The state and jus­tice

The Pak Banker - - 4EDITORIAL - Zahid Hus­sain

EVENTS over the past week have laid bare the predica­ment of a di­vided na­tion. While the ex­e­cu­tion of Mum­taz Qadri sig­ni­fies the as­ser­tion of state au­thor­ity, the glo­ri­fi­ca­tion of a con­victed mur­derer ex­poses the ugly face of religious ex­trem­ism that is so deeply rooted in our so­ci­ety. The turnout of tens of thou­sands of mourn­ers at Qadri's fu­neral may be a tes­ti­mony to the grow­ing fa­nati­cism here, but it does not fully de­fine the coun­try's other re­al­i­ties.

Not­with­stand­ing the lib­eral ar­gu­ment against cap­i­tal pun­ish­ment, the ex­e­cu­tion sym­bol­ises a unity of the state in­sti­tu­tions in the face of an ex­is­ten­tial­ist chal­lenge. First, it was the land­mark Supreme Court rul­ing that broke the state of fear and gave courage to the ex­ec­u­tive to im­ple­ment the ver­dict. The apex court not only up­held the death sen­tence of a self-pro­fessed mur­derer, it also re­jected the no­tion that de­mand­ing a change in the blas­phemy law was it­self an act of blas­phemy.

Surely that would have been a rou­tine ver­dict, but not in the pre­vail­ing en­vi­ron­ment where the judge of an an­titer­ror­ism court had to flee the coun­try af­ter award­ing the death sen­tence to Qadri. Such was the fear that only a hand­ful of peo­ple dared to at­tend the fu­neral of the slain gov­er­nor of the coun­try's most pow­er­ful prov­ince. The state seemed to have vir­tu­ally van­ished, as a mur­derer was turned into a cult fig­ure en­cour­ag­ing oth­ers of his ilk to kill in the name of faith. The apex court ver­dict was an at­tempt to re­store the supremacy of the law.

More sur­pris­ing, how­ever, was the swift ex­e­cu­tion of the con­vict by a govern­ment with a strong con­ser­va­tive ethos. Even some se­nior mem­bers of the rul­ing party, in­clud­ing the prime min­is­ter's own son-in-law, had re­port­edly con­doned Qadri's ac­tion as a religious duty. Some of them later joined the fu­neral. Few had ex­pected the pres­i­dent to sign the death war­rant so quickly in this sit­u­a­tion. But it did hap­pen.

It may not just have been the Supreme Court rul­ing that gave the Sharif govern­ment the spine to take ac­tion; per­haps it was also to do with the mil­i­tary's back­ing for the Na­tional Ac­tion Plan to counter ter­ror­ism and vi­o­lent religious ex­trem­ism. This high­pro­file ex­e­cu­tion could not have been pos­si­ble with­out all the three in­sti­tu­tions be­ing on board.

Also sig­nif­i­cant is the tacit ap­proval of the ex­e­cu­tion by all main­stream political par­ties bar­ring the Is­lamic groups. Pro-Qadri lead­ers must have been aware of that con­sen­sus that per­haps re­stricted them from not tak­ing on the state as a whole; in­stead, they con­fined their at­tack to the Sharif govern­ment. It was, in­deed, a show of strength by some Barelvi groups, and one that has been marked by a sig­nif­i­cant rise in re­cent years. El­e­ments within civil so­ci­ety and the se­cu­rity es­tab­lish­ment tried to pro­ject them as the 'soft face of Is­lam' in an at­tempt to counter Tal­iban mil­i­tancy. The West too con­ve­niently bought this discourse and re­port­edly pro­vided fi­nan­cial sup­port to some groups that have been at the fore­front of the proQadri cam­paign.

In­ter­est­ingly, the same out­fits have sup­ported the mil­i­tary op­er­a­tion against the Tal­iban and other mil­i­tant groups. Not sur­pris­ingly, many lead­ers would make it a point to pledge their sup­port for the mil­i­tary lead­er­ship per­haps to cover their flanks.

While it had es­sen­tially be­come a Barelvi cause, the Qadri is­sue ral­lied other sects too. Some Deobandi cler­ics also backed the protests against the hang­ing though not so ac­tively. The po­si­tion of the Ja­maat-i-Is­lami on the is­sue has been quite in­trigu­ing. The party that had so far kept it­self out of the sec­tar­ian di­vide joined the JUI and other Is­lamic par­ties in openly de­fend­ing Qadri's ac­tion. A plau­si­ble ex­pla­na­tion is that th­ese par­ties wanted to use the is­sue to re­gain their shrink­ing political space.

The Qadri protests co­in­cided with th­ese par­ties' cam­paign against the women's pro­tec­tion bill passed by the Pun­jab As­sem­bly. It is not sur­pris­ing that the Is­lamic par­ties want to re­vive the Mut­tahida Ma­jlis-i-Amal in the af­ter­math of Qadri's hang­ing.

It is quite ev­i­dent that the state can take dif­fi­cult ac­tions if it shows some re­solve. It is surely ca­pa­ble of deal­ing with the con­se­quences of its ac­tions as was seen in its han­dling of the sit­u­a­tion af­ter Qadri's ex­e­cu­tion. It may have been among the largest gath­er­ings in the na­tion's his­tory, but there was no in­ci­dent of vi­o­lence.

It was es­sen­tially the weak­ness of the state that al­lowed zealots to turn a mur­derer into a saint. No ac­tion was taken against the lawyers who gar­landed Qadri when he was pro­duced be­fore court af­ter the in­ci­dent. No ef­fort was made to stop the glo­ri­fi­ca­tion of a crim­i­nal. It may not have been easy, but there was no will to con­front the chal­lenge largely be­cause of political ex­pe­di­ency. Now fi­nally the state has acted.

Many among the lib­er­als op­posed Qadri's ex­e­cu­tion on the prin­ci­ple that the state has no right to take away the life of any­one no mat­ter how heinous the crime. One may agree with the ba­sic ar­gu­ment, but since the law re­gard­ing cap­i­tal pun­ish­ment ex­ists there is no jus­ti­fi­ca­tion of it be­ing set aside in a par­tic­u­lar case. Any dither­ing would have had far more se­ri­ous con­se­quences. It would have re­in­forced the be­lief of Qadri fol­low­ers that the govern­ment would not dare ex­e­cute him.

It may be true that the de­mon of ex­trem­ism is so deeply rooted in our so­ci­ety that it can­not be ex­or­cised by hang­ing one per­son. But the in­ac­tion of the state would have pro­vided greater im­punity to those who jus­tify vi­o­lence in the name of faith. It was in­deed state pa­tron­age that al­lowed religious ex­trem­ism to flour­ish in this coun­try and pro­duce a cul­ture where mur­der in the name of faith was glo­ri­fied. Now it is the re­spon­si­bil­ity of the state to cleanse the coun­try of the evil that threat­ens its own sur­vival. It is cer­tainly go­ing to be a long haul.

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