The mob murder of a student at a public university campus in Mardan on April 13, 2017 hit home through videos and photos of the gruesome act. In the ensuing outrage, many are calling for the “animals” involved to be hanged – even though animals don’t torture other creatures to death like this – and see no hope after this brutality, which is extreme even by Pakistani standards.
But beyond the horror of this extreme cruelty, it is important to contextualise the depravity Pakistan has developed over the years and find a way out of it. The murder – for which there is no justification religiously, morally or legally – was not an isolated or spontaneous act. The case fits into a well-documented pattern evident in many of the attacks on individuals accused of “blasphemy” – an English term that inadequately refers to any ‘gustakhi’, disrespect to Islam in Pakistan’s context.
Section 295-C of the Pakistan Penal Code, which prescribes death for disrespect to the Prophet of Islam (pbuh), was imposed through an amendment under General Ziaul Haq’s military regime to Section 295. This was a British-era law prescribing three years of imprisonment for “deliberate and malicious acts” that intend to “outrage or insult religious sentiments”. The critical term ‘malicious intent’ was left out of the Ziaist amendments.
The option of life imprisonment for 295-C convictions lapsed in 1992, leaving death as the only punishment. Pakistan’s first ‘blasphemy murder’ took place when a young Anjuman-e-Sipah-e-Sahaba (ASS) member – as the now banned Sipah-e-Sahaba Pakistan (SSP) was then called – stabbed the progressive Punjabi Christian poet and schoolteacher Naimat Ahmar in Faisalabad.
Since then, the offshoots of this lobby have been determinedly pursuing cases of ‘blasphemy’, developing a network of hundreds of lawyers for this purpose (‘Pakistani lawyers’ group behind spike in blasphemy cases’, Reuters, Mar 6, 2016).
Pakistan has yet to execute anyone under Section 295-C. However, vigilante mobs or individuals instigated by the ‘religious’ lobby in conjunction with land and criminal mafias have killed more than 60 persons for alleged ‘gustakhi’, including “disrespecting” the Holy Quran since 1992 – including inside prisons.
The pattern includes rumours and posters about the victims’ guilt. Independent investigations into all such ‘blasphemy’ cases have found them to be mal-motivated and false. Examples include the lynching of Najeeb Zafar, a young Muslim factory owner in Sheikhupura in April 2009, the razing of two Christian villages a few months later and the lynching of Shama and Shehzad, a Christian couple, in 2014. Vigilante violence and mobs have also been unleashed upon those accused of other transgressions. These include the brothers Muneeb and Mughees in Sialkot and the robbers burnt to death in Karachi in 2008.
Fuelling this vigilantism is the rhetoric that emanates from clerics, politicians and television ‘journalists’ who seem bent upon getting people killed for mere allegation. It has become a convenient tool to silence political and intellectual dissent as evident in the alarming rise in attacks and disappearances of humanist social online activists.
Judging by his posts, young Mashal Khan was firmly part of this community. He constantly spoke out against injustices and upheld progressive values, including women’s rights and a love for history and pluralism. On Feb 17, 2017, he tweeted: “Hide History and Hate Hindus. This is what we are taught in Schools ... #Pathetic...”. He struck at one of the basics of the false narrative perpetuated in Pakistan’s mainstream discourse.
He was leading a protest camp on campus against the misdoings at the Abdul Wali Khan University Mardan where he was a journalism student. In a television interview, two days before being killed, Mashal had highlighted problems brought on by the vacancy of the vice-chancellor’s position, faculty corruption and the unfair fee structure.
Pakistan’s dominant narrative facilitates attacks against irritants like Mashal Khan, especially when they don’t fall in line with social pressure to prove their faith through showy religiosity. To counter the false ‘blasphemy’ narrative, there must be a sustained effort to highlight some basic points in public discourse and on public platforms:
• Regardless of anyone’s alleged wrongdoing, it is a criminal offence to attack and kill them. There is no justification for such murders.
• Enforce the law to punish those making false accusations, especially when the victims have been legally acquitted.
• Highlight that Islam does not prescribe death for the religious offences being used as a pretext for murder (for which there is ample research-based evidence).
Stressing these points and rule of law in the public discourse and in school curricula will counter terrorism more effectively instead of focusing on who is a traitor or not a ‘true Muslim’.
Is the tide turning? The wheels of justice in Pakistan may move slowly, but we are seeing them start to turn. The execution of Taseer’s killer Mumtaz Qadri last year may mark a turning point, the debate about the efficacy of capital punishment notwithstanding. A murderer was punished for his criminal action, regardless of the religious right’s attempts to glorify him as a martyr.
The police are investigating the cleric who refused to lead Mashal Khan’s funeral prayers for spreading hate speech. They have also arrested university employees who participated in his killing.
After the carnage at the Army Public School in Peshawar on December 16, 2014, the entire state machinery came out against the terrorist attack – although the inconvenient questions raised by the APS families have since been stifled.
Civil society activists came out in outrage in major cities the day after Mashal Khan’s murder. Hundreds attended his soyem in Zaida village, Swabi. The mourners – including women – marched through the streets and chanted slogans: Mashal – an innocent, ‘shaheed’ and martyred victim.
True, it is unlikely that there would be such support for Mashal Khan if his innocence wasn’t so obvious. And we are still seeing poisonous comments on social media and by journalists who are trying to establish his ‘guilt’.
The brutality in Pakistan may be the most extreme in terms of continuity and frequency, but it is not an isolated phenomenon. We are seeing vigilantism and mob violence in India, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka – all of which share this “postcolonial moment” as journalist Raza Rumi notes. Black and brown people are routinely targeted in the US, more so since the last presidential election campaign.
But Pakistan’s situation is exacerbated by factors including prolonged periods of military dictatorship. In addition, the wave of militancy cultivated since the first Afghan war in the 1980s in collaboration with Saudi Arabia and the US, the introduction of discriminatory legislation and the brainwashing of children to despise ‘the other’ through textbooks.
In the US, when President Trump announced his ‘Muslim ban’, thousands showed up to protest at airports and lawyers, stayed up all night preparing pro-bono briefs to ensure that the order was overturned. Closer to home, there is a determined and visible rejection of India’s “cow vigilantism”. In Pakistan too, people are increasingly countering the dominant narrative.
The strength of the pushback against fascism in India, Pakistan and the US appears to be roughly proportionate to the strength of their functioning democracies and how long they have had a continual democratic political process. A continuation of this will eventually reap dividends. But along the way, there will be painful losses and more bloodshed.
Despair is not an option. We must fight the demons – even if we will never reap the benefits in our lifetimes – for the sake of future generations.
As Mashal Khan’s dignified, grieving father, Iqbal ‘Shayr’ (poet) said, we must ensure that what happened to Mashal is never repeated.
The writer is a senior journalist