecure powerless nutjob as a sign of “Blasphemy”, that catch-all phrase that combines crime, accusation, and sentencing all in one finger.

By now you all know what happened in Mardan to a student named Mashal Khan. It doesn’t bear repeating, but I’ll do it anyway: a talented and intellectually honest young man was slaughtered by his fellow students for having said things that were allegedly blasphemous. He was 23.

Pakistan was born in the Chinese Year of the Pig, which is deeply funny for many reasons

The PM came out a few days later with a statement saying that he didn’t want the citizens taking the law into their own hands, and the statement has been carried in papers across the world as evidence of Sharif’s “strong condemnation”. That’s not a condemnation, it’s convenience. To debate whether or not it was right for the mob to have taken the law into its own hands is a cop-out. It allows the powers-that-be to appear outraged and saddened while not offending the vocal religious base that they continue to court by suggesting that the laws themselves are bad. “It’s not bad that you accused the kid, it’s just bad that you didn’t hand him over to the police” is not a good enough statement. Not by far.

It shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone that lynchings like this have happened before and will likely happen again. Blasphemy laws are almost exactly like accusing someone of witchcraft; they are accusations built for mob justice and are propagated not because people believe in them but because little men find them convenient tools to claim power where they feel they have none. Religious jingoism is mainly that - power play. It’s pointless to demonstrate that deities probably don’t need you to defend their honour because the mob isn’t thinking of a deity - they are far too busy belonging to a group that gives them a dangerously inflated sense of power. Much like all-white groups that lynched innocent black men in America, or indeed medieval witch trials that are still quite trendy in many developing countries.

In most of the places where this happens, the state and society at large is complicit. We are no different. Somebody in the intelligence or government has yet to satisfactorily explain why bloggers were abducted, tortured and then released all under the guise of blasphemy. TV hosts and anchors have yet to be prosecuted for the things that they say on a regular basis, most of which are tantamount to hate speech or incitement to murder. On a more general note, I’d like to see Nawaz Sharif, sprung after all from the loins of Zia, to do more than take credit for naming a physics wing after our Ahmadi Nobel prize winner Dr. Abdus Salam. Until it is no longer OK to single out Ahmadis (or all the other minorities) for persecution because they are different, there will be more lynching. So I feel the outrage, I do. But there is little point to it unless we change the ethos of our laws and make them inclusionary rather than exclusionary. We know exactly what has to be done. It isn’t a mystery. We also know that it doesn’t take a soothsayer to predict that if we don’t get it done, the lynchings will continue, whether or not you condemn them.

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