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Support Pakistani Activists On Countering Hateful Narratives

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"Then they came for me." ~ Pastor Martin Niemoller

Recently, a young man was brutally lynched by fellow university students in the Pakistani city of Mardan. Some say he was accused of supporting Ahmadis. He had also tweeted for LGBT people. Either way, he was accused of blasphemy. Bystanders and police watched the spectacle and did nothing.

Mashal Khan's murder is only the latest manifestation of the hateful narrative that has engulfed Pakistan. Pakistani columnist Saad Rasool illustrates a whole array of abuse and extra judicial murders on blasphemy allegations. It began with the targeting of religious minorities. Pastor Niemoller's words could not be more relevant.

pakistan activists
Pakistani activists shout slogans during a protest in Karachi on April 14, 2017, against the killing of student Mashal Khan, who was killed by his classmates. (Photo: Asif Hassan/AFP/Getty Images)

It would be easy to blame Islam for this madness. After all, Pakistani clerics overwhelmingly support blasphemy laws and threaten those who oppose them. Yet, Arafat Mazhar's seminal work on Islamic jurisprudence shows a very different viewpoint.

Notwithstanding draconian punishments in medieval legal manuals, classical jurists severely mitigated their application. Islamic scholar Ghamidi claims that blasphemy laws are not part of Islam. The problem in contemporary times is less about the texts and more about Muslim institution stakeholders usurping them for political ends.

They weave a hateful narrative that dehumanizes religious minorities. Hateful bloggers and pundits do the same to Muslim minorities in the West. Thus, blaming Islam simply replicates the frenzied madness of Pakistan in the West.

Instead of simplistic analyses, we can heed the voices of five Pakistanis contributing towards change as follows.

1) Mohammad Jibran Nasir

Jibran Nasir, a Pakistani civil liberty activist, does not solely blame members of the clergy and their indoctrination of poor madrassa students for the hateful narrative in Pakistan. He is concerned about the hateful messages delivered by a broad array of politicians, judges, army officers and clerics along with those who became complicit by remaining silent.

In a Facebook message he has lamented:

  • army generals "weaponized religion for violent means,"
  • mainstream political parties "patronize terror outfits and form electoral alliances with them,"
  • rogue clerics "release sermons online reaching millions promoting extra judicial murder as punishment for blasphemy,"
  • media anchors spread "blasphemy allegations to either settle personal scores or malign opponents,"
  • and judges "declared blasphemers as terrorists but refuse to declare Mumtaz Qadri a terrorist for killing an innocent on false blasphemy charges."

He states that we must truthfully acknowledge that Pakistanis as a whole are responsible for the dismal state of affairs. He argues for self-accountability and clearly states that we have made killers out of our own youth.

2) Malala Yousafzai

Like Jibran Nasir, the Nobel Laureate, who is critiqued in online spaces as an "enemy of Islam," clearly talked about self-accountability in a passionate video.

"This was not just the funeral of Mashal Khan, it was the funeral of the message of our religion Islam. ... We have forgotten our values and are not representing our religion, ... No one is maligning the name of your country or religion ... we ourselves are bringing a bad name to our country and religion.


3) Raza Rumi

Raza Rumi, a Pakistani analyst, who survived an assassination attempt in 2014, also does not limit the blame of the current state of affairs to the clergy. He situates the murder in the wake of recent social media messages against blasphemy by state authorities, judges and legislators. He claims that Pakistanis imbibed such social media challenges to prove their faith to fellow Muslims.

Rumi also mentions how a political party geared towards youth "cultivated some level of sympathy for Islamist militants" by alluding to them as " 'our misled brethren' pitted against the evil West." He references surveys conducted in Pakistan that show how amongst privileged University students, 62 per cent supported declaring Ahmadis as non-Muslims and 33 per cent supported gender segregation. Amongst youth in general 33 per cent supported the imposition of Sharia law.

Rumi argues that the factors responsible for radicalization are not necessarily poverty, deprivation, lack of education and economic opportunities. He asserts:

"In the absence of a clear sense of direction, youth in universities have increasingly embraced an identity rooted in religion, and view global politics as a manifestation of an inter-civilizational conflict. This worldview is averse to accepting ... the 'other' or finding a way to acknowledge differences for a peaceful co-existence."

Rumi's observation on radicalization is shared by veteran journalists like Nadeem Farooq Paracha, who had written that studies show that "the vast majority of terrorists are not mentally ill" and that "these individuals were far from being brainwashed, socially isolated, hopeless fighters; 90 per cent of them actually came from caring, intact families; and 63 per cent of these had gone to college."

4) Marvi Sirmed

Like Rumi, Marvi Sirmed, a Pakistani columnist, also situates Mashal Khan's murder in the context of media statements by analysts, television talking heads, judges and political leaders that condemned Pakistani bloggers, who had criticized the establishment. They were painted as blasphemers and various state stakeholders expressed "their resolve in not leaving any stone unturned in the hunt for blasphemers."

5) Yasser Latif Hamdani

Hamdani, a Pakistani lawyer and columnist mentioned how the founder of Pakistan, Jinnah sought protection from Section 295-A of the Indian Penal Code in 1927 for "those who are engaged in bona fide and honest criticism of a religion." He mentioned that Mashal Khan "would have fit in perfectly at any campus in the US" for his critical thinking. He passionately wrote:

"Ours is a cannibalistic society that eats its own. Soon those of us who survive will learn not to speak, not to think, not to question. We will then live, and then we will die."

Like others, the Committee of Progressive Pakistani Canadians (CPPC) offer similar conclusions in their statement on Mashal Khan's murder.

In short, it would be more appropriate to support Pakistani analysts and activists working towards change instead of hateful bloggers who have no stake in the issue beyond generalizing all Muslims and fostering more hatred.

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