The escalation of vigilante violence

Challenges to governance and social cohesion

A serious dilemma that is threatening the nation, society, and economy all at once in Pakistan is the growing threat of vigilante violence motivated by blasphemy. This phenomenon has thrown the country into a state of continual unrest, undermining its fundamental underpinnings of government, justice, and societal peace. It is driven by religious fervour and frequently manipulated by extremist forces.

According to Pakistan’s Penal Code, blasphemy includes a variety of offences deemed to be offensive to Islam, the Holy prophet Muhammad (PBUH), or the Holy Quran. These rules, which were supposedly designed to safeguard religious beliefs, have instead come to be used as powerful instruments for instigating violence, settling personal grudges, and upholding prejudice.

By empowering future generations with the tools to challenge prejudice and embrace inclusivity, Pakistan can lay the groundwork for a more just and harmonious society. Pakistan needs daring leadership, institutional reforms, and justice principles to reclaim its position as a beacon of tolerance and resilience, embracing diversity and protecting citizens’ rights

Often, a blasphemy charge is sufficient to incite mob wrath, which can result in extrajudicial executions, lynchings, and generalised dread among religious minorities and dissident voices. The story of violence in Pakistan connected to blasphemy is an indicator of institutional failure and impunity. Political leaders have occasionally used hyperbole and promised transformation, but the state machinery has continually failed to protect the lives and rights of its people. In blasphemy cases, the judiciary has found it difficult to administer impartial justice due to intimidation and the fear of retaliation, which has resulted in lengthy detentions and biassed trials.

The military has been accused of fostering an atmosphere of impunity by not confronting religious extremism directly, leading to the functioning of extremist organizations disguised as defending religious honour. This ambiguity in civilian authority and government institutions has escalated social tensions and undermined confidence in government institutions. Military collaboration with radical religious groups has exacerbated internal unrest and external isolation, leading to a backward of social mores and government.

Between 1927 and 1987, Pakistan recorded only 14 cases of blasphemy, reflecting a period where legal instances of blasphemy were rare. However, from 1987 onwards, Pakistan experienced an alarming surge in blasphemy cases, totalling 2,131 by 2023. This dramatic shift coincided with the era of Gen Zia ul Haq, whose rule from 1977 to 1988 left an indelible mark on Pakistan’s socio-political milieu, particularly in matters concerning religion, law, and governance.

General Zia’s tenure as Pakistan’s sixth President and de facto military ruler was marked by a pronounced Islamization of the country’s legal and societal fabric. He embarked on a mission to assert a conservative Islamic agenda, seemingly to restore morality and uphold Islamic principles. This agenda was heavily influenced by Zia’s interpretation of Islam, which leaned towards a rigid, orthodox understanding that sought to enforce religious orthodoxy through state legislation and policy. One of the most significant and enduring legacies of Zia’s era was the introduction and amendment of blasphemy laws in Pakistan. The origins of blasphemy laws in the region can be traced back to the colonial era, but it was under his regime that these laws were significantly expanded and rigorously enforced.

Under General Zia’s regime, the blasphemy laws were increasingly wielded as instruments of control, often to settle personal vendettas, silence dissent, or target religious minorities. Cases of blasphemy began to proliferate as individuals and groups exploited the vague and ambiguous language of the laws to accuse others with impunity. Moreover, the climate of fear and intolerance fostered by Zia’s policies extended beyond the legal realm.

The state apparatus, including the judiciary and law enforcement agencies, became increasingly complicit in the persecution of individuals accused of blasphemy. Judges faced intimidation from extremist groups, making impartial adjudication nearly impossible. Even those acquitted often faced societal ostracization and vigilantism.

General Zia’s death in a plane crash in August 1988 marked the end of an era but left a lasting legacy that continues to shape Pakistan’s socio-political environment. The blasphemy laws introduced and expanded during his regime remain a contentious issue, subject to domestic and international scrutiny for their human rights implications and the arbitrary application of justice.

The media, which is sometimes praised for being the fourth estate and a symbol of openness, has occasionally given in to self-censorship when it comes to blasphemy-related issues. Journalists and media outlets err on the side of caution out of fear of retaliation and reaction, thereby supporting a narrative that values vigilante justice over due process. This dereliction of duty suppresses debate in public, spreads false information, and jeopardises initiatives to build a pluralistic society founded on respect and tolerance for differing opinions.

At the heart of Pakistan’s struggle with blasphemy-related violence lies a crisis of governance and national identity. The failure to reconcile religious orthodoxy with constitutional rights has perpetuated a cycle of intolerance and violence, leaving vulnerable communities, particularly religious minorities, at the mercy of zealots and mobs. The repercussions extend beyond immediate human rights violations to encompass economic instability, as foreign investment and tourism falter in the face of pervasive insecurity and civil unrest.

Efforts to address this crisis must begin with a comprehensive overhaul of blasphemy laws to safeguard against misuse and ensure due process for all accused. Legislative reforms, however, are just one aspect of a multifaceted challenge that demands a concerted effort from all sectors of society. Religious leaders, civil society organizations, and human rights advocates must unite to promote tolerance, educate communities, and challenge the narrative of religious supremacy propagated by extremists. Simultaneously, Pakistan’s educational curriculum must be reformed to foster critical thinking, pluralism, and respect for religious diversity from an early age.By empowering future generations with the tools to challenge prejudice and embrace inclusivity, Pakistan can lay the groundwork for a more just and harmonious society. Pakistan needs daring leadership, institutional reforms, and justice principles to reclaim its position as a beacon of tolerance and resilience, embracing diversity and protecting citizens’ rights.

THE ESCALATION OF VIGILANTE VIOLENCE

By empowering future generations with the tools to challenge prejudice and embrace inclusivity, Pakistan can lay the groundwork for a more just and harmonious society. Pakistan needs daring leadership, institutional reforms, and justice principles to reclaim its position as a beacon of tolerance and resilience, embracing diversity and protecting citizens’ rights.

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Dr Zafar Khan Safdar
Dr Zafar Khan Safdar
The writer has a PhD in Political Science, and is a visiting faculty member at QAU Islamabad. He can be reached at [email protected] and tweets @zafarkhansafdar

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