By: Komail Aijazuddin
All eyes were on Pakistan and India’s prime ministers at the recent Saarc summit (“Sorry Sri Lanka! Next time Nepal!”). From the way it was covered in the international press, you’d think Angelina Jolie and Jennifer Aniston were sitting down to a post-Pitt luncheon sporting knuckledusters. Everyone was impatiently reading into the leaders’ body language, just waiting for the smirk that would constitute silent declaration of war: a Narendra Modi sideways glance became a cross-border putdown, a Nawaz Sharif twitch became a snort of derision, and people freaked out so much over the symbolism of seating arrangements at lunch that you’d think they were playing wargames over canapés. I didn’t read so much into how they sat around each other, happy as I am that they do it at all.
It was while going through coverage of that event that I came across another news item titled “Bollywood actress sentenced to 26 years for blasphemy” above a smiling picture of Veena Malik, that siren of controversy. I suppose it’s a sign of my growing cynicism that the thing that surprised me most about that headline was the claim that Malik is a Bollywood actress (I did not get that memo).
You’ll remember that Malik clawed into the public consciousness over several years but only made it huge by posing for the cover of India’s FHM magazine wearing a smile, an ISI tattoo and little else. The ploy worked, and she became instantly infamous. There was a minor freak out here but eventually, the uproar faded away. Part of the reason that happened was because Malik a) left the country, b) got married, and c) people stopped caring because, you know, it’s Veena Malik.
It was a reenactment of that marriage for Geo TV here that got her and others into fresh trouble. The channel broadcast a recreation of the ceremony showing Malik putting on jewellery, walking slowly around the studio, being carried aloft to her groom, etc. It was ambitiously tacky, clearly, but not salacious. The show played a naat during one of its scenes — that is, a religious song about the Prophet. The next day, Malik, her husband and the owner of the channel, a powerful man called Mir Shakil-ur-Rahman, were accused of blasphemy for using “a contemptuous qawwali”. I don’t know about you, but that is my favourite phrase this year since I heard the words “conscious uncoupling”.
The judge used the anti-terrorism act to hand down the guilty verdict, condemning both Shakil-ur-Rahman and Malik plus husband to 26 years in jail. Pray, how does an anti-terrorism court have the time, let alone manpower, to prosecute, try and sentence an actress and a media mogul? I know we have more pressing matters to attend to than Malik’s silly marriage video; my own fear of going into public spaces now is testament to that. Prosecuting her does nothing to make my country safer. The weird thing is that everyone knows this.
The blasphemy law has been increasingly used in the last several years for reasons that have little to do with offence to religious sentiments. Two weeks ago, a mob in a village beat up a Christian man and his pregnant wife before shoving them into a fiery kiln to burn alive. The mob had gathered ostensibly because the couple had blasphemed against Islam. Turns out the owner of the kiln was owed some money by the couple and this was his revenge. This is the latest in several cases that suggest the blasphemy law is being misused to justify personal vendettas. Blasphemy is unfortunately a convenient catch-all; its mere suggestion is inflammatory and those accused are guilty in the public mind until proven otherwise. The late governor of Punjab, Salmaan Taseer, was shot by his own guard outside a restaurant for opposing the incarceration of Asia Bibi, a Christian woman who had been accused of blasphemy in 2010. She has since been sentenced. Taseer’s killer had roses thrown at his feet when he exited the court during his own trial, which is still ongoing.
Many analysts have acknowledged the reason may be an ongoing skirmish between Geo TV and the establishment. Several months ago, Geo TV was covering the story of the shooting and attempted assassination of one of its star journalists, Hamid Mir. That night, during its angry news cycle, the channel showed the picture of the chief of the intelligence services. What they were suggesting, publicly, was unprecedented and there was a swift reaction. Geo TV later backtracked and apologised, but the battlelines were drawn. Most people think, given the optics, that the recent blasphemy verdict is the latest ripple from that confrontation.
The most important thing to remember is that the order was enforced in Gilgit-Baltistan, and isn’t binding on the rest of Pakistan, which suggests to me it is more for show than anything else. It’s easy nowadays to characterise any event like this as an indelible shift towards mass intolerance. But that would be a shortsighted, reductive view of what is in fact a complicated quagmire. Then again, maybe this is just a giant charade/ travesty/ brilliant Malik PR move. Honestly, at this point, I’d believe anything.
Aijazuddin is a Lahore-based writer and artist