Ayaz Nizami’s website, for the Atheist and Agnostic Alliance Pakistan, is now defunct. In Twitter, however, a hashtag is much in vogue – #HangAyazNizami. Some want him hanged, others cite these expounders as proof of the backward nation the mysterious Nizami hails from, and their inherently barbaric religion.
There never was any person called Ayaz Nizami – it was an alias adopted to critique religion and preach rationality on online forums. The initiators ended up arrested for blasphemy. A crackdown on blasphemy is not novel in Pakistan. As the state takes on the immense responsibility of safeguarding religious sentiments in the country, it takes upon itself to remove any material it deems “blasphemous” and punish the perpetrators.
The concern for religious sentiments does not, however, stop persecution of and hate speech against minority communities – particularly the Ahmadis and the Shias. Rather, the power vested in the government to restrict hate speech – that against the majority, monumentally increases their power to stifle dissent. With this noble cause, the state frequently cracks down on forums like Facebook to “remove blasphemous content” or bans Youtube at large.
The precise provisions around blasphemy in Pakistan’s laws itself, and under Islamic law in general are rather vague and interpreted variously – at Dawn, Arafat Mazhar has a column on the topic where he denounces the death penalty by religious laws.
The voices of dissent are nuanced ( hashtags like #hangayaznizami are the reflection) and articulate – yet they live in fear of suppression. The blasphemy laws can easily be slapped on through extension; supporting the “blasphemous” makes you one by extension.
The web of terror this creates, the brutal repression is really governed by a political motive – but mobilizing religious fervor can garner widespread support from the masses. Capitalising upon religion to consolidate political power has not been a phenomenon limited to Pakistan.
In India, the rise of religious intolerance abetted by the Hindu right has been responsible for, among many such events, a FIR against the poet Srijato for his perceived affront to religious sentiments, Such fervor ties in with the widespread misogyny inherent in our society, launching rape threats as attack to poet Mandakranta Sen for voicing her support to Srijato.
The rise of religious extremism can be understood in relation to the players in politics which gain from such sentiments – the idea of a threatened religious existence, for example, provides the groundwork for insecurities that can be capitalized upon for vote bank politics. Without any separation of religion from politics, the picture does not look very bright for Pakistan.