Understanding ‘offence’ in a post-Mashal Pakistan | Pakistan Today

Understanding ‘offence’ in a post-Mashal Pakistan

Just what kind of respect are we demanding?

The eulogies describe Mashal as an innocent person who never offended anyone. The former is true, but the latter is not.

There’s a lot Mashal said that was ‘offensive, subjectively speaking, but none of the offence was objectively criminal in nature.

Mashal offended our heteronormative society with his dauntless support for the LGBT community. He did not declare his alliance in a posh café in Islamabad surrounded by small crowd of liberal elites; but in an ultra-conservative environment where the basic humanity of gay people is routinely contested.

Mashal likely offended a fair number of rabid misogynists by strongly voicing his support for women’s rights; praising women like Sharmeen Obaid Chinoy and her short cinematographic expose on acid-attacks in Pakistan. He defied sexists – both religious and secular – by acknowledging that men and women deserve equal rights and opportunities.

Among the list of charges against Mashal – as explained by his teacher, Mr. Ziaullah Hamdard – was that Mashal was a “Russian agent”. This was evidenced by his apparent socialist worldview and a photograph where he’s depicted wearing a red beret reminiscent of the Soviets.

Blasphemy is the crime of offending the religious sentiments of the people, particularly the dominant religious group; but there is no objective definition of what constitutes legitimate offence.

A practicing Hindu may well be ‘offended’ by his Muslim neighbour slaughtering a cow on Eid, or declaring Allah as the one and only God – in stark contradiction to the Hindu’s own religious beliefs. If the Hindu citizen were to claim that his religious sentiments were hurt by the aforementioned acts, could these acts be considered ‘sacrilegious’ for legal purposes? It is highly unlikely.

There are two kinds of ‘offence’. One of them involves the act of challenging a person’s basic dignity, rights, and liberties. The other, is that which challenges the dominance of a group, and threatens to relieve it of its special social privileges and political immunities.

Note also, that there are two forms of respect. One is about being considerate of every person’s baseline dignity and civil or human rights, and making a conscientious decision to not cross that line. The other kind of ‘respect’ involves obedience towards a de facto human authority. When the society tells a child to ‘respect his parents’, it does not ask the child to accept his parents as his equals in power; it tells the child to accept his parents as his superiors who must be unconditionally obeyed.

A popular myth is that good people don’t offend others, which is never true. Whenever you take a stand for a certain ideal – whether theocracy or secularism, capitalism or socialism, patriarchy or feminism – you do so by deliberately offending one faction or another. Just because you have been offended, does not necessarily mean that a crime has been committed.

To some of us, ‘offence’ entails a violation of our rights. To call Christian Pakistanis ‘choorhas’ is offensive, because the term has historically been used to dehumanise the Christian minority, and misrepresent it as a class of janitors. Expressing secular views is ‘offensive’ for an entirely different reason: it challenges the entitlements of the dominant religious group or sect, and aims to reduce its power over the religious minorities.

It is imperative to understand ‘offence’ and ‘respect’ in relation to the interaction between variably empowered groups. The men offended by Mashal’s defense of women’s rights, faced no opposition to their male dignity; but an opposition to their dearly-held superiority over the female gender, and a drive to maintain their centrality in the halls of political power.

In a previous column, I explored how in Pakistan, the use of a blasphemy charge is quite similar to the use of treason or sedition. Because in context of an Islamic Republic, an act of alleged blasphemy not only hurts the sentiments of ordinary Muslim citizens, but challenges the establishment for whom religion is a system of governance.

When a secular humanist makes consistent attempts to dethrone powerful groups – like religious political parties and student organisations – who enjoy exclusive rights to enact rules on how everyone ought to behave, the ‘offence’ is hardly that people’s feelings were hurt.

Mashal’s lynching, sadly, has been portrayed as a tale of gullibility of the masses, or ignorance of what Islam truly says. Some have even used the incident to further their racist narrative of “pathans” being incorrigible religious fanatics.

But inane conclusions like “Muslims are violent” or “We need more education” pay no heed to the strong incentives of distinct power structures involved in these incidents. A mob, for example, does not materialise out of nowhere. It needs to be organised by influential people with political connections. Instead of generalising the blame onto the “people”, our protests must be channelled at specific institutions of power – like religious student organisation, Islamist political parties, and private institutions – that sponsor such vigilantism.

It’s important for the majority to take a step back every once in a while, to carefully assess the kind of ‘respect’ they’re demanding; and the kind of offence they’re condemning.

Faraz Talat

Faraz Talat is a medical doctor from Rawalpindi and an ardent traveller who writes frequently about science, social politics and international relations.