Another chapter in our history of religious violence was written on Sunday when a Chinese national working at the Dasu hydropower project came close to being lynched by a frenzied mob.

Labourers at the site were reportedly enraged over his objections to “precious time” being lost on account of prayer breaks and accused him of committing blasphemy. They then went and incited others in nearby villages about what had taken place; a large crowd gathered and tried to storm the Chinese camp where the foreign national was present. Fortunately, the cops arrived and managed to whisk him away to the police station from where he was airlifted to Abbottabad.

On Monday, the man was charged with blasphemy by an anti-terrorism court and sent on 14-day judicial remand. The only silver lining in this episode was that another horrific murder like that of the Sri Lankan national, Priyantha Kumara, was avoided. In December 2021, Kumara, a factory manager in Sialkot, was set upon by a hundreds-strong mob after being accused of blasphemy. In a bestial orgy of violence, they beat him to death and set his body on fire.

Six years ago, Mashal Khan was lynched by a mob of fellow students on the same pretext. Videos of the gruesome act laid bare the ugly reality of what decades of a state-sponsored triumphalist view of religion – propagated through the pulpit and sections of the media – can do to a society. It later emerged that certain university officials were infuriated by Mashal’s courageous activism about corruption in the administration department, etc.

An allegation of blasphemy was all it took to bring this young man’s life to an end. That was all it took in 2014 for a raging mob to burn alive a Christian couple, both of them brick kiln workers, and leave their three young children orphaned. That is all it takes in today’s Pakistan to destroy lives, uproot families or entire minority communities from their homes. Even the mentally handicapped have not been spared the fury of the “righteous”.

Although in far too many instances, the perpetrators have been let off, in some more recent cases – notably the murders of Mashal and Kumara – severe punishments were handed down. And yet, the bloodletting in the name of faith has not stopped. Punishment has clearly not been a deterrent. Nor has the law against blasphemy prevented vigilante killings. According to a study, 84 people were extrajudicially killed on allegations of blasphemy by March 2021 and around 1,450 people accused of the crime.

Turning back the tide will take a Herculean effort, one that requires the state to abjure the strategy of using religion for political ends. Recent signs are not encouraging. But unless it is done, this society will continue to devour its own.

This article first appeared in Dawn.