On 16 August 2023, a profoundly tragic incident unfolded in Jaranwala, a city in Pakistan’s eastern Punjab province. Hundreds of people, armed with batons and sticks, swarmed churches in Jaranwala after allegations that the holy Quran was desecrated. The subsequent chaos led to the burning and vandalizing of 19 churches and at least 86 homes in the area.
This enormous upheaval affected not only churches but also other sacred sites. Several news sources displayed disquieting images of the mob’s devastation, including social media images depicting the invasion of predominantly Christian neighborhoods in Faisalabad.
The Human Rights Focus Pakistan (HRFP) confirmed that 19 churches were completely destroyed during the mayhem in the region, which experienced unprecedented levels of destruction. Since 2020, blasphemous activities have increased in Pakistan, with most cases occurring in Punjab, followed by Sindh.
Table -1 : Blasphemy: Accused by Province
|Source: HR Observer 2023, CSJ Pakistan (csjpak.org)
Nearly all of Jaranwala’s 17 churches were under attack, according to reports from the ground, including one from a local named Mukhtar, and even his home wasn’t spared from the fires. Although the blasphemy claims looked to be the driving force behind the violence, it highlights a larger problem that minority populations worldwide face. The fallout from the Jaranwala event highlights the urgent need for communication, comprehension, and the defense of vulnerable populations against unjustified violence.
Table -2 : Blasphemy: Accused by Religion
It is critical to go further into these core causes to comprehend better the context in which such difficulties fester. Religious extremism is a highly intense form of religious conviction, usually characterized by adherence to a strict interpretation of religious beliefs and scriptures. Intolerant attitudes result when this rigidity clashes with more liberal or alternative interpretations. Such extremism frequently challenges the legitimacy of other religions or sects, generating an “us against them” mentality. Fundamentally, religious intolerance disregards the human right to freedom of religion. When put into practice, such intolerance can result in violent crimes committed against alleged “heretics” or “infidels,” starting a vicious cycle of retaliation and widening rifts.
Sectarianism refers to hostility between different sects of a particular religion, while broader social tensions can arise from differences in ethnicity, culture, or social class. Such tensions challenge the notion of social cohesion. Differences that should ideally be celebrated become fault lines. Without proper dialogue and understanding, these tensions might escalate into large-scale conflicts. In some regions, politicians or influential figures exploit existing religious, ethnic, or social divides for personal or political gain. By inflaming these tensions, they consolidate their power base, drawing on deep-seated fears and prejudices. Exploiting such divisions for personal or political benefits undermines genuine attempts at peace and reconciliation. It’s a tactic that might offer short-term gains for some but results in long-term instability for the larger population.
Economic disparities and lack of resource access are significant drivers of social unrest. When communities feel that they are being denied basic economic rights or opportunities because of their religious or ethnic identity, it exacerbates tensions. Economic deprivation is more than just poverty; it’s about lack of access to opportunities. Disenfranchised youth, in particular, may feel that radical paths offer them a sense of purpose or belonging, further fueling extremism. A weak or corrupt law enforcement apparatus can exacerbate all the previously mentioned issues. If extremist groups or individuals feel they can act with impunity, or if communities feel that the police or judiciary won’t protect them, it erodes trust in the state.
Effective law enforcement is a cornerstone of a stable society. When it fails, it creates a vacuum that extremist groups or self-styled vigilantes can exploit. Moreover, without trust in law enforcement, communities might resort to self-policing, leading to tribalistic or faction-based justice systems.
While the issues of religious extremism, sectarian and social tensions, political exploitation, economic deprivation, and ineffective law enforcement might seem disparate, they are deeply interconnected. Together, they weave a tapestry of societal challenges that require multi-faceted solutions. However, when societies grapple with religious extremism, the implications are vast, multifaceted, and often profoundly damaging.
In regions marked by religious or sectarian conflict, it is common for human rights to be trampled upon. From unlawful activities and torture to the stifling of free speech and assembly, these violations become a routine rather than an exception. Minority groups suffer disproportionately from systemic prejudice and discrimination. Persistent human rights abuses create a chasm between the state and its citizens. Not only does this erode the principles upon which modern societies are built, but it also perpetuates a cycle of mistrust and resentment. This cycle is a nurturing ground for additional unrest, as affected communities feel isolated and marginalized.
As a result of the rise of religious extremism and violence, many individuals are compelled to leave their homes in quest of safety. Displacement might be internal, with people moving to safer regions within their own country, or international, as they seek refuge in foreign lands. Displacement creates several challenges. On an individual level, the trauma of leaving one’s home and the uncertainty of the future can be debilitating. On a societal level, large-scale displacement strains the resources and infrastructures of hosting areas or countries. Moreover, as history shows, displacement can lead to “lost generations” – children who grow up in refugee camps without access to proper education or a sense of belonging.
Religious extremism and societal unrest have profound economic implications. Businesses shut down due to fear, investors pull out due to uncertainty, and trade often halts in conflict zones. The longer the unrest persists, the more deeply entrenched these economic woes become. Economic downturns in impoverished areas can lead to famine, increased poverty rates, and a lack of basic services. Moreover, a weakened economy often pushes the youth towards criminal activities or radical groups, offering them a semblance of purpose or financial reward. Over time, a once prosperous region can be caught in a trap of economic stagnation and increasing crime.
When societal tensions flare, especially those rooted in religious differences, interfaith relations are among the first casualties. Centuries of coexistence can be overshadowed by a few years, or even months, of conflict. Deteriorated interfaith relations can take generations to mend. Trust, once broken, is hard to rebuild. In its absence, societies become fragmented, with communities leading isolated lives in enclaves. This isolation often perpetuates myths and mistrust, making reconciliation efforts even more challenging. Moreover, a society devoid of interfaith harmony misses the rich cultural and intellectual exchange that diverse communities bring.
Nations experiencing internal strife often become targets for external powers with vested interests. These hostile nations might support radical groups, further fueling the unrest, or manipulate the situation to serve their geopolitical goals. External interference often prolongs conflicts and makes resolutions more complicated. With foreign powers pulling strings, the unrest might shift from an internal issue to a proxy war, with the affected nation caught in the crossfire of more giant geopolitical games. Additionally, the influence of hostile countries can undermine genuine efforts for peace by internal stakeholders, as they are now viewed with suspicion.
Navigating through the tumultuous waters of religious extremism, and intolerance demands a holistic approach that delves into the core of these issues. It is pivotal to understand that the path to peace and prosperity is not linear but rather multi-pronged.
The way forward:
Law enforcement agencies are the first line of defense against societal unrest. Their primary responsibility is to maintain order, protect citizens, and ensure that justice is meted out fairly and promptly. It’s imperative to continuously train law enforcement officers, not just in combat techniques, but in conflict resolution, community engagement, and cultural sensitivity. This ensures they approach issues holistically rather than just law and order problems. Harnessing technology, like surveillance systems and data analytics, can help law enforcement agencies preempt potential issues and respond swiftly when they arise. Regular audits, body-worn cameras, and public reports can make law enforcement agencies more transparent, ensuring they retain the public’s trust and confidence.
Education plays a pivotal role in shaping mindsets. A well-informed and educated populace is likelier to shun religious extremism and embrace diversity. Education systems must emphasize inclusive curricula that celebrate diversity and teach the values of tolerance, understanding, and coexistence. In an age of rampant misinformation, there’s a dire need for educational programs that teach critical thinking and digital literacy, enabling individuals to discern facts from falsehoods. Beyond formal education, continuous learning opportunities can be provided to adults, ensuring they remain adaptable and open-minded in a rapidly changing world.
At the heart of any society are its communities. Engaging them means ensuring that every individual feels valued, heard, and involved in shaping their collective future. Platforms should be created where community members can discuss their concerns, aspirations, and grievances openly. Such dialogues can break barriers and build bridges among different community factions. Law enforcement agencies can foster trust and rapport with communities by regularly engaging with them, understanding their dynamics, and involving them in policing strategies. By empowering communities through skill development, entrepreneurial training, and self-help groups, societies can ensure that individuals feel invested in their community’s well-being and progress.
True change is realized when political leadership not only acknowledges the challenges but is also committed to addressing them head-on. Political leadership must be willing to overhaul outdated policies that might be contributing to societal unrest and replace them with progressive ones that prioritize harmony and development. Engaging with the global community can bring in fresh perspectives, resources, and expertise to address domestic challenges. Collaborative efforts can be particularly effective in countering issues like extremism that often have transnational roots. Governments should shift their focus towards welfare-driven models, ensuring that every citizen, regardless of background, has access to basic amenities, healthcare, education, and opportunities. This can significantly reduce the sense of marginalization that often fuels unrest.
The church-burning incidents underscore the urgent need for comprehensive efforts to address the issue. The journey towards a harmonious and prosperous society is a continuous process, requiring concerted efforts across multiple domains. While challenges will persist, with a strong emphasis on law enforcement, education, community engagement, and political will, societies can lay a robust foundation for peace and prosperity. Only by recognizing and embracing these multifaceted approaches can communities hope to move beyond unrest and disparities, charting a path toward an inclusive, vibrant, and harmonious future.
Research Scholar and Academic; Ph.D. in Political Science at the University of Pisa, Italy. Dr. Usman has participated in various national and international conferences and published 30 research articles in international journals.