Pakistan is stuck in a vicious cycle of bigotry that seems to have no end. The weaponisation of religion systematically carried out over the years has done undoable damage to the country by creating the hydra-headed monster of extremism. What prompted me to write this article was a sense of hopelessness and despair that arose when I read about the cold-blooded murder of a man in Sadiqabad who was killed by a cop after being released from prison following his acquittal in a blasphemy case.
Killings in the name of ‘blasphemy’ are not unusual in Pakistan and as journalists we are used to covering such gruesome acts of violence. What contributed to this unsettling feeling was something my 11-year-old niece, a Grade 6 student, had told me moments before I heard reports about the Sadiqabad incident. Upon being asked how things at her school were, she told me that one of her teachers is a fan of former Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP) chief Khadim Hussain Rizvi and tells the students to consider him their ‘role model’. She then inquisitively asked me who Khadim Rizvi was and whether he was indeed the good man her teacher said he was. I was of course taken aback because the school in question is one of the top liberal educational institutions in the country.
It turned out that the teacher had also been glorifying the recent countrywide protests held by the TLP seeking expulsion of French ambassador from Pakistan. He had been telling the students how those protesting on the roads to protect the Prophet (PBUH)’s honour were doing God’s work and that everyone else should be ashamed for not having the guts to do the same. After explaining to the child how her teacher’s observations on the matter were unfounded, I spoke to her father (my cousin) and brought this to his attention so the management of the school can be alerted about the extremist views of one of their teachers.
As I scrolled through my phone while conversing about the rise of TLP and the menace of extremism in Pakistan, I stumbled upon the news of yet another murder in the name of religion — another senseless act of bigotry. The court absolving the slain man of blasphemy charges did not stop the holier than thou policeman from killing him. Facts or court verdicts mean little when the objective is to attain Jannat by taking a blasphemer’s life. The sight of self-proclaimed ‘ashiq-e-rasool’ wreaking havoc on the streets while demanding Aasia Bibi’s hanging after the Supreme Court of Pakistan had cleared her of blasphemy allegations is still a fresh memory.
Even after its founder Khadim Rizvi’s death, the TLP is alive and kicking because the state refuses to end the policies that create such groups in the first place. The state surrendered to the TLP many times, and this shameful series of capitulations further empowered the group and served to normalise violent protests.
During the TLP riots in April, Pakistan’s National Assembly held fateha for the protestors killed in clashes with the police, but did not even pay lip service to mourn the four cops who lost their lives while fighting the rioters. Speeches were made in favour of the rioters. The PM said his ideology was similar to that of the TLP, but their methods were different.
Politicians are routinely seen sympathising with the extremists. Despite all the appeasement, a mere allegation of blasphemy forces ministers and civil servants to reaffirm their faith to avoid getting lynched at the hands of enraged mobs. Every political party understands the power these groups wield yet none of them shy away from using the religion card against opponents.
Worse, the state systematically crushes voices that question its role in allowing violent extremism to take root in the country. Instead of saving the youth from being radicalised and used by violent outlawed groups, the state curbs freedom of speech and creative expression. Teachers who try to teach their students to think critically are victimised. Junaid Hafeez, a professor who upheld progressive values in his lectures at Multan’s Bahauddin Zakariya University, has been languishing in jail for the past eight years — having been convicted and sentenced to death in 2019 under the controversial blasphemy law. Academics like Pervez Hoodbhoy and Ammar Ali Jan are notable among the teachers who had to lose their jobs for preaching progressivism. But there is no dearth of teachers who condone violence in the name of religion and ask students to follow in the footsteps of extremist figures.
Truth be told, the dream of a progressive and liberal Pakistan is long dead, but these painful reminders make it worse for those of us still trying to cling on to hope. I tend to view issues through an optimistic lens wherever possible, but the issue of extremism and bigotry — thanks to the state’s criminal role — has reached a point of no return. There is no light at the end of this tunnel.