By James M. Dorsey
Pakistani political and military leaders have vowed to eradicate ultra-conservative religious extremism that drove a mob to torture, brutally lynch a Sri Lankan national, and burn his body in the eastern city of Sialkot. Some 900 cases have been filed with police and 235 people arrested in connection with the killing.
"Let me make this clear: I have decided that from now we will not spare those who resort to violence in the name of religion, especially in the name of the Holy Prophet (PBUH)," Prime Minister Imran Khan said at a commemoration of Priyantha Kumara Diyawadana, a 48-year-old textile factory manager.
The mob accused Mr. Diyawadana of removing a sticker of Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP) or 'I am Present Pakistan '(TLP), a far-right militantly religious group, from machinery before a visit by foreigners.
Some reports claimed that a dispute between Mr. Diyawadana and workers sparked the lynching. It was not clear whether the argument may be connected to the stickers.
The TLP condemned the Sialkot killing but has often turned unfounded blasphemy allegations into a violent crusade in a country where punishment for it is a mandatory death sentence.
Whatever sparked the killing, the government's response seemed aimed to project determination to tackle a festering problem. It is a claim that rings hollow, despite Mr. Khan’s strong words, in a country where government policies are inconsistent or appear to even encourage religious ultra-conservatism and intolerance.
“We'll see the truth of this soon enough when the next Pakistani — be he or she Muslim, Hindu, Christian, or otherwise — is lynched in the name of blasphemy.,” said journalist Zarrar Khuhro. “Because that’s going to keep happening no matter what becomes of those arrested in the Sialkot lynching. You know it, and I know it too.”
Despite acting against Mr. Diyawadana’s killers, government and military leaders failed to censor defense minister Pervez Khattak for downplaying, if not justifying, the killing.
Speaking after Mr. Diyawadana’s killers proudly admitted their crime in front of TV cameras and posted selfies with his mutilated body online, Mr. Khattak described them as boys entering adulthood who were "ready to do anything" and learn with age how to control their emotions. "So, this happens among kids; fights take place and even murders. Does this mean it is the government's fault?"
Most of the suspects in Mr. Diyawadana’s killing were under the age of 30.
Mr. Khattak’s remarks seemed a throwback to four years ago when the military appeared to openly support the TLP as its staged a mass protest against the government of former prime minister Nawaz Sharif.
Dawn, Pakistan's flagship English-language newspaper, summed up the state of affairs in an editorial. The paper said that "such a statement from a federal minister should come as a shock, but unfortunately, we are accustomed to our public officials being in denial about the realities of extremism and violence in the country.”
Weeks earlier, the government had initially caved in to demands of the TLP under pressure from a mass protest march of thousands of the group’s followers on the capital Islamabad. The demands included the reversal of a decision to outlaw the group and releasing its leader and followers from jail. However, a week later, the government backed out of the deal with the group.
Days before the killing, Mr. Khattak’s colleague, information minister Fawad Chaudhry, sought to shield from criticism religious seminaries or madrassas, an influential segment of Pakistan's education system. Mr. Chaudhry, who unambiguously condemned Mr. Kumara’s killing, did so by blaming the spread of extremism in Pakistan primarily on public schools rather than on madrasas.
“The institution of the madrassa has become the primary political base for religious groups and religious-political parties and continues to strictly adhere to its potentially explosive sectarian character. It is expanding and encroaching on the formal education sector, and the state has failed to regulate the institution," said Pakistani analyst Mohammad Amir Rana.
Countering Mr. Chaudhry's assertions, Mr. Rana noted that "formal education institutions have not produced a fraction of the number of militants who enter the ranks of various national and international terrorist organisations which the madrassas belonging to different banned militant organisations have produced so far."
Mr Rana made his remarks days before the Sialkot killing, but he could have been writing after the incident when he noted that successive Pakistani governments had sought to depoliticise education on public campuses "while the madrassa students remain politically and ideologically charged and vulnerable to be exploited for street protests and recruitment for military purposes."
Mr. Chaudhry got it right when he pointed to the public system but failed to mention that it was because the government was increasingly hiring madrassa graduates as teachers in the public sector.
"The madrassa mindset is at its full play in society and is responsible for promoting two major socio-political conflicts…first, the sectarian divide, and second, ideological radicalism," Mr. Rana warned.
That mindset is gaining further ground with the introduction of a singular national curriculum that gives greater importance to religious education. A court in Lahore has ordered that all school students in Punjab be checked for Quran reading skills.
“Preliminary reports suggest province-wide confusion and chaos and a state of fear among children, teachers, and school principals. Magistrates accompanied by rifle-bearing policemen are pouncing upon schools, interrogating seven- to 12-year-old children," reported nuclear scientist and human rights activist Pervez Hoodbhoy.
“Grim-faced magistrates swooping down upon schools, destroying the authority of teachers and school principals, and putting terror into the hearts of all is a disgrace to the notion of education. It may not end here,” Mr. Hoodbhoy warned.”
“How we dress, speak, and think is going to be increasingly policed. Imran Khan’s Pakistan is racing down the path to Talibanisation,” he added.
Dr. James M. Dorsey is an award-winning journalist and scholar and a Senior Fellow at the National University of Singapore’s Middle East Institute.