There they are on Facebook, in their multitudes. Their profile pictures are usually selfies and often feature friends and family. They smile and they laugh, plastering their profiles with inspirational quotes, funny news stories, and pictures of places they have been.

It all seems innocent enough until you remember what it was that brought you to their Facebook pages in the first place. You recall reading a discussion online, about the activists who went missing last week, in which those same smiling, laughing faces unleashed torrents of the most vile abuse upon anyone who dared to defend Salman Haider, Waqas Goraya, Asim Saeed, Ahmed Naseer, and Samar Abbas. You wonder how it is that people posting memes about kittens can suddenly start spewing fire and brimstone, doling out accusations of blasphemy and defending their faith with filth on their tongues and murder in their hearts.

The coordinated abduction of these five activists, and the impunity with which their phones continued to be monitored after they went missing, suggests that the state is likely to be complicit in their disappearance. Precisely why they have been picked up for remains unknown, although speculation on this matter has focused on their alleged involvement in running Facebook pages accused of publishing material that was both blasphemous and critical of the military establishment.

At the outset, it is important to clarify that, thus far, no proof has been presented that would verify the claim that the missing activists were behind the Facebook pages that they have been linked to. Indeed, all the ‘information’ regarding the circumstances of their disappearance, and their stated transgressions, has emerged out of the cacophony of voices that erupted on social media when news of the abductions broke. The state itself has thus far feigned ignorance regarding the whereabouts of the activists, and has simply made the usual meaningless noises about taking action to recover them.

However, even if the allegations being made about Salman Haider and the others are true, this entire affair tells us a lot about the current state of Pakistani society. Consider the following facts; Pakistan is a country that possesses the sixth largest military on earth, a massive domestic security and intelligence infrastructure involving dozens of agencies and organisations, and some of the world’s most draconian and punitive anti-terror and surveillance laws. It is also an overwhelmingly Muslim majority country, where more than 95% of the population is free to practice its faith without fear of persecution, and where Islam plays a prominent role in public life. Yet, if the narrative surrounding the disappearances is to be believed, five activists posting things on social media somehow represent an existential threat to both national security and Islam, with this justifying all measures taken against them, due process be damned.

The truth is that this has nothing to do with Islam or national security and everything to do with power; the power to command obedience and the power to operate with impunity. The fires of tribal sentiment, in the form of religion and nationalism, have long been stoked by the cynical opportunists in positions of authority to marshal support for their agendas, with minorities paying the price in blood for the unity of the majority. All forms of identity are a social construct, and nationalism is no different; we define ourselves in terms of who we are not, and police the boundaries of these distinctions by constantly enforcing notions of what can or cannot be said, done, or even believed by adherents of the group. Yet, the question that is rarely asked is who defines these boundaries? Who are the custodians of national or religious identity, and what gives them legitimacy? When we are told that Islam and Pakistan are in danger, who is telling us this and, more importantly, why?

For almost seventy years, the people of Pakistan have been fed a steady diet of dogma and paranoia. The country is always threatened by shadowy external forces that desire nothing more than the destruction of the Land of the Pure. To defend ourselves against this, we are told that we must not succumb to the predations of enemies who seek to divide us, and that we must remain united by the faith in whose name this country was founded. We are advised to place our trust in those who rule over us, and to unquestioningly support whatever they do to protect us. God works in mysterious ways and so do the defenders of the nation; if some people go missing, there must be a reason and it must be a good one.

Yet, it does not end there because ideology and propaganda can only do so much before inconvenient truths start to be noticed. We might all be Muslim and Pakistani, but we are not all equal in terms of the rights we enjoy and the privileges we possess. Given that addressing these issues would require a radical transformation of the status quo, entailing a distribution of power away from those who have historically wielded it, the response instead is to double down on the ideology and propaganda; if you do not agree with the dominant narrative, you must not be Muslim enough or Pakistani enough. If you criticise the powers-that-be, you must be on the payroll of the country’s enemies. Even suspecting this might not be the case constitutes an act of blasphemy or treason, with these two words becoming increasingly interchangeable in Pakistan.

The act of questioning is dangerous precisely because it threatens to expose this whole façade, demonstrating how the stories sold by the powers-that-be are nothing more than smoke and mirrors designed to conceal the reality of their domination. That is why even the most minor sign of dissent, the most innocuous of transgressions must be mercilessly crushed lest it trigger a wider conflagration of skepticism. Yet, asking questions should be at the heart of any democratic order; those in power should never be too comfortable, nor should they enjoy immunity from the accountability of those they ostensibly serve and protect. If things are not working, is it really a crime to ask why?

The sad reality is that Pakistan is a mess. No amount of bluster about CPEC or dire warnings about India can change the fact that this is a country in which the majority of people live in or on the edge of poverty, where ten per cent of children die before they reach the age of five, where illiteracy and unemployment are rampant, where inequality continues to grow as the rich get richer and the poor get poorer, and where being born into the wrong religion, sect, or ethnicity might as well be a death sentence. It is a country where militant religious groups openly preach hate and take pride in killings tens of thousands of Pakistanis (including military and other security personnel) and do so knowing that they will not be stopped or impeded in any meaningful way. When the Interior Minister claims that self-avowedly violent sectarian groups are actually peaceful, or when supporters of the establishment continue to champion the use of extremist organizations to be used as proxies against Pakistan’s enemies, can it really be said that so-called ‘liberal fascists’ are the biggest challenge the country faces? Are they really more of a threat than the masterminds of the APS attack, the blast in Lahore’s Gulshan-i-Iqbal park, and countless other atrocities? Are their criticisms of dogma and state policy more dangerous than the sick ‘religious’ justifications offered by extremists and their supporters in power for the murder of innocent men, women, and children?

To not ask questions, and to not speak truth to power, is to unquestioningly accept the status quo. It is an abdication of the responsibility to hold those in power accountable for their failures. It is simply the patriotism of fools.