To their credit, local officials resisted the demand for instant injustice, but a young boy was killed in the violence.
A couple of years ago, in an interview on Irish television, the British actor and TV personality Stephen Fry made some comments that potentially fell foul of the Republic of Ireland’s 2009 Defamation Act, according to which anyone who says or publishes anything construed as blasphemous “shall be guilty of an offence”.
A member of the public filed a complaint at the time, which appears to have been ignored until he contacted the police again some weeks ago to ascertain whether the matter had been pursued.
At the end of last week, it was reported that police had launched an investigation. By Monday, the probe had been dropped, after the police “were unable to find a substantial number of outraged people”; even the complainant said he felt no personal offence but was merely doing his civic duty.
Even if a prosecution had been pursued and a conviction obtained against Mr Fry and the broadcaster RTE, the culprits would have been liable to, at worst, a fine of 25,000 euros. Yet the episode graphically highlights the absurdity of the Irish law, and Ivana Bacik, a senator who campaigned against it in 2009, has been quoted as saying that “it is being used as a model by these regimes [including Pakistan] and this is not what Ireland should aspire to”.
That is an unfair claim. The Irish model, however odd it may seem from a Western European perspective, would surely be deemed far too lame by many Muslim states.
As we have been reminded far too frequently in recent years, long after the colonial law was beefed up by Pakistan’s most toxic military regime, the very concept has been appropriated by some of the worst elements in society as an excuse for murder. The vaguest insinuations of blasphemy, invariably false or dubious in the extreme, can — and all too often do — lead to lynchings.
The law itself may be questioned by some, but efforts to reform it were suspended several years ago — not least because it is routinely disrespected by those whom one would assume to be the most ardent of its votaries. They wouldn’t want a word of it to be changed, but all too many of them also seem determined to override its processes. Ill-motivated accusations suffice as evidence of guilt. An irrevocable verdict is pronounced in minds inflamed with the passion of ignorance, and then carried out in the most brutal manner imaginable, often in full public view.
The sheer barbarism of the mob that brutalised and then murdered the Mardan university student Mashal Khan in his hostel almost a month ago spurred a broader degree of revulsion than is the norm in such circumstances. The leaders of all the major political parties — including those whose activists are alleged to have participated in or possibly even spearheaded the outrage — lined up to condemn the atrocity.
In many cases, however, they waited for the police to declare that the accusations of blasphemy were groundless before issuing their statements or offering condolences.
By all accounts, Mashal Khan was indeed “guilty” of holding enlightened views that may not have tallied with those of some of his peers, and of challenging the incompetence of the university authorities. From what one can gather, the latter “crime” may have been crucial in sealing his fate. Several arrests have been made, and while it obviously must be hoped that the ongoing investigation will clarify matters, there are inevitably grounds for scepticism.
It’s reasonably safe to assume, though, that whatever the actual motivation behind the horrific outbreak of violence, at least some of the perpetrators saw their own descent into savagery as some kind of a religious duty.
As, no doubt, did the members of a mob that attacked a police station in Hub, Balochistan, in order to lynch a man from a minority community, who has been accused of blasphemy. To their credit, local officials resisted the demand for instant injustice, but a young boy was killed in the violence.
It seems almost futile to refer back to eras in Muslim history when religious matters could openly be debated, but surely it is worth remembering that just a few decades ago, Pakistan itself represented a relatively open-minded society where differences of opinion could be articulated without risk of bodily harm.
This is not an exclusive phenomenon, of course. Bigotry is on the rise in the neighbourhood, and for that matter pretty much across the world. But wherever those who insist that anyone who disagrees with their beliefs be deprived of their life or liberty are, in fact, conceding a weakness. Fanaticism springs from insecurity.
By arragement with the Dawn