It was quite distressing to see a rickshaw on the Mall Road, at Lahore, displaying a slogan urging to kill persons belonging to a specific foreign nationality. Thousand would have read this provocative message. Many would have been influenced to some extent.

The minutest impact of this invitation to violence could be to make a large segment of the public insensitive to react, if actually such an action is committed by some ultra extremist. But none stopped it or reported the matter to the police. Nor did traffic police or operation police consider it a cognisable offence.

More perturbing was the fact that the extremist religious organisation that coined this slogan had not concealed its identity. It was a more blatant mockery of the writ of the state.

We are a society where religious and sectarian extremism has gradually snowballed into an acceptable norm. Perpetrators employ all sorts of foul and filthy tactics, ranging from hate rhetoric to mass killings, in the name of Islam, with impunity.

Albeit sectarianism and sectarian terrorism have become order of the day, very few realise that the most glaring causes of these heinous activities are rabble-rousing graffiti, hate speech and use of provocative literature that generate violence and hatred.

All other differences aside, extremists among rival sects have been quite impolite, rather irreverent about the deferential personalities of each other. The record is evident that sectarianism turned into sectarian terrorism due to this rueful recklessness and no-holds-barred approach to pinch and prick the most sensitive of the feelings.

Unfortunately, the efforts and attempts of successive governments to eradicate these reasons have been lackadaisical and lukewarm.

Over the years, the police and public have become so used to the jingoist jargon splattered and spread everywhere that they do not deem it fit to take action against it.  The intelligence agencies’ role in this regard is restricted to occasional reporting about such matters, which usually goes unnoticed because action on it lies with other agencies that have their hands full with other trivialities.

A round of any city of Pakistan would reveal umpteen ugly scenes of provocative graffiti generating hatred and violence on walls, back of rickshaws, hoardings, etc. A slogan urging to behead a blasphemer can be seen quite often.

No wonder, a mob brainwashed by such persistent calls to violence torched more than 100 houses of Christians slum dwellers. A trivial brawl between two drunkard youngsters triggered the idea to settle the score on context of blasphemy.

Even if blasphemy had been committed the alleged offender was arrested and booked by the police. This police action should have been enough to pacify the complainants.

But the instigators cajoled the multitude of ostensibly peaceful labour, mostly pathans and Afghanis, to rise and rush to avenge the blasphemous act of one of the hundreds of families residing at Badami Bagh area of Lahore. Thus, the result was insensitive burning down of more than 100 houses, along with their households.    

The declaration of expulsion from the religion is a convenient way of demonising the opponent. They do not stop here as the ultra extremists resort to killing to avenge the insult heaped on the religious personalities.

Undoubtedly, freedom of expression is one of the fundamental principles of democracy. But hate speech and hate literature are exceptions to this principle. Criminalising hate speech and graffiti is an effective way of bridling this propensity that is undermining the serenity of the society.

In Canada, a variety of laws prohibit hate speech. The scholars, majority of the judges of the Supreme Court of Canada, and the general opinion, agree that hate speech should be regulated in a democratic society.

Hate propaganda against identifiable groups is a crime, and those who speak it are criminals.  In UK and other countries, the expression of racist views is restricted by the criminal codes and by federal and provincial human rights codes. In Pakistan, all these crimes are being committed on the pretext of protecting the religion.

It does not take much to remind ourselves that a massive fire usually starts with a tiny spark. A big brawl erupts over a trivial matter. Violence can be a result of a graffiti or foul sentence. A persistent, deliberate and planned campaign of motivation to violence on religious basis results in gradual inculcation of religious intolerance and perpetual propensity to react violently.

As in our society, this campaign is continuing for last many decades, we are already inundated into it till our eyeballs. But still we can at least flutter the eyelids. It means that we still possess the capacity to react to eye opening incidents as of Badami Bagh arson incident.

It is high time to wield the laws of the land with full might and vigour to bridle the galloping mustang of intolerance and violence. We will have to agree that hate propaganda and incitement to violence is a crime and those who speak it are criminals not clergy.

The writer holds Master’s degree in Intelligence and International Security from War Studies Department, King’s College London.