In Pakistan, grim reminders of the state’s reticence to right wrongs are never in short supply. In two separate incidents on July 4, a mentally handicapped middle-aged man accused of burning a Koran was murdered by a mob as police watched; meanwhile, a young social worker was gunned down for advocating women’s rights. No arrests have been made in either case — nor are any expected.
The police in the town of Channi Ghot had arrested Ghulam Abbas, a homeless man believed to be in his 40s, for allegedly burning pages from the Koran. As word got around, a 2,000-strong mob sacked the police station, beat Abbas to death and then set his body on fire — all in the presence of police officers too scared for their own lives to try to save him. The same day in Peshawar, Farida Afridi, a co-founder of the Society for Appraisal & Women Empowerment in Rural Areas, was killed after setting out for her office. The 25-year-old was intercepted en route and mowed down by two gunmen. No one has claimed responsibility for her murder.
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These latest acts of violence barely registered with a public that has become increasingly and bitterly divided and accustomed to — if not desirous of — far worse. What’s more, in one tragedy after another, the government has shown both an inability and unwillingness to tackle issues that could inflame the much-pandered-to right wing any further. As a result, fanatics can literally get away with murder in Pakistan. “Our state functionaries have no power anymore,” says Talat Masood, an analyst and a former army general. “Even the political will to act has been eroded.”
While President Asif Ali Zardari’s office issued a perfunctory statement condemning the lynching, it has stayed far away from the blasphemy issue. It has yet to even take notice of Afridi’s murder. In January of last year, Zardari’s top aide in the Punjab province, Governor Salmaan Taseer was assassinated by a member of his security detail for wanting to reform the country’s misused blasphemy laws. Across the country, the self-confessed assassin was hailed as a hero by tens of thousands, including hundreds of lawyers who showered him with rose petals outside court. Two months after Taseer’s murder, reformer and Minorities Minister Shahbaz Bhatti was also gunned down. Taseer’s killer has appealed his conviction. Bhatti’s suspected assassin was released in May.
Religious minorities and social workers advocating reform in conservative areas like the tribal agencies bordering Afghanistan have always been counted among the most vulnerable Pakistanis. Their vulnerability is made far worse by a government that is too terrified to act, an opposition that thrives on support from the fanatic far right, and courts packed with populist, Koran-waving judges. The problem is acute. Just last week, 18 Shi‘ite Muslims were killed in Baluchistan province while another 13 were killed the week before. The government has also done nothing about Taliban threats to kill social workers if they do not cease their activities.
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“Lack of proper law enforcement, eroding confidence in our laws and growing intolerance are all adding to people’s malaise,” says Masood. He isn’t the only one making the point. “Our society is no longer normal,” says analyst Hasan-Askari Rizvi. “The government does not have the capacity to respond to these challenges. They have attempted to deal with these groups in the past and have failed each time. They have no more options.”
Rizvi finds statements from the Punjab chief minister as well as the Supreme Court urging an overthrow of the elected government troubling. Last Sunday, the Punjab government, which is led by the opposition party Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz), even provided buses for activists of the outlawed militant group Jamaat-ud-Dawah for the Defense of Pakistan Council’s protest march against the reopening of NATO supply routes. The council, a collection of right-wing parties and groups, considers the government a “puppet regime” propped up by the U.S.
The Supreme Court hasn’t made the government’s job any easier. It has taken it upon itself to fix the country’s problem — starting with the elected government. By talking up and taking action against alleged corruption by government officials, the activist judiciary seems to have people convinced that the elected government cannot accomplish anything and does not mean well by them. “They have created a problem of legitimacy for the government,” says Rizvi. The court, which has been accused by independent observers as soft on terrorists, has largely maintained a studied silence on the periodic pogroms of religious minorities. “If the judiciary were to take notice of these sectarian killings, powerful Islamic forces might turn on them,” says Rizvi, adding this could create problems for the court as the self-proclaimed arbiter of the people’s will.
“People have lost faith in the ability of their government to act,” says former general Masood. “The clerics and right-wing politicians are taking advantage of this trust deficit and are rapidly gaining ground in our collective consciousness.” Part of the problem, he says, is fear of reprisals, especially following the Taseer and Bhatti assassinations. “Nonstate actors are too strong; the state fears retaliation and is unwilling to act.”
With elections less than a year away and a government reviled for alleged corruption and wide-ranging power cuts, the ruling Pakistan People’s Party has little to gain from acting on controversial topics such as the blasphemy law, sectarian violence and human-rights abuses. “The mainstream parties could end this within a week if they united and decided to act for change,” says Rizvi. “No one wants to take the risk of taking unpopular decisions.”
Aslam is the deputy editor of Newsweek Pakistan.