By Ejaz Haider
March 24 2017
The latest development
in the attempt to chase shadows came a day before the Ides of March with the
National Assembly resolving, unanimously, to form a 10-member committee to
investigate just who is putting out the blasphemous content being circulated on
social media platforms.
about the unanimity on the issue, given the sensitivity of it, even though it
is unclear whether most, any or all of the National Assembly members had, or
have, seen the content they were resolving against.
Shaukat Aziz Siddiqui of the Islamabad High Court had summoned officials from
the Pakistan Telecommunication Authority, Police, Federal Investigation
Agency—and even the Interior minister. It seems that when they appeared, the
judge took them to his chamber and showed them the blasphemous content. He is
reported to have blasted the PTA chairman when he tried to inform the court of
the impossibility of filtering one billion social media pages. For good
measure, the judge also informed the officials lined up before him that if the
government doesn’t do anything, people like Mumtaz Qadri—Gov. Salmaan Taseer’s
assassin—would continue to take the law into their own hands.
Be that as it may, it
is quite clear that the government has been put on the back foot. Interior
Minister, Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan, who didn’t personally appear before the
court, was prompt in putting together a presser and assuring everyone that his
ministry and its subordinate law-enforcement bodies were seized of the matter
and, God willing, will not sleep until they had swatted the vermin in question.
The matter has reached the point where Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif has had to
issue a statement condemning blasphemous content on social media and vowing
action, though he did caution against netting any innocent people. The
government, it seems, wants to make the right noises to ward off pressure and
not be seen as soft in its approach.
The issue was
reportedly brought before the court through a petition filed by Salman Shahid,
son-in-law of Lal Masjid’s Abdul Aziz, the controversial mosque which saw
military action in 2007 and whose prayer leaders have, on more than one
occasion, spoken in favor of the terrorist groups the state has been fighting.
The mosque also has the distinction of putting out at least one video in favor
of Daesh. This has not been one-way support, though. The Pakistani Taliban and
its affiliated groups, as also Al Qaeda, on a number of occasions but
especially after the 2007 operation against Lal Masjid gave statements in favor
of the mosque and vowed to attack the state and security forces to avenge the
operation. And they did.
The recent wave of
terrorist attacks by Jamaat-ul-Ahrar has been codenamed Operation Ghazi by the
group in a reference to Ghazi Abdur Rashid, younger brother of Abdul Aziz,
former Khateeb of the mosque. Rashid was killed in the 2007 operation. More
interestingly, a statement purported to be from Ahrar and recently carried by
the media, praised Justice Siddiqui for his prompt action on the issue of
blasphemy and the orders he had given to the government. Interestingly also, Lal
Masjid, for the past two years has been under pressure from activists who have
constantly petitioned the government against actions and statements by its
leaders and also managed to file at least one First Information Report against
The country has also
launched another operation, Radd-ul-Fasaad, in the wake of a string of
terrorist attacks and questions have been raised about the government’s
inability, unwillingness or both to deal with the narrative put out by
terrorist groups and their sympathizers. It is somewhat interesting that the
current talk about blasphemous material seems to dovetail with whatever
half-baked measures that the government was taking toward a counter-narrative.
One point is amply
clear to those who observe and study the strategies employed by rightwing
religio-political groups and also terrorist groups: use religion and religious
sentiments and constantly push that narrative to suppress rational voices.
Religio-political groups do not indulge in violence directly, but the narrative
gives space to violence-prone groups and also to individuals and lynch mobs.
The victims are the very voices the state needs if it wants to turn the
situation around, develop a counter-narrative and stem the rising tide of
extremism, extremist action, and violence.
Put another way, no
one condones blasphemy. If there is such material, the government must
investigate the issue and determine its veracity. The bigger problem is about
the ideological space captured by the very people the state is fighting against
and the withdrawal from the fight of those who are the state’s natural allies
in this war.
It is a matter of
empirical evidence that a majority of blasphemy cases are based on mala fide.
The criminal justice system at every step must, therefore, be very cautious in
dealing with them. That would require setting emotion aside and performing the
function of dispensing justice on the basis of due process rather than on the
basis of how those handling the issue are predisposed to it. Vigilante action
in such cases has been a major problem even when the criminal justice system
has taken cognizance of complaints and accusations. For instance, a former
judge of the Lahore High Court who quashed the death sentence of a blasphemy
accused was murdered in his chamber by a zealot who didn’t agree with the
application of law and evidence in the case. Advocate Rashid Rehman was killed
for simply representing an accused who had the right to a counsel in his
defense. Examples abound.
The point is simple:
blasphemy accusations are often about issues other than blasphemy. Two, the
state, if it wants to win this war, will have to deny space to elements who
breed in this space. If the state tucks tail and runs every time someone or a
group invokes religion or religious sentiment, it stands a cat’s chance in hell
of countering this existential threat.
Making a charge at
social media pages will open up floodgates of accusations. The virtual world is
full of tricks, illusions, and fake news. In addition to creating fake
accounts, genuine accounts can be hacked and run maliciously by hackers who can
change the content and deface the pages. Any investigation must have first-rate
experts in digital forensics to determine guilt or innocence. This is crucial
because people trying to settle scores can and will put up fake pages in the
names of those they want to settle a score with. The criminal justice system at
all levels should be cognizant of this. Its functioning must be informed by
experts. If the system is not sensitive to the trickeries of digital space and
how it can be manipulated, we could end up with a lot of hate and hurt in these
post-truth times. Nw
Ejaz Haider is editor of national-security affairs at