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Lessons from Sialkot: How not to foster lynch mobs of extremism

8 December 2021 03:39 am - 1     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

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Amidst pain and shock, if Sri Lankans are to draw a lesson from the tragedy in Sialkot, that should be as to why it should not become a Pakistan (Photo AFP)

 

The brutal murder of a Sri Lankan factory manager in Sialkot in Pakistan by a lynch mob shocked both countries and drew condemnation from across the world. The workers accused Priyantha Kumara, an export manager of Rajco textiles of ‘blasphemy’. They set upon him, beat him to death, dragged his body and burnt it in a bonfire as hundreds, if not thousands, of onlookers, chanted religious slogans. The mob accused that the Sri Lankan man had dishonoured Islam by allegedly tearing down a poster containing a religious inscription. His wife has denied the allegation and the Pakistani investigators have suspected that blasphemy, a highly charged allegation in the country, might have been used as a pretext to settle scores by angry workers in a work-related feud with the manager. The Pakistani police have now arrested over 100 suspects over the killing.


As gruesome as the incident, savagery witnessed in Sialkot, can not be discussed in isolation from the freewheeling grassroots extremism in Pakistan. Pakistan is one of the extreme examples of the use of religion for political legitimization that has created a toxic mixture of extremism, state capture, militarization and capitulation of the liberal middle class. The grotesque spectacle is also a reminder not to take the path that Pakistan traversed.
Pakistan was founded as a homeland for the subcontinent’s Muslims. Though the founder, Mohammed Ali Jinnah envisaged a secular state and argued that ‘ religion is merely a matter between man and God,’ the new state soon assumed its Islamic character. Islam was made the state religion in 1956. Successive leaders, both military and political, resorted to Islam, generally, to its most regressive notions, to prop up popular support to the regime.
Pakistani military defined its whole existence in its opposition to larger and better-equipped foe across the border, India. It adopted Jihad as a pillar of strategic culture and armed and trained a nexus of Islamic militant groups. Army and especially, the Interservice Intelligence, cultivated strong ties with the Deobandi tradition of Islam, an ultra-conservative strand of Islam that originated in India and was weaponized by Pakistan; ISI created Taliban in Deobandi Madrasas in Peshawar. Pakistan fights its Islamist terrorists of Pakistani Taliban, an offshoot of Afghan Taliban, but simultaneously connive with a host of other terror groups, some of the most notorious such as the Haqqani network are darlings of ISI. Other times, the military has mobilized extremist political parties to undermine the civilian government, that they don’t like. 

"Blasphemy laws mandate the death sentence to anyone who is found guilty"

Zia Ul Haq, the military dictator, took the Islamization of Pakistan to a full circle. But, civilian political leaders have their share of responsibility. Secular Zulfikar Ali Bhutto banned alcohol and declared Ahmedias as non-Muslims.
Imran Khan, the incumbent prime minister who is in the good books of the omnipotent military was known as Taliban Khan for his sympathies with the Islamist militant group.


Overblown zealotry also served as a distraction from deep-rooted inequality, feudal landlordism and military capture of politics and its claim for a large chunk of the budget. ( 5 per cent of landlords own 64 per cent of farmland in Pakistan and 50 per cent of rural households are landless ).
The result is Pakistan is one of the most conservative countries and one that is least accommodative of its religious minorities and its own besieged liberals. According to a Pew Research survey, 62 per cent of Pakistanis support the death sentence to those who leave Islam. The same survey found 75 per cent of respondents saying ‘blasphemy laws’ are necessary to protect Islam.


Blasphemy laws mandate the death sentence to anyone who is found guilty. Though no one has been hanged so far, many victims who have been accused of blasphemy have been killed in vigilante attacks. Salman Taseer, the former governor of Punjab was killed by one of his bodyguards for speaking in support of the Christian woman, Asia Bibi who was accused of blasphemy. When his killer was brought to court, lawyers garlanded him. When Ms Bibi was finally acquitted by the superior court after a decade in remand custody, protests erupted across the country. The government promised to hardline Islamist groups not to allow Bibi to leave the country. At the same time, she was sneaked away to Canada.


Amidst pain and shock, if Sri Lankans are to draw a lesson from the tragedy in Sialkot, that should be as to why it should not become a Pakistan. Successive Sri Lankan governments in the past and present have used Buddhism as an instrument of political legitimization. And those in the opposition have resorted to the same to prop up their electoral chances.


Such measures have not necessarily served the nation, instead, they became a source of conflict.
However, Sri Lanka’s past measures are modest in practice. For instance, the foremost place granted to Buddhism,  in the same paragraph assures, ‘treating all religions and beliefs with honour and dignity, and without discrimination.

Buddhist majority exceedingly tolerant 

In practice, the constitutional position of Buddhism has not been practised at the expense of religious rights of other faiths or individual rights of Buddhists themselves. For a comparison, see the restrictive dynamics of religion from the Middle East to Eastern Europe and some quarters of America. No matter what you read in journal articles or NGO pamphlets, the Buddhist majority of Sri Lanka has been exceedingly accommodating and tolerant of other faiths and practices.


Therefore, I would rather consider sometimes vocal gripe against Buddhism’s constitutional provision as sour grapes from different quarters of closeted fundamentalism, though I have no objection to ditching the clause altogether. 
However, no religion is free from its crackpot fundamentalists. Nor are they immune from exploitation by political machinations.

"The Pakistani police have now arrested over 100 suspects over the killing. As gruesome as the incident, savagery witnessed in Sialkot, can not be discussed in isolation from the freewheeling grassroots extremism in Pakistan. Pakistan is one of the extreme examples of the use of religion for political legitimization"

Extreme religiosity tends to demonize the ‘other,’ before it cannibalizes on its own through restrictive medieval laws. Some religions might have inbuilt breaks to prevent a slide into violence and some may not.
However, the experience across the Buddhist nations, from Sri Lanka to Thailand to Myanmar reveals such guards may at times, crumble, though, in each of these countries, violence has primarily an ethnic dimension and less of religion. Yet the religion has played a role, especially by some of the rubble rousing monks as the instigators.
That is why the recent appointment of Galagoda Aththe Gnanasara theta, a known provocateur, as the head of the presidential task force ostensibly to formulate one law for one country is sending a worrying signal. 


Now, in a leaked audio of a telephone conversation, Gnanasara Thera is heard, threatening bodily harm to a young monk - to ‘break the legs’ and make a personal visit.  All past antics notwithstanding, the latest incident would have warranted his resignation in any civilised nation. A civilized leader might have demanded it. 
So much for one country and one law.


Co-opting of bigots and their slogans empowers bigotry and extremism. It also undermines Buddhism itself.
It was a similar kind of pandering to extremists and extremism that made Pakistan what it is today.
Sri Lanka is not Pakistan, social, cultural, and religious dynamics are vastly different. It might never become one. But electing bigots and murders and putting extremists on the pedestal are never hallmarks of a successful nation.


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  Comments - 1

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  • Dr av wimalasingham Wednesday, 08 December 2021 09:03 AM

    Your views are always fair and square,and I never fail to read them


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