Remember Gul Masih? He had a fight with a neighbour in 1991 over something as trivial as repairing a water tap on their street. The neighbour then accused him of blasphemy.
During Gul’s trial, it was revealed the neighbour was the only person out of the three eye witnesses to supposedly hear him say something blasphemous. Despite that, Gul became the first person to be sentenced to death for blasphemy. He spent many years being tortured in prison, but was eventually cleared of all charges on appeal and had to seek asylum in another country.
How about Naimat Ahmer? He was a teacher in Faisalabad, a member of the Christian community, who had done well for himself. This was unacceptable to other teachers, who convinced Naimat’s students that he had committed blasphemy. In 1992, one of his students stabbed Naimat to death and, despite being jailed, was hailed as a hero by many.
Does anyone still recall the case of Salamat Masih? He was an 11-year-old boy who, along with two other men, was accused of writing blasphemous slogans on the wall of a mosque by a cleric in 1993. He somehow managed to do this even though he was illiterate. One of the men was shot dead outside a courtroom after leaving a hearing. Salamat himself was injured in the shooting. Even though he was shot and could not even write his own name in court, Salamat was convicted of blasphemy and given the death sentence. That sentence was later overturned by the Lahore High Court but one of the judges who acquitted Salamat – Justice Arif Iqbal Bhatti – was murdered in his chambers.
All these incidents took place more than 25 years ago and all of them are as shocking as the murder of Mashal Khan. All of them were front-page news when they happened and led to the same outraged editorials that vowed never to let this happen again. But memories are short and our ability to fight back weak, so eventually we forget and move on. Then, a year or so later, another person is killed for alleged blasphemy and the process is repeated all over again.
We have become so desperate for any sign that this time may be different, that the obvious cruelty and barbarity of Mashal’s murder will whip even our cowardly politicians into action, that we are ready to anoint political saviours for doing the bare minimum. Imran Khan received so much praise for condemning Mashal’s murder and going to condole with his family. But we have been through this before. In 2011, when minorities minister Shahbaz Bhatti was assassinated – soon after the murder of Salmaan Taseer for speaking up about the plight of Aasia Bibi – there seemed to be a consensus that the blasphemy laws needed to be reformed. Politicians who you would never expect to speak out, such as Chaudhry Shujaat and Imran Khan, said the laws should be reconsidered. The moment passed. Nothing happened.
Most politicians have no convictions, they just drift along wherever the political wind takes them. The only time they are willing to concede that the blasphemy laws may need to be changed is right after a shocking vigilante murder. The rest of the time, they are trying to whip up religious fervour to bolster their own standing, knowing full well the danger of igniting this particular fire.
Many ministers spent the last few months talking about the phantom problem of blasphemy online. Since politicians are followers rather than leaders, they are jumping on a bandwagon that was carefully and deliberately planned.
Earlier this year, a few activists who had been prominent on social media mysteriously disappeared. The focus came to be on who might have picked them up. Since that focus needed to be changed, the usual talk-show hosts started haranguing those who had the gall to be picked up, calling them anti-state and anti-religion. The abducted were never produced in a court of law; instead, it was alleged without legal evidence that they had posted blasphemous online. Now – and this was done deliberately – anyone who had questioned their disappearances was on the back foot as they would be tarred as being pro-blasphemy.
Something similar played out in the murder of Mashal Khan. He had a dispute with some activists of the Pakhtun Students Federation, who then took to Facebook declaring Mashal a blasphemer. As is the case with most blasphemy accusations, a personal or political dispute had suddenly become a religious one. We all know what happened next.
Even now, there are many who refuse to condemn Mashal’s murder or take the weasel’s way out of saying that yes, he shouldn’t have been killed but he was guilty of blasphemy. The ANP, which as the parent political party of the PSF should have been the first to condemn the lynching and murder, has been quiet. One shouldn’t be surprised that a supposedly liberal party like the ANP has suddenly lost its tongue. It has always been this way with the ANP. In 1999, after the ‘honour’ killing of Samia Sarwar, the late Senator Iqbal Haider of the PPP tried to introduce a resolution in the Senate to condemn honour killings. He was shot down by the ANP.
This is why it is so difficult to expect anything to change after the murder of Mashal Khan. We have been here before many times and the story always plays out in the same way. Memories will recede and we will move on to the next outrage – outrages being the one commodity that are never in short supply in this country. A bunch of arrests will be made and some may even result in convictions. Then one day, a sympathetic guard will allow one of the convicted to escape or a judge who doesn’t want to be killed will overturn their convictions. The news will be buried in a small box on page 14 and it won’t register in the general consciousness.
We so desperately want to believe that even though Mashal’s murder was senseless it will at least, be a catalyst of change. We praise every politician who issues a rote condemnation; we look for any sign that this time civil society’s voice won’t be drowned out. Giving into hopelessness is of no use. This will only ensure that the change never comes.
But let us also not put our faith in the political class or the media for it is they who have brought us to this place. It is the media who toss around blasphemy charges without ever being concerned with proof, knowing that they are endangering lives and it is the politicians who are so cowardly that they either join the crusade or sit quietly on the sidelines. One murder won’t change them when they have been responsible for so many killings before.
The writer is a journalist based in Karachi.