Blasphemy in Pakistan: If You Listen to Fools…

Breaking news of a series of arson attacks on Ahmadi Muslims in the city of Jhelum, Pakistan on grounds of “blasphemy.” From Pakistan’s Dawn:

JHELUM: An enraged mob set a Ahmadi place of worship on fire in Punjab’s Jhelum district on Saturday, following Friday night’s arson attack on a factory.

The place of worship was located in the Kala Gujran area of Jhelum, which was under guard of local police forces.

The mob managed to break through the police cordon which was established to safeguard the Ahmadi places of worship, following Friday night’s unrest.


Police had to resort to baton charging and tear gassing the protesters in order to bring the situation under control, but were unable to do so. The mob resorted to pelting stones at the police personnel.

The incidents were a result of rumours circulated earlier in Jhelum district which levelled blasphemy allegations on the owner and workers of the factory.

According to Pakistan’s Express News (in Urdu), Jhelum is now under control, but it sure took awhile. If you want to see what anarchic mob violence looks like up close–a micro-level picture of the descent from Locke’s State of Nature to the State of War–have a look at this video.

No cops anywhere. No firefighters en route. Just an unbridled mob drunk on theological liquor, screaming their minds out in coarse Punjabi. I understand the language but most of what they’re saying is unintelligible, and even when I can make out the words, I have no idea what they’re talking about until 1:00, when they sound the “takbir,” the equivalent of a hallelujah. Almost two minutes into the video, and they’re still doggedly at it, committing arson in a leisurely fashion, with no fear whatsoever that anyone will stop them. They were right not to feel fear: no one did stop them. As the Dawn story makes clear, when the police came, they arrested the victims.

Last time I was in Pakistan, on my last night there, a bunch of us Khawajas had dinner at the home of a cousin of mine who’s a well known politician in Pakistan, and a qualified defender of Pakistan’s blasphemy law. It was a wonderful send-off for me, but we ended up having a riotous argument about the blasphemy law over biryani and shami kebabs, most of us arguing against the in-principle legitimacy of such a law, but a minority at the table defending it.  My politician cousin (and gracious host) agreed that the law had been tragically abused, but insisted that some such law had to be retained in Pakistan, albeit enforced in a narrower and more impartial way. The rest of us argued that the reformist gambit was a lost and pointless cause. I wonder if this event will induce Pakistanis (including Pakistani politicians, and particularly including the ones related to me) to rethink their naive, dogmatic attachment to that cause. Maybe it’s time for some push-back from Pakistan’s American sponsors as well. (While we’re on this subject, how about a little pressure on Pakistan to lift its legalized anathematization of Ahmadis?)

That said, the issue here isn’t just a matter of the blasphemy law but of the rule of law. As far as I’m concerned, the video above is a perfectly accurate depiction of a state of anarchy. I know that anarchists will object to that characterization, but though I’m familiar with the objections, I don’t accept them. The Jhelum attacks are a paradigmatic instance of life under a state that is too weak to uphold the rule of law. The remedy seems obvious: retain the state, but strengthen its commitment to the rule of law. The remedy is not to ratchet back the state and aim (or hope or pray) for some “market-based” solution, whatever that’s supposed to mean. Part of the problem is that it’s not clear what it means, much less how it’s supposed to work.

To complete the thought in the title…

Postscript. Just to give PoT readers a taste of the mentality involved, here’s an exchange in Urdu on YouTube between commentators discussing the YouTube video I inserted above.

Kabhi Quran parha hai ? Pata hai usme Kia likha hai
The first writer, Kamz Khan, writes: “What was done here is absolutely right; they should have burned the infidel owner in the very same flames.”
The second writer, Hasan Ahmad, responds: “Have you ever read the Qur’an? Do you have any idea what’s in it?”
Postscript, November 22, 2015: This is a useful backgrounder on the Pakistan Supreme Court’s position on the blasphemy law, taking roughly the sort of position I ascribed to my cousin in the original post (call it “theocratic reformism” or “theocratic constitutionalism”). The article was written a few weeks before the Jhelum incident. The Qur’anic verses cited in the article are 2.83, 2.94 (Surah Nisa’a), and 49.6 (Surah Hujuraat). Note the frightening ambiguity of this passage:
Thirdly, “any call for reform of the law regarding the offence of blasphemy ought not to be understood as a call for doing away with that law and it ought to be understood as a call for introducing adequate safeguards against malicious application or misuse of that law”, is the Supreme Court’s clear answer to the flawed argument that criticising the manmade blasphemy law is blasphemy.
Contrary to the author’s apparent re-assurances, the claim he makes here at least leaves open the possibility that root and branch rejection of the blasphemy law is itself blasphemy. I find it unfortunate that a Visiting Fellow in Political Science at LSE could write such stuff. Shouldn’t it be legally actionable “blasphemy” to defend such a position in a secular-liberal country like Great Britain? Mercifully, it isn’t–not yet, anyway. (Here’s the Wikipedia entry on “Blasphemy Law in Pakistan.”)
It’s worth noting, incidentally, that Pakistani newspapers are (legally) obliged to refer to Ahmadi mosques as “places of worship” rather than as mosques or masjids. Since Ahmadis have been declared “non-Muslim” by Pakistani law, it’s against the law to refer to their “places of worship” in a manner that implies that those “places of worship” are Muslim places of worship. (Read the text in the preceding hyperlink to get a sense of the surreal, totalitarian character of the law, Ordinance XX.) I was gratified to see The New York Times refer to the place in question straightforwardly as a mosque.
Postscript, December 17, 2015: More useful background, care of The Friday Times blog (Lahore).

2 thoughts on “Blasphemy in Pakistan: If You Listen to Fools…

  1. Where in Holy Quran and in Sunna of Our Holy prophet Mohammad (peace and blessing of Allah upon him), the Blasphemy law is mentioned. Shame on the ignorant Mullahs. They use the mosque to gather the mob for destroy the property and killing innocents. Pakistani please follows the true teaching of Islam, that is peace, love and respect human life.

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