Lie Down with the Demons
24 January, 2011
By Anwaar Hussain
The religion that once rewrote the parameters of human civilization in three continents, whose mighty empire once spanned the globe from the Central Asian Steppes to the shores of Atlantic, today feels threatened by a peasant woman. Its adherents want to kill this woman, a Christian mother of five, for having supposedly committed blasphemy. With 26 shots to his body, the only man of influence who showed any sympathy for her plight, Governor of Punjab Salman Taseer, has already been eliminated.
Hundreds of lawyers showered the killer with rose petals on his first appearance in court. Thousands rallied on the Sunday following Governor Taseer’s murder in support of Pakistan’s blasphemy laws that carry a death penalty for the blasphemer. They called the killer their ‘hero’.
Coming at the heels of Governor Taseer’s murder, according to another news report, a court has jailed an imam and his 20-year-old son for life on blasphemy charges in Muzaffargarh. Muhammad Shafi, 45, and his son Muhammad Aslam, 20, were arrested in April last year for removing a poster outside their grocery shop advertising an Islamic event in a nearby village which allegedly contained Quranic verses.
According to yet another recent report, during an argument between a doctor and a medical representative by the name ‘Mohammed Faizan’, the doctor tore up the rep’s visiting card. The good doctor was promptly rounded up, sent behind the bars and the police kicked off probe into the case to see whether there is any evidence of blasphemy in the doctor having torn a visiting card that contained the name ‘Muhammad’.
Now where in God’s name are we headed? Only five out of 54 Muslim states have blasphemy laws that carry capital punishment. Egypt, home to the biggest and most influential of Islamic universities, Jama al-Azhar, for a degree from which our death loving foaming at the mouth mullahs would give their right arms, proscribes a minimum sentence for such offence as only six months and a maximum of five years. The Egyptians should know better.
But that is not the limit of our intolerance.
A Hindu family had recently to exhume the body of a little girl it had mistakenly buried in a Muslim graveyard in the Pakistani garrison city of Rawalpindi and rebury it in an adjacent Christian cemetery after objections from Muslims. And, of course, who can forget the ghastly murder of 86 innocent people last May while they offered Friday prayers in a mosque in Lahore.
Why do religious extremists kill? It is simple really. They are willing to murder because they embrace beliefs that sanction violence in the service of God. They have zero sympathy for their victims because they view those victims as enemies of God. And they gladly sacrifice their own lives because they expect instant and bountiful afterlife reward in return for “martyrdom.” Blaise Pascal was spot on when he said, “Men never do evil so completely and cheerfully as when they do it from religious conviction.”
But more pertinent to ask is how do they repeatedly get away with this murder and mayhem in Pakistan? These diseased criminals get away with their crimes because my good countrymen sit in meek submission to the evil sermonizing from the pulpit. With their heads bowed, they listen to prejudice, fanaticism and hatred spewed out in the name of God. The sons of soil who should confront the evil now sit cowering in fear in their homes hoping that time somehow will pass leaving them untouched. Bound by a conspiracy of silence, the whole nation has slowly trapped itself into an obscenity of horror. This dreadful indifference of the good people, their hush, and impotence has made sure that Pakistan continues to steer a course littered with blood, bones, and bodies of innocent people.
It has become clear as daylight by now that no one, repeat no one, can help us Pakistanis in cutting out a clear path for ourselves in these self grown woods of gloom and disillusionment. After all, by remaining silent when we should have spoken, we ourselves have brought the situation to this pass. Even at this late hour in our nation’s life, there is nary a sign any where on the horizons of even a single faintly glowing star of hope. With Taseer’s murder and threats to Sherry Rehman, the last ones are extinguishing in fact. Like the Jewish people who dug their own graves before being mowed down by the Nazis, we continue to sway to dark dogmas sold to us as superior to enlightened reason, unmindful where it will ultimately lead us all.
Driven by naked commercialism, the national media too has joined the circus in airing the twisted, mindless logic of the bigots. The more tripe they throw out, the quicker it is lapped up by the gullible citizenry. It is hard to distinguish any more whether the product is creating the demand or is it the other way around. Every evening the households gather in front of their TVs to watch with dead eyes and feeble silence the poison being administered to them, their minds taking notes of points of hate.
In all fairness though, one can somewhat understand this paralysis. This is what happens when one group of people, tiny but boisterous, is allowed to create conditions whereby the rest of a population is made so panicky as to run for cover. The icing on the cake is that after each murderous act, spokesmen for these tiny frenzied groups are then brought on national media at prime time where they are allowed to accuse the larger part of paranoia. Decent people are thus forced to live under double jeopardy – damned if they speak out against rabid intolerance and damned if they don’t. As a natural result, the majority is forced to live with the consequences of remaining silent. It is better to be damned and alive than to be damned and dead, they argue.
Perhaps time has come to take a cue from Bangladesh. In one bold verdict its courageous Supreme Court ruled that religion-based organizations cannot participate in political life of the country. The reason is understandable. The moment religions are allowed to enter into politics, the stakes associated with winning and losing suddenly become much higher. That in turn ensures a corresponding employment of violence to capture the prize. Iran’s Islamic revolution is just one example of this process. Over the past century most Western countries have drastically reduced state support for, and state regulation of, religion. Absent the struggle for power, and state’s protection of a particular sect, clerics find political activity much less attractive and rewarding.
The problem in Pakistan is that despite lip service to democracy and secularism, religion and governments remain in a tight embrace. Our political leaders use religion as popularity booster and to legitimize their rule. The religious leaders, on the other hand, use political power to direct state resources to spread their particular gospel and thereby their influence.
If Pakistanis don’t wake up to these realities soon enough, only one option is finally left to them. With a soft collective sigh, they must quietly lie down with the demons.