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Without An Ideological Struggle Against Extremism, Minorities Cannot Be Protected

The Lahore High Court (LHC) has acquitted Pakistani Christian couple Shafqat Emmanuel and Shagufta Kausar in a case of blasphemy against them, which had earlier led to a death sentence from a local court. Even at a time of rising agitation by religious far-right parties using such issues, the case of this Christian couple can shock the observer because of how outrageous and unjust the allegations were. The accusers require us to believe that the couple sent a religiously offensive SMS message to a local Muslim cleric. And yet, reports indicate that the two of them are illiterate!

Naturally, any legal developments that help the couple should be welcomed, which includes this acquittal of the unfortunate couple by the LHC.

Arrangement will now have to be made to provide safety to the couple from vigilante individuals and groups. Authorities would also do well to consider the law enforcement implications of the social media campaign around this issue by some elements. There are some indications that extremists are taking aim at the judicial authorities whose decision they did not approve of, using inflammatory sectarian-religious rhetoric. This will all have to be looked into by those in charge of the country.

Meanwhile, the wider problem remains. Let us lay out explicitly what is at stake in these cases.

At the moment, in this country, we have an entire array of religious parties with an explicitly far-right agenda by Pakistani standards. Many of these are relatively newly formed outfits, whose leaders have used social media and smartphone communications to push their terrifying agenda.

At the moment, in this country, we have an entire array of religious parties with an explicitly far-right agenda by Pakistani standards. Many of these are relatively new outfits, whose leaders have used social media and smartphone communications to push their terrifying agenda.

Their method is to weaponize and freely use accusations of “hurting religious sentiments” of the country’s majority religious community. Obviously, legislation already exists in the country which provides a platform for them to push their allegations. But a legal process is unlikely to provide the desired outcome (i.e. death for the accused) to those who bring the accusations – as we can see from the case of Aasia Bibi, that of Shafqat Emmanuel and Shagufta Kausar, or a number of others. Whatever one thinks of the laws being cited here, the fact is that they still require at least the semblance of a legal procedure. It is very difficult to sustain the accusations in a proper court of law.

But this, rather than deterring the accusers, only seems to provide political impetus for more and more allegations. Moreover, the process of acquitting the accused exists only in a legal form. Functionally, they remain in the cross-hairs of mobs and religious vigilantes, who are convinced of the ‘guilt’ of their victims beforehand.

The problem is that the most violent defenders of Pakistan’s laws around religious sentiments do not themselves believe in the legal process. They see it as merely a formality whose purpose is to show how ‘restrained’ they are. We are so reasonable, they suggest to their followers, that we temporarily suspend our rage at the accused so that the law might take its course! When the law does not provide them with the desired outcome of death, their argument is strengthened: that the Pakistani state is beholden to the international community and dares not deliver the head they demanded. Rather than pushing them to the margins, their extremely violent extra-judicial argument gives them legitimacy in a country where most state authorities are automatically distrusted by vast swathes of the population.

It will not be easy for Pakistani authorities to do the right thing in such cases, given the immense pressure which these far-right religious parties are able to generate. They can whip up mobs that can cripple the country within a few hours – as we have seen, repeatedly, to our dismay. The accusation of being in league with foreign countries, most recently those of the European Union, is something which understandably worries the authorities. It is a potent means of delegitimising them in the eyes of an excitable religious constituency.

But the other option, i.e. surrender before mobs making outrageous demands, will be a terminal disaster for the country. There was no way for a functioning and sovereign state to set aside the Supreme Court’s decision on Aasia Bibi, no matter how much rage was expressed by the religious vigilantes on the streets. Similarly, it was impossible to cut off diplomatic ties with European countries, as was recently demanded with so much violence against police and citizens. And it will be impossible for any serious legal process to deliver the outcome which accusers desire against the unfortunate Shafqat Emmanuel and Shagufta Kausar.

Aside from the short-term strategy of managing the crisis created by religious extremists, the Pakistani state must also begin to chalk up a strategy for an ideological push-back. The ultimate solution to our problem here is not in the gymnastics that authorities must do to keep frenzied mobs at bay. It has to do with challenging the idea that such behaviour is acceptable for Muslims to engage in.

Politicians, religious scholars, journalists and public intellectuals have to begin cautiously pointing out that the agenda of groups which have weaponized blasphemy accusations is not objectively in the interests of Islam or Muslims. This is a communal agenda and its goal is the supremacy of one majority community by bullying all those who are not from that community – whether they are Muslims or non-Muslims.

It often seems that those at the helm of affairs are looking for ideas on how to manage the chaos, but have little interest in promoting a serious counter-narrative. This is partly because of fear, but it also has to do with their own lack of clarity. As we saw from the discussion (or lack thereof) in parliament after mobs demanded the cutting of diplomatic ties with France, our lawmakers are themselves in thrall to the religious extremist narrative. They accept it as the normative version of Islam and go to extreme lengths to assure the far-right groups that they agree on principles, but disagree only on implementation.

We know that this cannot possibly be the case. A sovereign state – even one with such an unfortunate past and present as Pakistan – cannot be in functional agreement with the principles of the mobs, or their understanding of Islam for that matter.

In the medium- to long-term, there is no other way except to embrace the ideological struggle against religious extremism and resisting those who want to weaponize our faith. Pakistan’s religious scholars, political leaders, state functionaries, journalists and intellectuals cannot afford to be so apologetic in the face of mass hysteria.

Cases such as that of Shafqat Emmanuel and Shagufta Kausar will keep coming, unfortunately. Since at present it is not possible to directly and fully uphold law and order against these far-right religious groups, Pakistani authorities must be clear about the next best thing: i.e waiting out the rage without conceding to its core demands. Just one failure by the state to do the right thing will have catastrophic consequences for the country – and not just in the international sphere. The domestic repercussions will be irreparable, irreversible and horrific.

In the short-term, our authorities must ride out these storms with grim determination, at all times remaining fully aware of the price of surrender.

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Naya Daur