On August 16, 2023, a heated controversy arose in Jaranwala, a city located in the Faisalabad District of Punjab, Pakistan. Torn pages from the Quran, the holy book of Muslims, were discovered near a Christian residence. This act was labeled as blasphemous, causing heightened tensions among extremists in the region. The torn pages were quickly taken to a prominent local religious leader who passionately called on Muslim community members to take to the streets in protest. He urged them to demand swift justice and the immediate apprehension of those responsible for the incident.
Religious extremism is a growing problem in Pakistan
The situation worsened as members of the Tehreek-i-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP), also known as the Pakistani Taliban, joined in. They used mosques and public spaces to make emotional announcements, encouraging people to gather at the site of the alleged incident.
A mob gathered around the Salvation Army church soon after, forcing vendors nearby to close shop immediately. The church was attacked along with other smaller churches in the vicinity.
According to a pastor, Imran Bhatti, a total of five churches were targeted and subjected to vandalism and arson. Among the places of worship that fell victim to this heinous act were the United Presbyterian Church, Allied Foundation Church and Shehroonwala Church, all of which are located in the Isa Nagri vicinity. The assailants went so far as to desecrate a nearby Christian cemetery, leaving a trail of vandalised graves. A section of the compound wall was demolished as well.
The recent incident in Faisalabad’s Jaranwala highlights Pakistan’s ongoing struggle against extremism. Simply condemning such incidents does not address the root causes. Pakistan’s ambiguous blasphemy policies have created this crisis of religious bigotry.
The Pakistan Penal Code has strict laws against insulting the Prophet Muhammad. It reads, in part, “derogatory remarks, etc, in respect of the Holy Prophet [Muhammad] either spoken or written, or by visible representation, or by any imputation, innuendo or insinuation, directly or indirectly shall be punished with death, or imprisonment for life, and shall also be liable to fine.” However, the constitution (Article 10A) also guarantees the right to a fair trial. Despite this, judges in blasphemy cases often feel pressured to convict, even when evidence is lacking, due to the fear of physical violence by vigilante groups.
While no judicial executions have yet occurred under these laws, there have been numerous cases of lynchings and street vigilantism against individuals accused of blasphemy, their legal representatives and those who oppose such laws.
How can we reform the law?
In today’s world, marked by social progress is a critical need to reaffirm our commitment to diversity and combat intolerance. These goals offer hope for a more inclusive and harmonious future, but it’s important to recognize that, while they point the way, humans must actively work towards these goals themselves.
Reforming blasphemy laws is crucial. Outdated laws that limit individual freedoms have no place in a diverse and expressive world. Revisiting and amending these laws can protect individuals from unjust persecution for their beliefs and expressions. The recent events in Jaranwala highlight the urgent need for concrete actions that go beyond words. Pakistan must work to eliminate extremism and preserve its minority populations.
In the intricacies that characterize interfaith relations, lack of education plays a significant role in escalating tensions. Ignorance and misinformation thrive when people lack proper knowledge and understanding. In a world where quality education is a privilege, not everyone has the opportunity to objectively assess religious matters. Many people have limited access to information, making them susceptible to manipulation and extremist influences. This vulnerability can lead to tragic incidents like the recent attack in Jaranwala. Education is essential in fostering tolerance and preventing such conflicts
Considering our changing educational landscape, comprehensive education reforms must be prioritised. As we mold the minds of future generations, our curriculum must incorporate values like religious tolerance, critical thinking and human rights. Religious tolerance, in particular, is a fundamental building block of a harmonious society.
In incidents like these, one key lesson is consistent: In a society guided by the rule of law, no one should act as judge, jury and executioner. The recent rise in incidents where individuals resort to violence against the accused without due process and evidence is not only deeply troubling but also undermines the foundations of justice on which the nation was built on. This perpetuates a dangerous cycle of vigilantism. While emotions can run high in the face of terrible crimes or perceived injustices, it’s vital to remember that the legal system is designed for fairness and impartiality.
When people take matters into their own hands, they risk compromising the integrity of the judicial process.The principle of “innocent until proven guilty” is fundamental in any civilized society. It safeguards against wrongful convictions and protects the rights of the accused. By bypassing this principle and resorting to violence, individuals not only deny the accused a fair trial but also implicate themselves in the process.
Although, instances such as burning the Holy Quran in the name of freedom of expression or ridiculing religious leaders by non-believers may result in friction and provide obstacles, the accused must be punished only through the due process of law.
Pakistanis ought to appreciate that an individual’s religious views are delicate and emotive standpoint. The creation of Pakistan was driven by the desire of the Muslim population in the Indo-Pak peninsula to establish an autonomous nation that would safeguard their religious freedom and enable them to freely practice their faith. The colors of the national flag symbolise the equal rights and unrestricted autonomy to observe religious beliefs of all faiths in the nation.
To tackle these issues effectively, we can take some more concrete steps. Firstly, both the state and civil society can carry out vital public awareness campaigns. They should focus on revealing the severe consequences of false accusations and offer guidance on how to handle such situations if they arise. Equally important is to speak out individually, in journalism, in social media and in personal conversations, to foster the value of tolerance and an attitude of understanding.
[Throvnica Chandrasekar edited this piece.]
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.
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