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Why they lynched Priyantha Kumara

The nation was shocked and devastated by the distressing news of Priyantha Kumara, a Sri Lankan national working as factory manager in Sialkot. He was lynched and killed in a barbaric and inhumane manner and body torched by a set of insane psychopaths, allegedly blinded by hate and extremism. Farah Adeed, a research assistant at San Diego State University, digs deep the real cause of the incident.

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Priyantha Kumara, a Sri Lankan man working as a manager in Sialkot, was lynched by an angry mob on December 3. Kumara’s corpse was set on fire on the road where most of the people recorded the bone-chilling tragedy and uploaded videos on social media. The cold-blooded murder which brought “shame to the nation” has potentially revived the public debate in the country. Generally, Pakistani media and civil society focus on two points: the rise of the TLP and the government’s inability to effectively contain their extremist ideology, and repeal the blasphemy laws.

The problem with these recommendations is twofold. One, they ignore the historical roots of violence in the name of religion. Two, they also overlook how Islam relates to politics and modern ideas like freedom of speech.

Read more: Hero of Sialkot makes nation proud by dedicating his award to Priyantha Kumara

The state’s capacity to deal with such cases is often overestimated

There is little a state can do in the matters when a major chunk of the society can potentially be on the roads: for example, the question of the sanctity of Prophet Muhammad (P.B.H). No law can ever punish a whole community. Laws are made to ensure order through mending a few miscreants’ rogue behaviors, not to correct entire communities or their ideological orientation. In the instant case, the vast majority, tacitly or otherwise, believes that “blasphemers must be beheaded.” Those who accused him of blasphemy might have some personal grudges, but the hundreds of Muslims on the roads were religiously motivated. There was no personal enmity, and this demands a serious discussion.

This piece is an invitation to think about blasphemy laws and the rise of religiously inspired violence in the Muslim world in a historical context. I do not claim to offer any definite answers, however, what I intend to do is the correct diagnosis of our multifaceted challenges.

Read more: Why punishing the Sialkot culprits in not enough?

Blasphemers and apostates mobbed in Pakistan 

Violence in the name of religion is dangerously rampant in Pakistan. Though the country did not execute even a single convict under the controversial blasphemy laws, yet from 1990 to 2021, 70 people have been killed by the mobs. Recently, a charged mob set the police station on fire in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa’s Charsadda district when the officials declined to hand over an alleged blasphemer to the mob. Similarly, on 13 April 2017, a young man, Mashal Khan, was tortured to death by his colleagues within the university premises in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.

The blasphemy dynamic has particularly been converted into a political movement in recent years. Some events like the killing of Salman Taseer, Governor of Pakistan’s largest province, by his security guard, Mumtaz Qadri; the decision to hang Qadari for his crime helped Khadim Rizvi to launch his party, TLP; the release of Asia Bibi, a Christian woman falsely accused of blasphemy, by the Supreme Court of Pakistan and the recent rise of anti-Islam sentiments in France contributed to the emergence of militarized politics of blasphemy. It may also be noted that apostasy is now understood as blasphemy.

What went wrong: History

As stated above, the matter’s complexity needs a historical and broader understanding of violence in the name of religion in the Muslim world. There have always been such cases throughout Muslim history. In the mid-fourteenth century, there was a scholar, Ibn al-Khatib, “the man who had two deaths,” who disagreed with mainstream scholars on whether the Black Death had a contagious nature or not. He interpreted a hadith differently and maintained that the illness was contagious. The chief judge censored Ibn al-Khatib and ordered them to burn all of his books. Later on, he was arrested and tortured to death. Although he was buried the next day, an angry mob reopened his grave and set his corpse on fire.

Read more: Sialkot is the export capital of Pakistan, Netherland’s ambassador

Part of the problem either lies in history or the way religion was interpreted in the earlier centuries. Unsurprisingly, Shafi and Maliki jurists held that the blasphemer shall be punished if they do not immediately repent. Hanbalis went a step forward and held that the blasphemers shall be punished even if they repent. A few Hanafis argued that there was no categorical basis for the execution of blasphemers, they may be “jailed and beaten with sticks.” These interpretations were made in medieval times but they continue to shape religious discourse and the cultural imagination of countless Muslims across the globe.

Read more: What measures can be taken to eliminate the root cause of the Sialkot incident?

In the following years, the one man who played a significant role in the making of blasphemy and apostasy question more explicit and popular was a prominent Islamic scholar of the 11th century, Abu Hamid al-Ghazali. He declared several Muslim philosophers like Ibn Sina and al-Farbi as apostates punishable by death. His theorization was used by the empires to punish freethinkers who deemed a threat to the Sunni orthodoxy in any way.

Professor Ahmet Kuru, a Turkish-American scholar, in his book Islam, Authoritarianism and Underdevelopment explain the role of Ghazali. He writes that “Ghazali was not an inventor of the idea of declaring a self-avowed Muslim as an apostate, but as a leading scholar, he helped legitimize it.” Kuru also explains that “the main contribution of Ghazali to the ulema–state alliance was his theoretical role in the formation of Sunni orthodoxy.”  Through his writings, Ghazali made the “orthodox views almost unquestionable.”

Ghazali himself was declared as an apostate by his critics for “calling God the ‘true light’” in his Niche. Unlike Mashal Khan and other victims of Ghazali-inspired extremism, he had an opportunity to clarify his position.

What to do? – The Present

In contemporary Pakistan, Ghazali and Muhammad Iqbal are two figures revered for their “right” interpretation of religion. The literalism inspired by prominent medieval figures has not only caused intellectual and cultural stagnation in the Muslim world but also led to the rise of extremism and fundamentalism in opposition to modernity. It has made simple-minded individuals permanent prisoners of history. These young men who lynched Kumara are physically in the 21st century but ideologically in the 11th-century Muslim empires.

Read more: Police register cases against lawyers for attacking AC office in Sialkot

In the Muslim world, the historical process remained effective–with a few exceptions during the Ottoman Empire— until 1924 when Mustafa Kemal Atatürk attempted to disrupt it through his top-bottom approach. Reza Shah Pahlavi did the same in Iran. Muhammad Bin Salman is following the same path but in a different way. As far as the success of the top-bottom project is concerned, present-day Turkey and Iran are the glaring examples of the failure of the modernist project. The Muslim world, including Pakistan, is the victim of ideological battles and imposition of selective doctrinal understanding of Islam throughout history.

All religious-political parties—be it AbulA’la Al-Maududi’sJamaat-e-Islami, Maulana Fazlur Rehman’s Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam, Tahir-ul-Qadri’s Pakistan Awami Tehreek or Khadim Rizvi’s Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan— are the manifestations of Islam’s unique relationship with politics. This is the question we need to address. There is little the state can do in the long run in Pakistan unless the Muslim world largely decides as to how Islam relates to politics and statecraft. Once it is settled neither the state shall use religion to suppress free thinking nor the extremists will demand implementation of sharia.

The writer is a research assistant at San Diego State University, USA. He tweets @Farah_adeed. The views expressed in the article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Global Village Space.