Time to lead by example

Published: March 11, 2013
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The writer is a partner at Bhandari, Naqvi & Riaz and an advocate of the Supreme Court. He can be reached on Twitter @laalshah

The writer is a partner at Bhandari, Naqvi & Riaz and an advocate of the Supreme Court. He can be reached on Twitter @laalshah

I went to a church this Sunday. It wasn’t a planned visit but a friend of mine had promised to attend and I tagged along.

The church itself was a one-room affair, nestled deep in the Christian community that lives behind Ittefaq Hospital. The walls were painted a fetching shade of purple and bedecked with spangly silver stars. Women sat in neat rows on the left while men sat on the right. When we arrived, there was an organist in full flow and the electronically aided sounds of “Hallelujah” could be heard all the way out in the alleyways outside the church. For a good Shia boy whose main exposure to organised religion is via majalis in Muharram, it was all very surreal.

But when the music stopped and the pastor took the lectern, everything snapped back into focus. If I closed my eyes and focused only on the cadences of the pastor, the sermon itself was not very different from either the khutba delivered on Fridays or the majalis observed during every Muharram.

The focus of the sermon was the well-known story of Jonah and the whale. In case, you don’t know the details, the Bible says that the Prophet Jonah was ordered by God to go to the city of Nineveh to inform them of their wickedness. Instead of obeying the will of God though, Jonah decides to flee from his destiny by sailing off in the direction opposite to Nineveh. Unfortunately for the Prophet Jonah, his ship runs into a giant storm. The sailors on board the ship realise that this is no ordinary storm and when Jonah confesses his actions, they decide to save themselves by tossing him overboard. The sea then immediately returns to a dead calm while Jonah is swallowed by a giant whale in whose stomach he then spends the next three nights.

Just another standard sermon on another standard Sunday, you might say. Except, of course, that this past Sunday was not just another Sunday for the Christians of Lahore. This Sunday was the day after a mob of thousands, angered by allegations of blasphemy, had assaulted a Christian community in Badami Bagh and burnt more than 100 houses.

As the indispensible Amir Mir has observed, the Badami Bagh attack was not an isolated incident. Instead, it was a further blemish on “the already depressing record of the PML-N government”. As noted by Mir, it is now almost four years since SSP hooligans burnt alive eight Christians in Gojra, and yet, not one of the 72 accused persons — incidentally including the president of the local PML-N chapter — has yet been convicted.

This past Sunday was, therefore, more than just another Sunday. This Sunday was a day that the Christians of Lahore were forced to confront yet again the ugly fact that they were very very alone, very very exposed and very very dispensable.

In light of all this, it would have been understandable for the sermon to have been either angry or self-pitying. Instead, it was neither. What the pastor told his flock of Lahori Christians was that like the other sailors on the boat endangered by Jonah’s disobedience, a community too can be placed in peril by the acts of a few individuals: in other words, the Badami Bagh attack was the work of misguided idiots, not the expression of a deeper hatred against Christians. And so, the sermon resounded not with hate or even the anger of an oppressed minority but with the love of citizens for their country. It was, if anything, a perfect example of “turning the other cheek” and it left me humbled and deeply moved.

Not all members of the Christian community were as peaceable as those I saw in the church. Some of them took to the streets where they were lathi-charged and tear-gassed by the ever-obliging Punjab Police. The chief minister of Punjab, however, expressed his shock and horror over the Badami Bagh incident and appointed a committee to investigate. Unfortunately, the beneficial impact of that gesture was diminished by the fact that the committee was to be headed by Rana Sanaullah.

More substantive relief for the Christians of Lahore arrived in the form of a suo-motu notice from the chief justice of Pakistan who demanded a full report from the Government of Punjab. As admirable as that gesture is, may I humbly suggest that it is time for the courts of this country — and specifically the superior judiciary — to do more than simply harass the executive branch.

The root cause of the Badami Bagh incident was an allegation of blasphemy. That allegation joins a host of other such allegations festering in the bowels of the judicial system. These cases linger within the system because both the police and the lower judiciary are intimidated by the thugs who abuse the law. Consequently, the merits of the allegations often don’t get examined for years.

Given the precarious position of the lower judiciary and the police, I don’t blame them for wanting to avoid blasphemy cases. But the superior judiciary does not have that excuse. The High Courts of our country have ample power to act as trial courts in appropriate circumstances. Now is the time for them to exercise that power. If even a few false complainants were punished, the ability of the blasphemy law to be abused would be greatly reduced.

I know that High Court trials are rare (the last known criminal trial in the Lahore High Court was that of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto) but these are unusual times. What is at stake is not just the social fabric of our country but our collective existence as a nation. The civil servants of Pakistan are told every day by their Lordships to have the courage to follow the law. It is time for their Lordships to lead by example.

Published in The Express Tribune, March 12th, 2013.

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Reader Comments (11)

  • sabi
    Mar 11, 2013 - 10:12PM

    This menace is the result of constitutional ammendments introduced by ppp and dully attested by whole nation depriving people of opposit faith basic human rights.The only way to get rid of rising militancy is to buldose every ammendments that promotes hatred and involves religion in politics.That would mean present fascist constitution be turned into secular so that there remains no minority at least on religious basis.

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  • Parvez
    Mar 11, 2013 - 10:26PM

    You have again written on a highly charged issue with feeling and balance.
    I totally agree there is much the superior judiciary could and should do. It is the right time for them to step up and do the right thing and so restore some of their tarnished image.

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  • Naseem Khawaja
    Mar 12, 2013 - 12:14AM

    I was grief stricken by the Joseph colony Lahore tragedy and extremely upset by the gloating foreigners and Pakistani armchair do gooders.Unfortunately this will not be the last tragedy of its kind until the offending legislation is repealed or at least suitably amended. My understanding is that the courts implement the law of the land and not legislate.

    There has been lot of hand wringing and statements condemning the violence against a section of our citizens who deserve our respect and protection. I have not seen one statement from a politician promising radical reform of the offending law in the next parliament. I wonder if the president of Pakistan has the power to issue an ordinance to repeal the Blasphemy law in case the eagerly awaited elections do not take place,for whatever reason.

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  • wah
    Mar 12, 2013 - 2:45AM

    @sabi, if you hate islam and islamic (fascist) laws so much you’re better off leaving the land of the pure….this country wasn’t exactly created to cater for atheists like you.

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  • sure?
    Mar 12, 2013 - 3:37AM

    Anything that makes the plight of the blighted minorities better is worth trying. But it does not look like these vigilante mobs are waiting for any trials. They did not wait for the malang or the traveller who passed through a mosque or for the girls school in Lahore or for St. Joseph’s coliny.

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  • shahid
    Mar 12, 2013 - 4:30AM

    I humbly suggest that it is time for the courts of this country — and specifically the superior judiciary — to do more than simply harass the executive branch.

    There is no end, to which supporters of the current PPP ruling elite would not go to in order to put down the SC. It does not matter what the issue may be, if there is even a slight chance of putting the SC down, they will go for it. Why does the author not make these demands from the rulers? They have been in power for five years and had plenty of time to fix the blasphemy laws but they did not, and who is to blame: of course the SC. The ruling clique had one of their governors killed in addition to many other cases during this time, and yet the author has his guns pointed straight at the SC. There is simply no end to the hypocrisy that is used to malign the SC by cloaking it in high sounding idiom and linguistic jargon and clap trap by the author and many others of his ilk. SC comprises of human beings and is not beyond the reach of human weaknesses, and yet can any one challenge the courage that they have shown repeatedly in raising there voice and trying to exercise their influence in order to straighten out the mess that has been created in the past five years and even before that. But their powers are limited and they cannot be effective when the executive simply refuses to help out and follow the orders by putting forward lame excuses and non-ending equivocation. Baseless critiques of the SC such as the one contained in this article provide the executive plenty of cover for not doing their job.

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  • Roni
    Mar 12, 2013 - 8:23AM

    We have tried Islam and two nation theory for 65 long years it is time to try secular democracy. Let us not mix govt with religion like most civilized countries of the world. No wonder we are sliding downhill and there is no hope unless we change our approach. A secular democracy safeguards the rights of every group and religion and favors none.

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  • jugnoo
    Mar 12, 2013 - 1:42PM

    @Roni
    Secularism is the only option left now to solve these problems.

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  • jugnoo
    Mar 12, 2013 - 1:46PM

    Till a permanent solution to this problem is found, a law can be passed recomending life imprisonment for people wrongly accusing anybody of blesphemy. This way people will think twice.

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  • Pakistani
    Mar 12, 2013 - 7:04PM

    It’s no mystery that you seem obsessed with Amir Mir because of reasons unknown. He has a thing against Punjab government and Sharifs perhaps. As an individual we all have failings, but then again you can’t blame each and everything on Sharifs for idiocy of extremists and negligence of police and bureucracy. What Sharifs havve done for Punjab and the rest of Pakistan, no other political party has been able to. Stop being a hater!

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  • observer
    Mar 12, 2013 - 8:16PM

    It is time for their Lordships to lead by example.

    Amen.

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