Rise of religious vigilantism poses serious threat to Pakistan’s national security

Rise of religious vigilantism poses serious threat to Pakistan’s national security

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It is not the first time Pakistan has witnessed vigilante attacks in the name of faith, but the lynching of a Sri Lankan professional by a violent mob on Friday was horrific. The incident manifested a rise in violent extremism that threatens to tear apart the country’s social fabric. 

The incident took place in Sialkot, a major industrial town in Pakistan’s biggest province of Punjab, where factory workers beat their foreign manager to death over blasphemy allegations before burning his body. Hundreds of people watched the gruesome spectacle but no one dared stop the killers. The police arrived at the scene when the body of the dead man had already been set ablaze. 

This was the first time a foreigner was targeted in such a vigilante attack. He was accused of removing the poster of an Islamic group from the workplace. The incident has reinforced Pakistan’s image as one of the world’s most intolerant nations. 

The state’s policy of appeasement of extreme, right-wing religious groups has contributed to the spread of social zealotry, and a blasphemy allegation comes in handy to whip up religious sentiment. While the targets are mostly non-Muslims, many Muslims too have become victims of this growing tide of vigilantism. 

Just a few days ago, a violent crowed attacked and torched a police station in the northern city of Charsada for protecting a mentally ill man who was accused of committing blasphemy. The crowd demanded the man be handed over to them to be burnt alive. 

It’s not enough to punish the culprits-- the real issue is to root out the sources of radicalization from society; otherwise Sialkot will not be the last we see of this horror.

Zahid Hussain

One story that lingers in memory is the horrific murder of a young student from a local university some years ago, who was shot and killed on campus and his dead body mutilated. Young Mashal Khan was accused of blasphemy for 

his views, and many in the mob were his classmates. The incident revealed the extent to which higher educational institutions too are affected by the spread of this violent extremism. There have also been some cases where university teachers were arrested after they were accused of blasphemy by their students.

Poor law enforcement and a weak judicial system gives impunity to zealots. Most of the accused in the Mashal murder case were set free by the court. Judges are often threatened by the crowed who gather outside courtrooms. Most worrisome is that murders on false allegations of blasphemy are often condoned even by educated segments of society. The murder of former governor of Punjab, Salman Taseer, by his security guard in 2010 is a case in point. The top official of the country’s most powerful province was gunned down for his remarks on the misuse of the country’s blasphemy laws. 

Shockingly, his murderer was hailed by lawyers and even by some retired high court judges. The execution of Taseer’s murderer led to the birth of Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP), which made its central tenet the issue of blasphemy to galvanize support from rural and urban lower middle classes and uneducated sections of the population.

TLP’s main support comes from Punjab province, which has become their main hub. For the past few years, the TLP has held the country hostage on many occasions. Successive governments have surrendered to its street power providing it greater space to function. It is this group which has been the main motivating force behind recently rising religious vigilantism in Pakistan. 

Unsurprisingly, the Sialkot incident happened weeks after the government yet again surrendered to the TLP, backtracking on its earlier decision to outlaw the militant group and release all activists involved in the killing of police officers and the destruction of public properties. Many of those who were involved in the Sialkot incident reportedly raised the TLP’s slogans. The state’s capitulation seems to have emboldened them and now, not surprisingly, the country faces a more violent form of zealotry. 

What happened in Sialkot is the culmination of a weak-kneed approach in dealing with violent extremism over the last few years, and the state’s policy of appeasement has contributed to social radicalization. Most worrying is the current government’s own right-wing policies. 

The government has vowed to make an example of those involved in the heinous crime that took place in Silakot last week. One hopes that it will not be a fleeting moment as has happened in the past. It’s not enough to punish the culprits-- the real issue is to root out the sources of radicalization from society; otherwise Sialkot will not be the last we see of this horror.

*Zahid Hussain is an award-winning journalist and author. He is a former scholar at Woodrow Wilson Centre and a visiting fellow at Wolfson College, University of Cambridge, and at the Stimson Center in DC. He is author of Frontline Pakistan: The struggle with Militant Islam and The Scorpion’s tail: The relentless rise of Islamic militants in Pakistan. Frontline Pakistan was the book of the year (2007) by the WSJ. His latest book ‘No-Win War’ was published this year.

Twitter: @hidhussain

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