The modus operandi was a distressingly familiar one — an allegation of blasphemy, incitement by local mosques, and a frenzied mob venting its rage on the impugned individuals/community.
However, the government’s response to events in Jhelum last week could well determine whether this country is indeed making a break from a past replete with condemnable instances of violence in the name of faith.
The incident in question began to unfold on Friday evening when workers at an Ahmadi-owned factory in the city alleged that pages from the Quran were being desecrated on its premises.
Take a look: Normalcy returns to Jhelum
Announcements made from area mosques further inflamed passions, and a mob — including people from surrounding villages — stormed the factory, setting it on fire.
The next day, an Ahmadi place of worship in nearby Kala Gojran was ransacked by crowds who, after throwing its contents out in the street and torching them, proceeded to occupy the building in the name of converting it into a mosque.
That no one lost their life in the violence is extremely fortunate, and probably due in large measure to attempts by the administration to get people out of harm’s way as well as the fact that the army moved quickly to quell the rioting in this garrison town.
Meanwhile, cases have been filed against around 80 alleged attackers under the Anti Terrorism Act.
However, what happens next is crucial. In post-National Action Plan Pakistan, with its avowals of dismantling the infrastructure of religious extremism that is the recruiting ground for ideologically inspired militancy against which the country is at war, Jhelum is no less than a test case.
It is a test case because it pushes the boundaries of what many Pakistanis consider religious intolerance: the target is a community against which religious discrimination in this country is not just socially entrenched, but also deeply institutionalised — and even celebrated as a virtue in certain quarters.
Are there going to be exceptions to action against all forms of religious persecution? Is not an attack on a place of worship — any place of worship — an attack on the fundamental rights of that community to freedom of religion?
It also bears asking why mosques in Jhelum chose to incite violence at this juncture when the state has been clamping down on hate speech — one of NAP’s 20 points — which has a proven record of instigating murder particularly when delivered from the pulpit.
Cases have been filed against a number of clerics on this charge; some have even been sentenced to prison for several years. In the present instance as well, the full force of the law must be brought to bear against the individuals concerned.
A majority community must use its strength not to oppress minorities — for that is only evidence of its own moral frailty — but to guarantee their inalienable right to live with dignity as equal citizens.