How does one move on with all this deep, searing pain over the mob lynching of a body that bore a beautiful heart and a precious mind? And with our senses still reeling, we hear of at least two more horror stories of blasphemy related violence. Grueling as it is, one has to navigate a path out of the all-consuming despair, shock and horror.
Self righteous anger over suspicions of irreligion are all too familiar here. But the roots of the rage go deep; into histories, ideologies, politics and lawmaking. The roots are hard to extricate, but understanding can prevent us from consciously or unconsciously watering and nurturing this poison tree with our words and actions. And so, with this terrible burden of shame to bear as a Pakistani and Muslim, I attempt an understanding.
It is unquestionable that a number of violent crimes are driven by religious zealotry. Desperate attempts to deny that, supposing that this would ‘save’ Islam’s image are pathetically delusional. In doing what the students of Mardan university did in the name of religion, they lynched their own professed faith; and when we take the bait and draw all the wrong conclusions- either haplessly proving that ‘religion has nothing to do with it’, or directly blaming faith and religious doctrine itself for the atrocity, we fuel the blind hate further, becoming the lynch mobsters sinning against a faith that has equal potential for beauty, peace and healing.
While the mobsters let themselves be swayed and drunken by righteous anger, deep within somewhere, there was an uncomfortable knowledge that this was a sacrilege, an atrocity that no religion, no god, no prophet can condone. But mobs don’t pause and reflect; they veer into madness. While the zeal was religiously driven, it was not inspired or guided in any direct way by religious doctrine. That distinction is important to make.
But equally important is the need to address why our mass behavior descends into mob zealotry and fanatical violence driven by and in the name of religion? The reasons go very deep.
While allegations of blasphemy in the Mashal Khan case are far from proven, it is clear that he professed progressive views, a critical and questioning mind. The local mass religious mindset, however, does not allow questions and cannot withstand intellectual challenge. This is in large part because the religious discourse in our society is largely anti intellectual to the extent that even an intellectual approach to religion is sneered at as deviant, threatening and disrespectful. This simplistic, anti intellectual discourse is asserted by wielding power and instilling fear by religious leaders, and the use of threat and violence by those who lack the privilege of authority.
This decadence of religious discourse in this part of the world is rooted in the colonial past when the prestigious madrassah was systematically marginalized and disempowered as part of the colonial education policy of ‘schooling the world.’ The cornered madrassah took refuge behind a defensive, protectionist, insecure religious discourse, trying to hold on in a rapidly changing milieu. In an attempt at self preservation, this defensive discourse refused to engage and became airtight and obscurantist. This still characterizes the madrassah and those who emerge from the system: a stubborn refusal to intellectually engage with alternative discourses that the modern world is teeming with. But we cannot insulate our youth from the tide of intellectual assault from modern ideas and new patterns of thinking. There will be questions raised, and our refusal to engage or even bother with articulating responses will alienate thinking minds.
At the other end of the spectrum, this anti intellectualism teaches conservative minds to take an intellectual challenge as an audacious affront- hence violence becomes the only ‘language’ to respond with.
In more open societies in the West, Muslim communities have no option but to engage and adapt, hence one sees an increasing realization of the need to come up with an intellectually robust spirituality that does not cave in or go berserk on encounter with difference.
Religious scholars as well as secular voices need to realize that this is not just about having or not having the blasphemy law. It is about the need to develop a new religious discourse that addresses and accommodates the genuine questions that the modern mind is full of- a discourse that arms itself with reason, not fear and violence.
The many passionate condemnations of the incident by religious leaders and action against hate speech as well as public demonstrations in solidarity with the victim family are welcome developments that help to restore one’s faith in ourselves despite this awareness of the terrible darkness engulfing us. But a deeper and more farsighted approach for religious leaders and educators would be to guide a new discourse on religion that contends with alternative perspectives and intellectual challenges with maturity, wisdom and openness; a discourse that accommodates diversity and makes respectful space for difference.
Another more personal lesson for me is to remind myself that while self righteous consciousness of professed faith charges mobs to blind rage, a deeper rooted faith also inspires some like Ibn Ali Miller to stand in the midst of the storm of hate and violence to save, make peace and heal. It is up to us to make the choice. In our capacities and within our spheres, those who still value faith must resolve to passionately impart compassion, empathy, tolerance and respect for difference as part of and through faith- otherwise, our proclaimed belief cannot prevent us from committing excesses and injustices in religion’s name.
[Written by Maryam Sakeenah and originally published by Counter Currents. Maryam Sakeenah teaches Islamic Studies and Social Sciences in Lahore.]