As predictable as it is infuriating, Mashal Khan is becoming yesterday’s news. Entertainment and masala always gets better ratings than moral self-examination and the Supreme Court’s Panama Papers judgment has sent the media into a frenzy of cheap speculation and tedious horse-race coverage. It has spent the last week trying to boil down a 550-page document into a storyline of who’s up and down without caring that is all of us who are losing. When the media takes its eyes of the ball, it gives an opportunity to those who support lynchings and vigilantism to step in.
Some have taken to opening up Facebook and trying to find every post Mashal wrote – not to remark on his touching humanity and obvious concern for justice and fairness but to imply that he got what was coming to him. Both the Urdu and English media have had stories about Mashal’s social media activity. The blame-the-victim mentality was just waiting for the opportunity to crawl out of whatever mildewed corner it breeds in. The distraction provided by the Panama Papers gave them a suitable opening.
Since the Panama verdict was announced, the feckless national political leadership has been virtually mute about Mashal. Maryam Nawaz was posting selfies on Twitter of her father and uncle hosting what looked like a victory party. Even in the best of times, being told by the Supreme Court that you have not been honest but it cannot quite prove that yet is hardly reason to rejoice. To do it at such a time – when a citizen you are supposed to be representing was beaten to death because some people decided they didn’t like the views they imagined he held – was Nero-like in its thoughtlessness. It was nauseating to see PTI leaders stuffing mithai in their mouths, celebrating what they considered a victory over Nawaz Sharif; Mashal was murdered in the province in which they are in power.
The one national leader who did at least mention Mashal was Asif Zardari at a speech in Malakand. The PPP, more than any other party, knows what it is like to be falsely accused of blasphemy and to pay for it with your life. And even if the PPP has been categorised by its entirely understandable timidity after the murders of Salmaan Taseer and Shahbaz Bhatti, individual members like Farhatullah Babar and Sherry Rehman are the only politicians in the country who have the courage to at least suggest reforming the blasphemy laws to guard against false accusations.
Zardari’s mention of Mashal was in connection with a denunciation of the PTI, which he said was unable even to protect students. The criticism was fair in so much as the party is ruling in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and has a long track record of coddling the most extremist elements in society. Still, the PTI has been far from the worst villain in the aftermath of Mashal’s murder.
In the Mardan district assembly, it was the PTI which had proposed offering fateha for Mashal only to be immediately shot down by the JUI-F and ANP. Both parties said that saying a prayer for him would not be appropriate until all the facts of the case were in. The chilling implication was clear: if they found that Mashal had deviated in any way from orthodoxy as defined by them then he did not deserve to be mourned or blessed.
Imran Khan was also the one to suggest that the Abdul Wali Khan University be renamed after Mashal. That idea was nixed by the Muttahida Deeni Mahaz, whose leader happens to be Maulana Samiul Haq, often referred to as the Father of the Taliban – a moniker he has worked hard to live up to. As the founder of the Darul Uloom Haqqania, Samiul Haq has educated – in a debased definition of the word – more future militants than any other individual. The Darul Uloom Haqqania also happened to be the recipient last year of Rs300 million in funding from the PTI government in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. Imran Khan can hardly complain about Samiul Haq biting the hand that feeds him when he keeps nourishing piranhas.
For a preview of how Mashal will end up being remembered, we need to look no further than how the second death anniversary of Sabeen Mahmud – another person who had to pay with her life for daring to care about those who have been flung to the margins – was marked. For the thousands of people who had their lives touch by Sabeen, she was both mourned and celebrated. But not one politician had a word to say on the anniversary, whether out of indifference or fear. It says everything you need to know about the country today that there are shrines to Mumtaz Qadri but the victims of people like him are not even acknowledged.
Sure, the state will point out that it punishes those who take the law into their hands. It will say that it hanged Qadri, that the alleged killers of Sabeen and another Karachi hero, Perween Rahman, are in prison, that it has arrested 35 people in connection with Mashal’s lynching. But taking credit for doing the bare minimum is hardly enough. Not when the ideology behind all these murders is allowed to thrive, and even patronised.
Watching Ehsanullah Ehsan, the now-captured spokesperson for the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan and Jamaatul Ahrar, speaking calmly on television about his past gave a timely reminder of how those who have taken so many people somehow always manage to get a second chance. Here was the man who as the public voice of the TTP had coolly explained why he and his people decided to try and kill Malala Yousafzai. There are few journalists who weren’t threatened by Ehsanullah at some point for not reporting ‘fairly’ on the Taliban. Yet there he was on our screens rationalising his past, with analysts debating whether he should be set free in return for whatever intelligence he may provide.
The reason the TTP was ever able to reach a position where it could kill so many people was because for too long the state nurtured militant groups as a tool of foreign policy. The thinking was that so long as they do not kill ‘us’ – ‘us’ here being Pakistanis who belong to the majority sect – they could be contained. That was shown to be wishful thinking. We should not now repeat the mistake with the killers of Mashal. They too have been nurtured – by political parties, religious leaders and, as difficult as it is to admit, by society at large. The best, indeed the only, way to properly memorialise Mashal is not just by punishing his murderers but ensuring there are no more Mashals in the future. We do not need any more martyrs in a country that is unable to tell the difference between heroes and villains.
The writer is a journalist based in Karachi.