Making of a shrine in Pakistan

A narrative is gathering force that, nudged by Pakistan’s civil-military leadership, the country is recovering liberalism. An examination of a new shrine, to Salman Taseer’s assassin, tells another story

Could anyone imagine even six months ago that >Shahbaz Taseer, son of Pakistan’s slain Punjab Governor Salman Taseer, would be freed from his Taliban or Uzbek captors after nearly five years in captivity? Despite friends’ prayers, his circle of admirers and onlookers had given up hope. Perhaps the Taseer family had better hope as it was secretly negotiating with the captors. But his return remains as much of a mystery as his disappearance. No one knows why he was kept for five years and why it took so long to negotiate his return.

However, the release is made to look like a turn of events from the sordid and the tragic to a new beginning for Pakistan. This despite the fact that there is an absolute lack of clarity regarding the role of security agencies in the release. So, for all one cares, the younger Taseer’s release was, by coincidence, > a week after Mumtaz Qadri, his father’s killer, was hanged on the orders of the Pakistan Supreme Court. But it has been all made to look like things were following a natural sequence indicating Pakistan’s metamorphosis from a Taliban-ridden state to a haven for liberalism.

A mirage?

Glancing through Pakistan’s English-language press, it seems that we are back to discovering the good old Pakistan. Many in the national and international media have presented these events as a much-awaited shift towards peace and stability that was made possible only due to a perceived change in the military’s thinking. Operation Zarb-e-Azb, which begun in June 2014 and was aimed at terrorists ensconced in the tribal areas in the north of the country, is viewed as a precursor to some kind of a metamorphosis.

We hear of some sort of mutation in the attitude of Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, who was earlier criticised by liberals as representing a soft form of the Jamaat-e-Islami. It’s his President Mamnoon Hussain who bravely ventured to reject Mumtaz Qadri’s appeal against his death sentence. Moreover, he was quick in announcing “prompt action” against the perpetrators of the Pathankot attack, and a police report was indeed initiated against un-named assailants.

But almost 400 km away from where the Taseer family is rejoicing its reunion with its son is the evolving shrine of Mumtaz Qadri in the Bara Kahu neighbourhood in the suburbs of the capital city, Islamabad. The grave, which was dug in the middle of an empty ground and is likely to turn into a blooming shrine, attracts hundreds of people every day who come to pray for his forgiveness and salute his bravery for and commitment to standing up for his religion and dying for it. There are flowers strewn on his grave every day and free food served to whoever visits, which is bound to attract more people. Over 2,50,000 people attended the funeral of a man who is a criminal in the eyes of Pakistan’s Supreme Court.

Raising passions

Justice Asif Saeed Khan Khosa of the Supreme Court of Pakistan did not find >Salman Taseer guilty of committing blasphemy, the grounds on which Qadri shot dead the then Punjab Governor in January 2011. Justice Khosa also upheld Qadri’s death sentence by the sessions court. No one really expected that Qadri would be hanged given the passion and mass hysteria surrounding the blasphemy issue. There are many cases in which people have taken the law into their own hands and tortured people to death without hearing their side of the story. The issue is highly emotive and not even the ideological opponents of the Barelvi school of thought that Qadri represented, such as the Deobandi and Ahle-Hadith, could utter a word supporting his hanging. In fact, the Jamaat-e-Islami (JI) leadership also took part in the funeral.

The blasphemy law and Qadri’s sentence are both highly divisive issues. >Ordinary people ask how a person whose funeral was attended by hundreds of thousands could be a sinner. Or how it is that the Asia Bibi case which started earlier has not been decided as yet. People see a foreign, particularly western and Israeli, conspiracy behind the quick decision and hanging.

A space with limits

What is certainly new is the strange caution among those visiting the Qadri shrine. The voices criticising the government’s perceived unfairness get muffled in the sound of the azaan. The manner in which the mob was stopped from joining Qadri’s family for the burial is a definite signal to his father and other family members that they ought not to cross certain limits. It is all right for the traders of Lahore to weigh Qadri’s father in gold or to contribute to the building of the shrine, but it must not be a space for political rebellion.

The Barelvis are in a majority in the country but are not equated with militancy. Barring a few small groups that fought in Kashmir, they are generally dedicated to preaching. In the last decade or so, they seem to be gathering support and using the issue of blasphemy in order to push back their ideological opponents — the Deobandis and the Ahl-Hadith — represented by the Jaish-e-Mohammad (JeM) and the Lashkar-e-Taiba/Jamaat-ud-Dawa (LeT/JuD) respectively. Although blasphemy is a dicey issue to tackle, Barelvi extremism has not won support from the government as in the case of the Deobandi and Ahle-Hadith militancy, which, over the years, tweaked their ideology to accommodate the Pakistan state’s military-strategic objectives.

Thus far, there is no evidence that the Deobandi and Ahl-Hadith militancy has lost state support. According to Sartaj Aziz, the Foreign Affairs Adviser to Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, the state will eventually deal with the JeM and the LeT as well. But the JeM based in Bahawalpur, in Punjab, and the LeT based in Muridke, outside Lahore, do not indicate any nervousness regarding possible doom. The JeM leadership exhibits neither nervousness nor indicates haste in removing the armed guards around its main centre. The LeT, on the other hand, has a more expansive organisational structure, and is thus quite sensitive to managing the popular narrative. For instance, around Pathankot, the organisation’s main spokesperson went around convincing journalists in Islamabad and Lahore of the LeT’s vulnerability — and that the government was targeting it needlessly when all that it did was welfare. But there is little reason for Rawalpindi to clean up the plains of Punjab and Sindh, particularly of the JeM and the LeT/JuD. The main worry was the Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, parts of which were eliminated and the rest allowed to merge into other more “acceptable” groups, such as the JeM, it was ideologically affiliated with. A significant segment of the LeJ was encouraged to develop its political wing, a formula considered appropriate for the mainstreaming of Deobandi militants. However, this formula remains problematic as militancy is not necessarily driven by lack of occupation or mainstreaming.

The two sides

As Qadri’s hanging is symbolic of the state’s resolve to discourage people taking the law into their own hands, the new shrine denotes a sharp disagreement of the common people with the state and its decision. There is nothing much that can happen in the form of de-radicalisation, especially when the state has no plan to encourage it. Furthermore, it is a difficult venture in a hybrid-theocracy like Pakistan’s. For years, the common people were trained to think of themselves as protecting Islam and the Ummah. Jihad and blasphemy are a part of this formula, which is not about to change. One hears stories about Daeesh literature being discovered from the Quaid-i-Azam University involving both students and the faculty. How can a shift happen without tearing down such ideological shrines?

The simplest possible method for the state is to develop zero tolerance for violence and gradually ensure that justice is institutionalised. People should share the euphoria on decisions beyond the elite. If a sense of disproportionate justice continues, these very ideological shrines could emerge a bigger problem for the state and the region.

Note: This article originally published here.