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Vigilantism in the name of Blasphemy: Need for strong counter violent extremism strategy

In wake of the gruesome beheading of Safoora Bibi, Humaira Zia Mufti, highlights in a hard-hitting piece how the absence of constructive debate on blasphemy laws has increased incidents of public vigilantism in Pakistan. Such events undermine the country’s international campaign to end Islamophobia.

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The gruesome beheading of a 21-year- old Safoora Bibi, who taught at Madrasa Jamia Islamia Falahul Binaat, by her fellow colleagues, who themselves were barely 13 and 24 years of age respectively, presents a serious problem of radicalization of female madrasa students in Pakistan. Despite all efforts in recent years, these students remain out of the mainstream initiatives to reform madrasa education.

The main culprits in the case claimed that one of their 13-year-old relative had seen a dream in which she was asked to kill the victim for committing blasphemy. Reportedly, the girls had a difference of opinion over religious matters with the victim and also did not approve of the fact that the victim subscribed to the views of Maulana Tariq Jamil, a leading religious scholar in Pakistan.

Interestingly, the girls had maintained a register containing details of the dream which shows the pre-meditated nature of the crime. All the four girls have been arrested including the 13-year-old who claims to have seen the dream.

The incident is a worrisome development as it not only indicates the rising trend of killings on allegations of blasphemy in the country but more so now as the young girls and women are also getting inspired and taking the law into their own hands.

Read more: Female teacher reportedly slaughtered over blasphemy charges

Equally troublesome is the matter that the act is claimed to have been carried out on the basis of instructions received through a dream which may be used as a tool to hide the identity of the actual influencer in future. This aspect requires further investigation alongside other possible motives behind the murder.

Despite being the first of its kind -, the incident cannot be termed as isolated since the inspiration to commit such a crime comes from recent events in the country and indiscriminate use of religion for political gains. To avoid further radicalization through possible glorification of the act among female and male students of Madaris, the Government and the law agencies have to act firm while dealing with the perpetrators which includes one underage student.

The memory of 3rd December, 2021 lynching of 49-year-old Priyantha Kumara Diyawadana, a Sri Lankan national by hundreds of people is still fresh. The incident took place as the manager allegedly asked to remove banners on a wall related to Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP).

Even though the organization distanced itself from the event, it carries a very strong influence on the prevalent thinking in the country when dealing with cases of alleged blasphemy. Not long ago, videos went viral of  TLP leaders chanting “Gustakh-e-Rasul ki aik hi saza, sar tan se juda sar tan se juda” (The punishment of a blasphemer is nothing but that his head be severed) while citing traditions which have little or no authenticity.

Dealing with vigilantism: Need for a well-informed narrative

Mob lynching and vigilante justice are never the answers. It is about time that the state comes out with a strong counter narrative that challenges the widely held belief of punishing the alleged blasphemer without any due process of law. This would require well thought out policy interventions and legal reforms related to the Blasphemy law itself.

Due to the absence of debate on the blasphemy law at the rightful places such as the Council of Islamic Ideology, the Parliament, the relevant Ministries and government institutions, the subject has fallen into the hands of those who personally gain from further fanning the public sentiments instead of resolving the matter in the light of Islamic principles.

Read more: Opinion: Is Pakistan’s blasphemy law a result of the ulema-state alliance?

Such a trend of summary trials by the common man or a mob has empowered those who are neither educated in the Islamic jurisprudence, philosophy and legal principle nor do they have etiquettes of the religious discourse. Hence, a 13-year-old becomes the judge who would decide on executing someone on alleged blasphemy merely on the basis of a dream which cannot be verified or a prayer leader who would unleash a mob on a mentally retarded man who would then be lynched to death in Khanewal.

Rule of Law becomes a victim of religious frenzy and the police, judiciary and all other state institutions are held hostage by a mob demanding death of the alleged blasphemer or expulsion of a diplomat from the country. For how long will the Pakistani nation carry the burden and embarrassment of such acts which have got nothing to do with Islam?

Female Madaris: Operating below radar

The radicalization of Madaris should be a cause of concern as earlier in 2015, Jamia Hafsa students had invited Daesh to avenge the “Laal Masjid attack “of 2007. In 2017, the students of the seminary also posted a video on social media inviting Daesh to maim and kill Pakistani soldiers and civilians by chopping off their hands, beheading them, and tearing apart their bodies to take revenge for the 2007 Lal Masjid Operation and for killing Osama Bin Laden.

The radical role played by the students of Jamia Hafsa and their consistent support to terrorist outfits cannot be termed as benign and a simple act. In October 2020, a worrying video of a radical teacher of the same seminary went viral who was seen beheading an effigy of French President Emmanuel Macron in front of women students many of whom were children. The teacher was training girl students on how to behead a blasphemer. This poses a serious question as to what is being taught at the female Madaris where the state has little or no access.

Read more: “Cosmetic surgery is Blasphemy”, Iran arrests Instagram celebrity

The Single National Curriculum that took the country’s public and private educational system by storm while raising controversies on its relevance and efficacy for the modern day educational needs, didn’t touch the Madrasa education system at all. The Wafaqul Madaris, while having their full influence on the otherwise “secular subjects” taught at the public and private institutions, successfully kept their own curriculum out of any discourse or changes.

Needless to say, the reform of Madaris is long pending and particularly of the female madaris which do not appear anywhere on the radar of policy makers. Following the incident, wafaqul Madris Al Arabia has condemned the murder as unfortunate and demanded an independent and fair investigation of the incident while calling on the government to arrest the culprits.

But will this incident result in any meaningful changes in what is being taught at these seminaries and how are these being monitored by the state? The answer is plain “No” as the Madaris continue to operate under their respective Boards which operate independently with no state monitoring mechanism despite establishment of Directorate General of Religious Education and 16 regional offices in 2019.

The number of registered and unregistered female madaris is unknown. Some estimates show that there are more than 1900 registered all-female madrasas in the country in 2010. The female madaris partially owe their existence to the failure of the state to cater to the need of increasing desire for education among the lower middle income for traditional Islamic Values.

Read more: Madrasa Reforms: Lynchpin of Pakistan’s efforts to combat terrorism

Since the data on all female madaris is not available, the number of students enrolled andthe areas to which they belong, including afghan refugee presence, cannot be ascertained. The students and teachers of Madrasa Jamia Islamia Falahul Binaat did not belong to Dera Ismail Khan, rather they came from South Waziristan and were temporarily residing in Anjumabad, DI Khan.

With the Afghan Refugee influx, the demand and pressure on religious education offered by madaris will increase and hence the state institutions have to be more vigilant of the numbers of students enrolled and their geographical spread.

The other aspect highlighted by the incident is the use of smart phones and social media by the students of the madrasa which is a good and a bad sign at the same time depending on content accessed. The victim was influenced by the ideas of Maulana Tariq Jamil who is a moderate and progressive scholar and his ideas did not go well with the other students apparently inspired by the orthodox and extremist content taught at the madrasa. The use of smart phones and access to extremist content and videos on social media on the other hand provide justification to commit crime against individuals.

A gendered approach to Preventing and Countering Violent Extremism (PCVE)

As the investigation progresses, one would ultimately find the drivers of radicalization and motivation of the perpetrators but this unique incident has again brought to fore the absence of counter violent extremism policy and interventions in Pakistan. The National Action Plan and National Internal Security Policy 2018-23 remained orphaned due to absence of political ownership, therefore, issues like these were never debated at the relevant quarters.

As women were never part of the CT/PCVE dialogue carried out behind closed doors, this raises the importance of inclusion of women’s voices in CVE policymaking and must go beyond holding of workshops, conferences and report writing.

Read more: Religious ultra-conservatism to have a field day in Pakistan

A gendered approach to CVE would definitely net in innovative approaches to de-radicalisation, promotion of peaceful co-existence through community engagement and strategic communication, women empowerment and youth engagement. The recently launched National Security Policy 2022-2026 does not address fault lines surrounding blasphemy law and the challenges it poses to the National Security.

It does however, talk about promotion of the women, peace and security agenda and ensuring integration of gender equity into national security narratives through full and meaningful participation of women in decision-making, law enforcement, justice sector, and peacekeeping.

The National Security Policy also recognizes that the extremism and radicalisation on the basis of ethnicity or religion pose a challenge to our society and that “the exploitation and manipulation of ethnic, religious, and sectarian lines through violent extremist ideologies cannot be allowed”.

It also prioritises inculcation of interfaith and intersectarian harmony and societal tolerance in all its forms while eliciting cooperation of religious scholars from every school of thought to expand de-radicalisation programmes and promote a united narrative against extremism.

It is to be seen if the country can develop a narrative that addresses the challenges faced in one of the most important area concerning blasphemy that cuts through the faultlines in the country, builds the image of the country as a progressive and tolerant one and also does not impinge on Pakistan’s agenda to tackle Islamophobia globally.

Interestingly, prior to NSP 2022-26, NACTA had carried out an extremely valuable exercise in 2017-18 under the guidance of former National Coordinator, Mr. Ihsan Ghani who developed consultative expert groups for development of an all-encompassing National narrative to counter terrorism and violent extremism in Pakistan.

Read more: It is high time we fixed mob taking over Pakistan! – Maleeha Hashmey

The narrative so developed had its roots in the Constitution of Pakistan, Culture, Religion and the values espoused by the founding fathers. It also addressed difficult questions and challenges faced by Pakistan in the ideological domain which are frequently used by extremists and terrorist organisations thriving on the fault lines in the country.

Unfortunately, like all other important policy documents, the national narrative prepared by NACTA is gathering dust somewhere. In the absence of such a narrative from the State, the police and law enforcement agencies are faced with multiple challenges as seen during the TLP protests where hundreds of police officers were injured and killed.

Clarity on the narrative and subsequent dissemination and training of the law enforcement agencies would equip the state in better handling of cases related to blasphemy and ensuring Rule of Law.

Responsibility of Council of Islamic Ideology, Parliament and the Political Parties

As part of the solution, the Council of Islamic Ideology must debate misuse of blasphemy law by the political parties and other groups as they carry serious implications for the safety and security of the citizens of Pakistan and its image. Responsibility also lies on the mainstream political parties and religious leaders and scholars to discuss the misuse of religion for political purposes and particularly when it related to the Holy Personality of Prophet Muhammad (PBUH).

Read more: Blasphemy and exploitation by religious extremists

It is our duty to be utmost respectful in matters related to him and ensure that it does not bring bad repute to Islam and the persona of Prophet Muhammad pbuh. Unfortunately, the persistent political instability in the country has further pushed such critical issues away from the mainstream discussions and media spotlight and never really reach a conclusion. Events like these also undermine and negatively affect our international campaign to highlight Islamophobia and end up perpetuating fear of Islam and anti-muslim negative stereotyping in the west and elsewhere.

The author is an alumni of the World Trade Institute, University of Bern, Switzerland and former Director General, National Counter Terrorism… The views expressed in the article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Global Village Space.