Saturday, December 22, 2012

Is Pakistan spiraling down the way of Iraq?

by Salman Hameed

The news coming out of Pakistan is getting grimmer by days. There seems to be a general breakdown of society at different levels. No it is not complete chaos yet - but if the present descent continues, it may very well be. There is an increasing power of the various religious factions and they are going after the minorities. Just this past month, over a hundred graves of Ahmadis were desecrated in upscale neighborhood in Lahore. The Shia minority have been facing an onslaught of attacks and death threats via text messages (also see this post about the protest against "Shia genocide"). The Pakistan-Taliban had threatened secular parties in northern Pakistan, and today they killed its prominent politician, Bashir Bilour, in a suicide blast in Peshawar. And amidst all of this, Karachi - Pakistan's largest city, is going through one of its most violent years ever (and that says a lot). All of the above links are just from the past 30 days!

And if this wasn't enough, just this past October, the Taliban decided to shoot 14-year old Malala in Swat - because she was critical of them. In addition, 5 female health workers were shot just last week in different parts of Karachi as they were immunizing kids from polio, and four more in northern Pakistan. As a result 3.5 million kids missed polio vaccinations as the work was abandoned by the UN.

But these grim tales are not limited to large scale organized violence only. At an individual level we have the blasphemy law that can bring the worst of the society. I have written extensively about the incredulous blasphemy case against my astronomer friend, Umair and his father, and the subsequent burning of their high-performing girls school in Lahore. I had compiled a list of some blasphemy-law related cases just from the month of October this year.

And now comes a chilling story of a mob lynching in Dadu over a blasphemy accusation:

A mob in Pakistan has stormed a police station and beaten to death a Muslim man accused of desecrating the Koran. 
The victim's body was then set alight, according to witnesses. 
The unnamed victim had earlier been handed over to the police after burnt pages of the Koran were found in a mosque in Dadu district, 330km (200 miles) north of Karachi, where he had been staying overnight. 
Hours later a mob went to the police station, seized the man and killed him.
The district police chief, Usman Ghani, told the BBC the gruesome incident was filmed on mobile phones. He said the footage was being reviewed to identify culprits.
What kind of individuals do this and what was going through the minds of individuals who thought of even making a video! Who is the video for? Their kids? A souvenir for their loved ones?

A more fortunate man was given death sentence in Chitral (northern Pakistan) for blasphemy, just this past month. And less than two weeks ago, protests erupted in Islamabad to demand the arrest of a doctor accused of blasphemy by his nephew.

This is a society in decline. Religion and religious factions in Pakistan are providing an easy route to chaos. But this has more to do with a central breakdown of any semblance of authority. The blasphemy law, then, is simply just one more log in the already existing fire. But fire it is.

Back in 2008, I had this comment after increasing number of attacks by the Taliban on Pakistan's intelligence agencies and elite military units:
This also underscores the general stability of Pakistan. If these bombers can hit some of the highest security targets, what hope do cities have from preventing such attacks. In fact, it almost seems that the organizations behind these attacks are, at present, simply showing-off their strength. They certainly seem capable of creating mass chaos in Iraq-style bombing campaign in cities, where the population is far greater than in Iraqi cities (by way of comparison, Iraq's population is ~25 millions, and Pakistan's is 165 million). 
[12/22 correction: Iraq's population today is 33 million and Pakistan's is 177 million]
I really hope and wish that Pakistan can somehow reverse this downward spiral into chaos. Otherwise, we are going to find out what an Iraq-style mess would look like in a population that is more than 5 times bigger than Iraq.

Apologies for a somber post. But this is just a reaction to one grim news after another from Pakistan. Hope next year will be better.

Here is an excellent cover of Zombie by Bakht Arif - commenting on the current state of Pakistan (tip Ayesha Siddiqa):


Akbar said...

In Iraq, it was from outside. In Pakistan, it is from inside, deep inside :-(

Salman Hameed said...

Yes - that was the initial cause in Iraq. But then the power vacuum was filled with factional and ethnic fighting - and sunni-shia fighting became a central element. In Pakistan also, some of it is a result of the Taliban being pushed into Pakistan as a result of the US invasion of Afghanistan. Of course, the factional and ethnic fighting has been going on in Pakistan for decades (and catastrophically, if one includes the debacle of East Pakistan), but the latest rise in suicide bombings started from the northern areas. But you are right - most of it is internal. The blasphemy law - is of course - self-inflicted. However, the lack of a strong central government is now making it a free-for-all opportunity for purging minorities of all sorts.

Chow Yun Fat said...

Many laws are used to target innocents, the blasphemy law is not the only one. The solution is to fix the judicial process, not to revoke laws.

Salman Hameed said...

True - but this particular law not only has problems with its nature, but it also riles up emotions and provides a motive for mobs to declare individuals guilty and seek justice on their own. It rarely gets to the process...and one's life is destroyed (literally and metaphorically) simply when once accused.

Chow Yun Fat said...

Blasphemy will rile up emotions in Pakistan even if there is no blasphemy law. Do you think if we repeal the law today, and tomorrow someone disrespects the Prophet, people won't lynch him? It has nothing to do with the law and everything to do with general religious sentiment.

Salman Hameed said...


An interesting point. But I do think that it makes a difference. For example, while blasphemy accusations were there before the 1990s as well, the codification of this allows people to claim a "legal" right and then can accuse the police for not doing their job. Another case is that of the persecution of Ahmadis. It went up considerably after they were formally declared non-Muslms. And police itself, in both cases, gets involved in the persecution. For a comparison, Shias are also being targeted - but that is still considered - by most - an illegal and wrong thing. If tomorrow the Shias are constitutionally and/or declared non-Muslims, you will see an enormous upsurge of violence against them. So - yes, a blasphemy law - especially the one with a laughable level of standards - is detrimental to the health of Pakistani society.

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