The AAS Executive Committee is pleased to announce the 2020 prize winners for the best PhD and Honours/Masters theses, and the best article published in an Australian journal. The following winners were officially announced during the 2020 AAS AGM - a huge congratulations to all!
The 2020 PhD Thesis Prize was awarded to:
Dr Sana Ashraf, Australian National University, for their thesis Moral Anxiety in the ‘Land of the Pure’: Popular Justice and Anti-Blasphemy Violence in Pakistan. Dr Ashraf completed their thesis under the supervision of Dr Patrick Guinness, Professor Francesca Merlan, Professor Chris Gregory and Dr Joyce Das (Australian National University).
In recent years, Pakistan has witnessed incidents such as lynching of a student on a university campus, torching of a Christian couple alive, attacks on entire neighbourhoods by angry mobs, and assassination of a governor upon allegations of blasphemy. This thesis begins with the premise that the anti-blasphemy violence is meaningful political action and locates it within the wider socio-cultural and historical context of Pakistan. I argue in this thesis that blasphemy accusations and the violence that often follows them are an outcome of the wider concern for maintaining purity at the national, communal, and individual levels.
The creation and the consolidation of the state of Pakistan has popularised certain ideas of national identity based on an imagined homogenous community defined by its purity. At the local level, the national identity is interpreted within specifically local cultural notions of sexual, ancestral, communal and religious purity. At an individual level, the concern for the purity of the self and the society has led to widespread moral and existential anxieties. It is within the context of these anxieties concerning the purity of the nation, the community, and the self that the blasphemy accusations gain traction.
By focusing on the inter-personal relationships between the accused and the accusers, this thesis contends that the accusations are triggered by perceived transgressions of social hierarchies and religio-cultural notions of purity among people known to each other. Through ethnographic examples, I demonstrate that most accusations are simultaneously motivated by religio-cultural ideals, emotions, and personal rivalries. However, once the blasphemy accusations have been made, regardless of the initial motives of the accusers, they quickly escalate into a shared religious concern inciting passionate responses from a much wider audience of believers living with anxieties concerning their faith, their religio-national identity, and the purity of their society. To the mobilised crowds, the accused becomes a symbolic figure, ‘the impure other’ who threatens the national, communal, and individual purity. The violent punishment of ‘the impure other’ that follows is however not inevitable; rather it is orchestrated and enabled by various actors motivated by both reason and passion.
Some of these actors are key proponents of ideas of popular justice. By promoting non-state punishments of alleged blasphemers, the agents of popular justice contest the state’s sole authority over legitimate violence and its sovereignty in representing Islamic ideals. The thesis analyses blasphemy-related violence as political contestation through which the state’s interpretation and implementation of justice is challenged by those competing with the state in the shared religio-political sphere. The state and non-state proponents of justice draw upon the same sources of legitimacy and sovereignty in claiming to represent Islamic principles of justice. Consequently, the assertions by proponents of non-state violence become enshrined in the state’s foundations and its laws. This thesis thus reworks accepted analytical dichotomies of reason/emotion, culture/religion, traditional/Western, state/non-state and legal/extra-legal to extend our understanding of the upsurge of blasphemy related violence in Pakistan.