By Zahid Hussain
The fate of 65-year-old Khalil Ahmed was sealed on the day he was accused of blasphemy. It was his death warrant. He was killed while in police detention hours after he was arrested.
A schoolboy, who has not been identified by name, reportedly walked into the police station and shot Ahmed dead in full view of the officers. What motivated the teenager to commit this cold-blooded murder?
Perhaps he was inspired by the glorification of other murders commtted for alleged blasphemy. Or perhaps he was incited by some zealot. The young boy had been growing up watching Mumtaz Qadri, the murderer of governor Salmaan Taseer, being garlanded. Qadri also had a mosque outside the capital named after him, and his larger-than-life portraits adorn certain public places. The young killer might have been told that the same glory awaited him.
He is the product of a society that condones vigilantism and exalts murder committed in the name of religion; the guardians of the law are too afraid to act against the ‘holy killers.’ It is a country where a judge had to flee abroad after convincting Qadri. No wonder the Islamabad High Court is reluctant to validate the conviction.
It was the second murder involving the blasphemy issue in a span of a few days. The murderers of rights activist Rashid Rehman have not yet been apprehended despite his having named those who threatened him. Even if arrested, they may never be convicted, thus encouraging other potential ‘holy murderers.’
In Ahmed’s case, it was shocking that the murderer could walk into a police station, and not be stopped from killing a detainee. The incident in a central Punjab village not far from Lahore was not a breaking story and was underplayed by most of the print media, maybe because the victim was Ahmadi.
Ahmed along with three others was reportedly arrested on blasphemy charges after an altercation with a local shopkeeper. Being members of a persecuted religious minority makes Ahmadis more vulnerable to concoted charges, which gives bogts a license to kill. In this environment the young murderer is not an aberration.
All this started when the state took upon itself the responsibility of deciding who is Muslim and who is not and legalising religious persecution. A corollary of this is that individuals too have now taken up the right to give verdicts on the religious beliefs of others. The mullahs have become custodians of the law as the state’s authority is fast eroding.
In fact, the blasphemy law has become a weapon of persecution and even those defending the accussed are deemed liable. Some time ago, a blasphemy case was filed against former information minister Sherry Rehman for suggesting some procedural changes in the law in the National Assembly.
A glaring example of the gross misuse of the law was witnessed last week when 68 lawyers were booked on blasphemy charges for chanting slogans against a police officer whose name happened to be Omar. The sword of Damocles hangs over every Pakistani citizen, much more so over religious minorities. It is a death warrant once you are accused of blasphemy.
It is despicable the way the blasphemy law is being used in the ongoing media war between rival channels who have filed cases of blasphemy against each other. There is no dearth of instances where clerics are ‘rented’ to get a fatwa to declare the other channel un-Islamic.
Mullahs are having a field day dominating the television screen. What the TV channels do not realise is that no one will come out unscathed in this dirty war. It is the hard-won media freedom that is now under threat. The fear now is that radical clerics will decide what should appear on TV programmes.
This war of fatwas presents a serious threat to the lives of some TV hosts and employees, forcing them to go into hiding or even to flee the country. This fragmented, dysfunctional state cannot protect the lives of those coming in the crossfire.
The role of some security and intelligence agencies in fuelling the hate campaign for settling scores with critics is despicable. Use of religion for proxy wars by state institutions is an extremely dangerous game giving more space to the extremists.
Resultantly, the radical clerics are once again taking centre stage in the ongoing political circus. One can see them leading pro-military rallies hodling larger-than-life portrains of the ISI and army chiefs and spewing their tox narratives on television screens.
Surely they rae trying to seize this opportunity to raise the stakes and sell their services to the highest bidders. The tension between civillians and the military, and their proxy war through the media, has further empowered the extremist religious groups and clerics. This situation will breen more violence in society.
This atmosphere not only produces more child suicide combers but also teenaged killers like the one who shot Khalil Ahmed. Religious extremism and growing intolerance has polarised and fragmented the country making it increasingly difficult to have rational discourse on relgion and other important issues.
Worse still is the failure of the state to deal with this highly dangerous situation. What we are witnessing today is the unreavelling of the state. The use of religion and extremist mullahs as a proxy in the power game is a destructive trend that is threatening the unity of the country.
The writer is an author and journalist.