Policing Through Cultural Sensitivities

Image Credits: Radio Pakistan

The now famous story of police officer Syeda Shehrbano Naqvi deserves praise. Her efforts last week averted a grave tragedy over a woman’s dress adorned with Arabic lettering, which a frenzied crowd in Lahore’s Ichhra Bazar mistook for holy verse. The officer’s actions during an extremely volatile situation provided an example of good policing that the community will cherish for a long time. It is hoped that it will become the standard response for police when faced with similar situations.

In the past, law enforcement, in general, has cut a sorry figure when facing off against religious zealots. Few alert officers have dared to do the right thing in difficult situations, while most have responded feebly. Dozens of lynching incidents have occurred while the police have stood by, watching helplessly. Even in cases where miscreants have been apprehended, most have been jailed only on flimsy charges, so they may easily walk again.

Even this time, the self-righteous vigilantes of Ichhra Bazaar almost succeeded in their nefarious designs. And it was not a legal action against the perpetrators that prevented further escalation, but an apology from the already terrified victim. Unfortunately, our people are more accustomed to a mob mindset rather than self-reflection and critical thinking, dogma instead of freedom of belief.

In a model world, the culprits would have been held legally accountable: here, a life had to be saved based on ‘pragmatism’ and ‘compromise’.

The reason behind the crowd’s anger was nothing novel or unprecedented; to them, this was a matter of religious impropriety. They have been nurtured to confront it — violently, if necessary — and many undoubtedly believed they had the right to act. In terms of religion or morality, this was an opportunity to earn sawaab (reward or virtue). This is not to name names, but those who have coupled their political agendas with rigid interpretations of religious scripture have also manifested various apocalyptic beliefs while promoting the hatred of whatever is unfamiliar. And, because violence has been allowed in the past and individuals involved have been able to get away with it, the possibility of it being repeated always remains.

Let’s have no doubt that violent extremism is a phenomenon that has crossed cultures and religions throughout history. It is the expression of a desire to defend and control, for which strong beliefs are devoted to violence if necessary. This encourages such social groups to oppose any rights threatening their prevailing beliefs. They tend to be uncompromising and outrageous in their behavior. In our part of the world, many religious figures, politicians, and even liberal elites have used such groups to settle scores, stay in power and remain relevant.

Given that law enforcers are also part of the public, what are they supposed to do when those supposed to fix such depraved norms allow them to perpetuate? Tragically, in this day and age, we cannot expect them to respond any differently, even when top judges are threatened, especially when other powerful actors also start backing out, fearing the mob’s wrath. By failing to enforce meaningful accountability, everyone will one day pay the price for selective policing.

Strangely, the majority of blasphemy charges are levelled against Muslims by Muslims, even though Islam advocates peace and stresses living peacefully, both within the Muslim community and with people of other faiths.

Many religious seminaries and notable religious personalities have been targeted over their differing interpretations of the scriptures. Since the state isn’t even willing to protect its police officers, let alone the community, everyone eventually surrenders to the goons.

In my early years of policing, I innocently mentioned how stressful it was dealing with law and order during Muslim festive occasions. At the same time, the celebrations of our minority faiths would pass by unnoticed. In response, a cleric aggressively questioned my faith. A senior officer had to quickly intervene and impugn my remarks over my “lack of familiarity with policing norms”. He was concerned about the possible consequences.

Our society is experiencing the dangerous trend of vigilantism due to a complicated combination of ignorance, arrogance, and obscurantism. Policing has become very difficult and dangerous due to it. As a society and as rulers, we must understand this trend and implement calculated policy interventions, such as education reforms, social de-radicalization programs, improved policing, and judicial robustness at the earliest opportunity.

Stakeholders need to realize how quickly misinformation can escalate situations and the role of social leaders who can step into the fray and bring calm amid the chaos. Because of prevailing socio-economic issues, political instability and poor governance, ignorance, illiteracy and irrational convictions have started gaining hold in our populace. There is an urgent need to put an end to religious extremism through better tutelage of at-risk populations, opening more doors for the disadvantaged and recognizing how fear and ignorance play a role in promoting extremism. Teaching tolerance and respect for diversity has helped counter violent ideologies in progressive societies.

The recent incident has elicited various reactions. Many have condemned the violence and hailed Shehrbano’s heroism. Some see this as an admonitory tale, warning society of the potential for miscommunication through the seemingly innocuous choices we make, which can trigger a life-or-death situation. The case, however, must also alarm our policymakers and get them to take immediate action to address growing vigilantism. The triggers of such incidents seem to be growing more and more abstract. Law enforcement agencies must re-prioritize and re-strategize how to deal with these situations before there is a wider breakout of mob justice.

This article is for informational purposes only. Find the original publication here.

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Retired Pakistani police officer and Ph.D. in Politics with expertise in policy, governance, and societal issues

Dr. Syed Kaleem Imam

Retired Pakistani police officer and Ph.D. in Politics with expertise in policy, governance, and societal issues

This Post Has One Comment

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    temp mail

    I thought you did a great job here. The wording is excellent and the illustration is tasteful, but there’s a feeling that you might be giving more, which would probably happen again if you go on this walk.

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