Condemning violence in Pakistan

Note: Originally written last week for the Express Tribune, who decided not to publish it.

Background, if you’re not a Pakistani or live under a rock: A week or so ago, two boys were lynched in Sialkot. They had apparently committed no crime (there are now conflicting reports on this), and while they were beaten, stoned, and hung upside down, several policemen watched in the crowd. The incident was captured on camera and shown on television, after which the Supreme Court of Pakistan took suo moto notice and ordered an inquiry.

The lynching has sparked widespread feelings of disgust in Pakistan, even while the country battles the floods that threaten its entire population and have directly affected at least 20 million. Even while people turn up daily at flood relief camps across the country, they have continued to discuss this tragedy, for the sheer brutality on display in the video was shocking even for the desensitized Pakistani television audience. Not surprisingly, Facebook is full of statuses condemning the violence and bemoaning the state of affairs. The sense of shame is even more palpable than it was when the Ahmadi massacre took place a few months ago.

A friend shared this thought:

Everyone’s been putting up statuses about the Sialkot incident. Seeing all these statuses and videos, posted by my friends, disgusts me. Is this the right way to condemn it? Does it help? Should I be happy at the fact that others share my grief or sad that Facebook is such a public medium?
I personally do not have anything against publicly condemning what happened. It’s a good thing that people are ashamed of what happened – and this way perhaps more people will step up if it happens again. Last time we condoned vigilante justice, it happened more than once. That people are rethinking their notions of collective moral responsibility is cause for optimism.

The videos are disgusting – and I have chosen not to see them. I saw one picture, and that was more than enough. It’s shocking, and that seems a tame description. However, I don’t agree with vilifying the entire nation (or self-flagellation) for what happened. Collective responsibility exists, but only to a certain extent…and incidents like these are remarkable only because of their rarity (thankfully enough).

(Update, Aug 28:) There have been several articles doing the rounds that push exactly this kind of view – Fasi Zaka says Pakistan is full of human cockroaches and George Fulton says that we are ‘a barbaric, degenerate nation.’  While no one can disagree that there are deep problems in Pakistan and that the country is indeed full of cockroaches, both writers do generalize – something usually to be avoided, but difficult to do so in 700 words. There were candle light vigils for the Ahmadi massacres and there have been protests and vigils for the Sialkot murders. If 100 people were part of the mob that witnessed/took part in Sialkot, and over 100 people protest (on the streets) what happened, what blanket statements can we really make? Huma Imtiaz was understandably up in arms over Fulton’s generalizations and took him apart – a comment on her post sums up my views well:

“His article makeS me feel worse about myself for being a pakistani and i seriously do not need that right now. It does not make me get up and do something about it.”

That’s exactly why Fulton’s and Zaka’s articles need to be looked at more critically, and why they are dangerous.

Yes, Pakistani society is messed up and often intolerant and discriminatory. Indeed, that’s why I didn’t feel depressed by this incident (even though that might seem heartless), because we have all seen far worse, not just in Pakistan but around the world. Chris Hedges, I think, once mentioned that his experiences in war left him with the only conviction that there is no limit to man’s potential for brutality, and the realization that anyone could sink to unimaginable depths under certain circumstances.

This incident is shocking because it’s so direct. That’s really why it has caught everyone’s attention. But the mistreatment of hired labor (slaves, in many ways), abuse of females and their rights, minority persecution (e.g. Ahmadis in Punjab and Hindus in Sindh), and creation of artificial shortages through hoarding – are these any less horrible? How many times do we act against these things and protest these gross injustices? Indeed, one could argue that the slow, torturous existence that they cause are worse.

Also, just as horrifying as the Sialkot incident is the fact that so many people are calling for the same brutality to be repeated, as if it will bring the dead back to life or avenge them somehow. To be sure the guilty must be punished, but by the state, not the people.

If a concern is that we are projecting a negative image of Pakistan…my concern is projecting an unfair, one-sided image through only spreading bad news. Stories about the government’s corruption and flood misery are usually shared widely on Facebook, but not Design for Change Pakistan or the successful 7th National Finance Commission award (a direct product of our oft-criticized, work-in-progress democratic system). In and of itself, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with putting the lynching story on a public domain, because it’s all out there anyway.

Adil Najam’s words in the aftermath of the last vigilante justice incident are worth repeating here:

“Let us put this in context. Because horrible as this incident is, the context is more horrifying. And the real is the increasingly prevalent phenomenon of the justification of violence. The justification of violence and of violent means for achieving goals that one considers worthy – and which may well be worthy – is a deeply disturbing phenomenon.

From the vigilantism of the Lal Masjid brigades, to the murder of a woman MNA, to political mayhem in Karachi last year, to political assassinations, to the menace of suicide bombers, and beyond. All of these are signs of people seeking political and social goals – goals that would ordinarily have been sought through political and social means in a stable society – through violent means. These are signs of a divided society that is losing faith in societal processes and taking things into its own hand. These are manifestations of the tearing apart of a people. A tearing apart that is fed by the apathy and an inability to provide essential justice by those who are in power.”

The last line provides an opportunity for a new look at our relationship with the state. Everyone criticizes the government in Pakistan, with the media actively promoting a one-sided (read: negative) view of the government, an immense disservice to the (relatively few) public servants who do their best to fulfill their responsibilities. However, as DAWN’s editorial notes, the state is as complicit as the policemen who stood by silently as two young men were robbed of their futures.
How do we approach this? Do we regurgitate that same old ‘government sucks’ line while sipping green tea, or do we try to improve the government and try to understand how it works? So far we have chosen, overwhelmingly, to reject it – and perhaps this is too close to anarchy for comfort. The ‘rule of law’ is an oft-cited phrase in conversations around making Pakistan a better place. In our rejection of state authority, though, evident in tax evasion and the commonplace breach of every traffic law possible, we sow the seeds of the very ruin that we later blame the state for. What is the way forward – working with the government, or against it?


  1. We keep condemning this brutal episode, but keep forgetting that this mob lynching is no different from “Death by Stoning” that Abrahamic religions consider as a valid mode of punishment. In both cases, we have a group of common people killing criminals through slow and painful torture, and in th process making a spectacle out of it.

    1. Thanks for your comment. I think it’s very different – there is a very heavy burden of proof on the state for enacting punishment under Sharia law and lynchings usually are done without proof. In fact the very definition of lynching is ‘killing without legal sanction’ – but ‘death by stoning’ is legally allowed – but subject to some very strict conditions.

      People have been making generalizations about Pakistan and Muslim society that are nonsensical, for you will never see such lynchings in Saudi Arabia (which adheres to the sharia more closely than any other state). There are plenty of other countries where many muslims live – for example Indonesia and Malaysia. Are they brutalized societies too?

      And lynching originated in a decidedly non-Muslim society – America. Not to repeat that anti-American drivel, but just to point out that Islam or Sharia cannot be used to justify (or even explain) these acts of violence.

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