It is difficult to envision a drunken argument leading to the incineration of an entire residential block, but that’s exactly what happened Saturday in the eastern Pakistani city of Lahore. Police reports indicate that two friends, a Muslim and a Christian, engaged in a drunken argument on Thursday night, leading to accusations by the former of a blasphemous comment concerning the Prophet Muhammad. While the Christian man was detained, Muslim extremists took justice into their own hands.
On Saturday, hundreds of rioters entered the Christian-majority Joseph Colony neighborhood of Lahore, where they looted and burned over 150 homes. Violent religious upheaval has become markedly more pronounced over the last few decades, as the country rapidly transforms from its agrarian roots. Pakistan is in need of sweeping penal reforms to address religious divisions and an ages-old culture of violent conflict resolution.
Only four months ago, Rimsha Masih, a fourteen-year old Pakistani girl, faced the death penalty for allegedly burning pages of the Koran. While she was acquitted in November, a series of incidents have brought international scrutiny against the Pakistani justice system, which inflicts some of its heaviest penalties on citizens convicted of blasphemy.
The legal code’s punishments are both discriminatory and inhumane, as blasphemous comments regarding Islam are grounds for more serious sentencing than those defaming Christianity or Hinduism. The laws even prevent the Ahmadi, an Islamic reformist movement, from claiming Muslim identity. Behind these prejudices are several articles from Pakistan’s 1973 constitution that restrict the political freedoms of non-Muslim minorities, further testament to the extent that ethnic and religious biases plague Pakistani culture.
Throughout the nation, political and domestic disputes are commonly resolved in a hostile manner. Religious extremists regularly conduct extrajudicial assassinations or other violent reprisals, depending on the nature of the "crime." Allegations of blasphemy are considered to be particularly offensive and have motivated a series of unusually intense episodes over the last two decades. Indeed, ethnic and religious rivalries have been difficult to reconcile, particularly as Pakistan’s population rapidly urbanizes and legislative attempts to curtail the spread of armed violence into cities have found unstable footing. While firearms did not fuel this weekend’s riots, constricting Pakistani gun ownership is critical for ending the country’s culture of violence.
Last November, de-weaponization legislation was re-introduced on the floor of Pakistan’s Senate. Under the new ordinance, Karachi — Pakistan’s capital and the third largest city in the world — would be subject to a firearms ban. The measure was met with stiff opposition. Some lawmakers called for a nationwide ban, while others doubted the feasibility of enforcing such a ban at all. An estimated 20 million guns are in public ownership, though an abundance of underground gun factories makes the figure difficult to estimate. Pakistan’s gun culture is rampant, its reconciliation hampered by a discouraging reality: nearly all Pakistan’s political factions have paramilitary wings. The most recognizable of these is the Taliban, but the Pakistan People’s Party and the MQM, both of whom have voiced support for de-weaponization, harbor militant branches as well. Tribal regions of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, one of Pakistan’s four provinces, permit public ownership of a plethora of heavy arms including rocket-propelled grenades, long-range rockets and anti-aircraft guns.
Lax weapons regulations and harsh justice are immense barriers to democratic consolidation in Pakistan. Despite this, it should not be forgotten that it is a Muslim-governed country and suffers from many of the same sociopolitical barriers that have troubled democracies throughout the Middle East. However, the violent, vengeful culture that infests many regions of Pakistan is simply not hospitable to democracy. If the Zardari government is to efficiently handle the country’s rapid transformation, while encouraging unity and trust — the critical social capital factors for economic growth — reforms are desperately needed.