“You will only be able to attack Christians over our dead bodies,” Ghulam Muhammad Doger, head of the Gujranwala police, warned the rioters in Azizabad Colony. They had gathered to protest the release of two Christian brothers who were initially accused of blasphemy but were released after the charges were proven false.
In a rare display of courage by the police, in blasphemy-related incidents, Dogar refused to succumb to intense pressure by the religious and political parties and provided protection to the wrongfully accused brothers and other members of the Christian community. The incident is a particularly pertinent example of ensuing havoc after blasphemy related events, even after the charges are proven false. Often, these incidents bear striking similarities, provocateurs gather to raise hue and cry over an incident of blasphemy and the enraged crowd then becomes the judge, jury and executioner. The role of religious clerics and mosque loudspeakers in such incidents should be noted. Innumerable incidents in the past have ended up in the extra-judicial killing of those accused, raising concerns about the exploitation of religious sentiments to settle personal vendettas.
Four months ago, former Governor Salmaan Taseer was gunned down by his own bodyguard for his stance on the reformation of the blasphemy law. A few months later, the Federal Minister for Minorities Shahbaz Bhatti – who was the only Christian member of the cabinet – was killed outside his residence in Islamabad. Both incidents have put a halt to the extremism debate due to fear of vigilantes justice.
The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan’s figures of faith-based violence in 2010 paint a grim picture:
“Four hundred and eighteen people were killed in violence against various Muslim sects. Another 963 were injured. 500 Hindu families from Balochistan migrated to India because of threats to their lives and security. Ninety-nine Ahmadis were killed in faith-based violence. Impunity for perpetrators of violence against minority communities continued. At least 64 people were charged under the blasphemy law. Three men, including two Christian brothers, accused of blasphemy were killed in police custody. Only 25 of the 102 Sikh families forced to flee Orakzai Agency returned to the area. Seventy-three members of religious minority communities committed suicide and 21 attempted to take their own lives killed 17 members of minority communities in the name of honor.”
These figures warrant immediate and substantial reactions from the authorities. Even though the government has made clear its stance on the blasphemy law, that should not absolve responsibility from blasphemy related events. While the debate on the blasphemy law has become deeply polarised and charged with fears of vigilantism it has also over-shadowed the need to curb faith-based violence.
Regardless of which side of the debate one is on with reference to the blasphemy law, violence should not be tolerated. Rather than taking refuge on the controversial law itself the authorities must focus on providing protection to the minorities and various sects. Crimes committed in the name of religion should be punished severely rather than succumbing to pressure and setting precedent for justified vigilantism. Given the current circumstances this might appear difficult but is definitely not impossible. To fight any form of violence it is important for every faction of the society to be involved, to put aside his or her political difference and to unite in the face of terror. For faith related violence the most important role can be played by the clerics themselves. Religious scholars, muftis and clerics can play a significant role in strengthening inter-faith harmony and neutralising the situation.
Perhaps, it would help to acknowledge that the vigilantes do not outnumber us. That voices echoing the need for interfaith harmony are drowned in the holler for violence. There are people like Pervaiz Masih, who sacrificed his life by preventing a suicide bomber from entering the cafeteria of Islamic University in Islamabad. Maham Ali, who did not let Masih’s bravery go in vain. She rose to the occasion and raised funds for Masih’s family. Allama Tahir Ashrafi, Chairman Pakistan Ulema Council, who became a strong and sane voice at a time when certain religious parties were busy condoning Taseer’s murder.
There is a lesson to be learnt here – terror doesn’t recognise faith, it only recognizes its lust for blood and gore. For terrorists, religion is yet another ploy, and a powerful one at that, to justify their actions. Through our apathy we abet these crimes and our silence breeds intolerance. The examples of Ghulam Dogar, Maham, Masih and Allama Ashrafi prove that one doesn’t need to take drastic measures to do their bit in fighting violence, what is required is sense of morality and courage to break the silence. I have written about the dire conditions of our minorities several times and so I want to salute these unsung heroes and hope that the likes of them multiply and grow forth, so that we may be able to cherish the many unsung heroes of our times.