Supporters of Tehreek-e-Labaik Pakistan, a hardline religious political party, block the road during a protest against a court decision to overturn the conviction of Christian woman Asia Bibi in Karachi on October 31, 2018. Photo: AFP

Pakistan was virtually besieged by religious fanatics after the Supreme Court acquitted Asia Bibi in a blasphemy case. Soon after the announcement of the verdict, the founding chairman of Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP), the cleric Molvi Khadim Hussain Rizvi, called for nationwide protest, and within a few hours the country was brought to a halt by the mobs.

Highways and entry points of almost every city were closed by the protesters. From October 31 to November 3, fanatics with sticks in their hands roamed around the roads and streets. They burned cars, damaged public property and beat ordinary citizens, chanting “Hand over the blasphemer Asia.”

The main organizers of the protests and a sit-in in front of the Punjab Assembly in Lahore, Khadim Rizvi and peer Afzal Qadri, demanded immediate suspension of the verdict. They abused the judiciary and asked for the resignations of the judges who handed down the decision in favor of Asia Bibi.

Afzal Qadri also demanded the resignation of the Chief of Army Staff, General Qamar Javed Bajwa, and asked other military officers to revolt against the COAS.

There was chaos everywhere, and after three days of the protest, the government of Pakistan surrendered to the demands of TLP fanatics by signing an agreement with them to fulfill their demands.

As per the agreement, a full bench of the Supreme Court will hear a review petition against the acquittal of Asia Noreen (known as Asia Masih or Asia Bibi) and her name will be placed on the Exit Control List so she cannot flee abroad. The government has also agreed to release the people who were involved in burning public properties and blocking roads, and cases against them will be withdrawn. The TLP has said sorry if its sit-ins and protests hurt someone or damaged someone’s property or business, and the government has accepted this apology.

By signing this document of surrender, the state has shown that if you have the ability to gather a few thousand armed men and play the religion card, the state will accept all your demands

By signing this document of surrender, the state has shown that if you have the ability to gather a few thousand armed men and play the religion card, the state will accept all your demands and in the end will accept your apology and sign a document of surrender with you. One wonders if the laws on contempt of court and treason against the state are only for law-abiding citizens and elected representatives who show dissent through logic and with peaceful means.

Former prime minister Nawaz Sharif only gave a statement on the Mumbai attacks that our land was used by an extremist organization to carry out the attack and he was framed in a treason case along with Cyril Almeida, the journalist  who interviewed him. Many stalwarts of the Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz) were disqualified under the charge of contempt of court for criticizing the Supreme Court verdict to disqualify Sharif on flimsy evidence. Yet when Rizvi and his aides openly threatened to kill judges and demanded their immediate removal from office in the wake of Asia’s acquittal, the Supreme Court opted to remain silent, fearing the threats of fanatics.

The Pakistan Army, which did not hesitate to declare Sharif and other dissenting politicians traitors, did not utter a single word when Rizvi and his colleagues were bashing it publicly and were asking the soldiers to revolt against their chief.

Prime Minister Imran Khan, who told the nation before going to China that he would not bow down to fanatics and warned them of dire consequences, within a few hours took another U-Turn and sent his ministers to negotiate with the TLP leadership.

When the TLP was launched and used against the Sharif government to dent its religious vote bank, Imran Khan sided with the TLP and his close aides participated in the TLP protests against the PML-N government. Khan did not know that within a few months he and his party would be facing the same as a result.

After the state surrendered to the fanatics and Asia Bibi’s lawyer Saiful Malook left the country immediately, fearing for his safety, one can easily guess that what will happen to Asia Bibi now, even though she was acquitted by the court.

In any case, the state by signing the document of surrender has ensured that it will be the mullahs and fanatics who will decide the fate of prisoners like Asia and eventually they will be the ones who will shape the minds and narratives of the country.

For the rest of Pakistan’s minorities, life will be harder because the state has also agreed not to intervene in Section 295 (c) of the constitution, which deals with blasphemy cases, in future. Extremists like Khadim Rizvi can now accuse anyone as a blasphemer at any time. Then the faith of an individual will determine whether he deserves to be a living being or dead meat and whether he or she is a first-rate or a third-rate citizen will also be decided by that person’s religion.

It seems that like us, our children too will grow up in a society where research and debate will only revolve around checking the beliefs of one another, declaring one another blasphemous.

Every compromise or surrender a society makes demands new compromises. This surrender has compromised our ideological, political and social growth. It is a defeat of a progressive and peaceful society.

The fanatics and their sympathizers have successfully kidnapped the true essence of Muhammad Ali Jinnah’s Pakistan. The new Pakistan emerging after this surrender is a country hostage to extremism, mobs, and religious clerics. The code for survival is now silence – a silence that only suits graveyards, not living societies.

The agony is that millions of people think the same and the state has never tried to change this mindset of extremism. Such is the state of hallucination that it has given birth to a paranoid society where millions of believers feel threatened by a few thousand Ahmadis, Christians, and other minorities. Knowing the state of the mind of religious followers and devotees, these faith merchants are cashing in by declaring that religion and holy personalities are in danger.

The faith industry actually claims to defend religion and God, and the devotees and believers, like opium addicts, follow them. No one thinks logically that violence breeds violence, and it is this religious and faith industry that has been responsible for the extremism in Pakistani society and for creating millions of useless minds who are unable to contribute toward the betterment or advancement of a modern civilization.

Imagine a country in the 21st century that is giving the charge of making decisions pertaining to the state and shaping the minds of future generations to fanatics and extremists. The irony is that our state is still not ready to learn that this surrender will give birth to many more surrenders in the hands of fanatics in the future as well.

Until and unless the state decides to distance itself completely from religious matters and declare faith a personal matter, and the establishment stops allowing extremist organizations like TLP to undermine certain political parties and elected governments, there is no way that this extremism and violence will end.

Imad Zafar

Imad Zafar is a journalist and columnist/commentator for newspapers. He is associated with TV channels, radio, newspapers, news agencies, and political, policy and media related think-tanks.

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