Blasphemy in Pakistan that provokes mass anger and violence against perceived offenders of Islam has claimed a Sri Lankan manager of a factory in Punjab’s Sialkot area, adding to the growing number of such incidents registered in 2021.
A mob on December 3 tortured Priyantha Kumara, a Sri Lankan national working as an export manager, and then burned his body after killing him in broad daylight, as hundreds watched, some filming the incident on their mobile phones, media reports said.
Reports in domestic and foreign media indicate a spike in sectarian violence by groups of Islamist extremists since the Pakistan-supported Taliban returned to power in neighbouring Afghanistan in mid-August.
Pakistan’s Islamist militants that use safe havens there also enjoy ideological affinity with Taliban.
The cause of the attack on Kumara was not immediately known, but industrial violence is common in Pakistan’s factory areas that have thousands working.
Kumara’s faith could not be ascertained, media reports said. But he could be a Buddhist or a Christian, going by his full name.
Members of Pakistan’s religious minorities are mostly the victims of Pakistan’s British-era blasphemy law, made more stringent when then military dictator, General Ziaul Haq, launched an Islamisation campaign in the 1980s.
Challenging, or even criticism of these laws have caused violence. Among the most prominent victims was former Punjab Governor Salman Taseer, gunned down by his own bodyguard.
The Khan Government last year virtually let go of Asia Bibi, a Christian mother of four, tried and even convicted of blasphemy, after the highest court overturned the verdict.
Demanding death and criticising the court was Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP), a group of Sunni extremists battling the government for failing to act against what it perceives as Islamophobia worldwide and in particular, against France, after President Emmanuel Macron made ‘provocative’ observations against Islam and took action against extremists at home.
Among the long-pending TLP demands is expulsion of the French envoy in Islamabad and boycott of French goods.
The TLP’s name cropped up during widespread social posts Friday last, but its chief Maulana Saad Hussein Rizvi denied any role by its workers, claiming itself to be only a religious political party promoting Islam.
The TLP and some other groups allegedly enjoy tacit official support, even as the Imran Khan Government denies it, fights them, but also negotiates with them for what it officially calls “reconciliation’.
Sensitive to criticism by foreign governments from which it is seeking the much-needed monetary aid, Khan condemned Kumara’s killing in strong words, calling it “a day of shame for Pakistan”.
He said he was “personally monitoring” the investigations. Police detained over 50 persons, promising speedy action.
Kumara’s killing, like the terror attack on Chinese workers in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa some months ago that killed 32 including nine Chinese workers engaged on a hydel project, pushed the government into action.
The army chief, Gen. Qaisar Javed Bajwa, ordered his force to fully cooperate with the civilian authorities. Inter Services Public Relations (ISPR) of the military took over the media drive.
While the condemnation of Kumara’s killing was unanimous, political opposition was critical and the civil society and rights bodies expressed dismay.
Leader of the Opposition in parliament, Shehbaz Sharif called the incident “utterly horrific and shocking. Such actions must be condemned and discouraged,” he said, adding that those responsible must be held accountable.
“It is time we followed our beloved Prophet’s (PBUH) message of peace, compassion, love and mercy for all in true letter and spirit!”
PML-N Vice President Maryam Nawaz asked whether “this brutality is our identity as well as the future for coming generations. There is no such thing as a government [in the country]. Who should we turn to?”
Amnesty International said it was “deeply alarmed by the disturbing lynching and killing of a Sri Lankan factory manager in Sialkot, allegedly due to a blasphemy accusation”.
Dawn newspaper (December 4, 2021) recalled “a similar incident in Sialkot in 2010 had shaken the country when a mob had lynched two brothers in the presence of police, declaring them dacoits. The incident sparked shock and horror across the country as cell-phone footage of the heinous murders was uploaded to video-sharing sites.”
A report on how blasphemy works in Pakistan by Al Jazeera, the Qatar-based global news outlet (September 21, 2021) said: In the last decade, the “offences” committed by those accused of blasphemy have been as absurd as throwing a business card into the rubbish (the man’s name was Muhammad), a rural water dispute, spelling errors, the naming of a child, the design of a place of worship, burning a (non-religious) talisman or sharing a picture on Facebook.
Increasingly, cases are being settled with violence outside the courtroom, with mob and targeted attacks against those accused. In many cases, families and lawyers of the accused, and even judges who have acquitted defendants, have been targeted.
Since 1990, at least 77 people have been killed in connection with such accusations, the latest murder occurring in a courtroom last month.”
Lawyers, civil society leaders and academics that it interviewed said the use and misuse of blasphemy stemmed from “religious identity” being the basis in Pakistani society.
They also pointed to the rise in violence over blasphemy cases and the law’s application since the TLP’s rise in 2011.
Increasingly, this has seen far-right religious parties’ rise to prominence campaigning explicitly on the basis of protecting the “honour” and “sanctity” of Islam and its Prophet Muhammad, Al Jazeera said.