In the long and horrific history of people abusing the blasphemy laws, was the death of Mashal Khan finally a turning point, finally a step too far? Was this victim too educated, too visibly gentle, too obviously innocent, too publicly brutalised? Was this finally the One Murder Too Far, the one that will stick in our throat?
It’s easy to think otherwise. Certainly, we have generations of experience of seeing hope peter out like a midnight candle before vanishing with the wind. Already, thousands are marching to defend the men who murdered a boy, hundreds against one, not on evidence but on a suspicion, an accusation, a whim. Already, the provincial party of the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa is backpedalling their criticisms so fast they could win the Tour de France going in reverse.
For all that, though, cynicism is often no more true than naiveté – it just hurts less.
Everything has a breaking point, one often no different in appearance than the hundreds that came before it. How many peasants lived through unimaginable inequities, before something broke and heads were put to the guillotine? How many women suffered before Suffrage? How many black people in America stood up only to be beaten down until Martin Luther King and Rosa Parks found solid footing?
It’s simply our nature to believe that the moment in which we dwell is the only true moment, and that tomorrow and yesterday are exactly like today. This is the mistake of the enemy, and those in their thrall. We should not repeat it.
The current incarnation of the blasphemy laws date back to 1986 – around the time Curtly Ambrose started playing First Class Cricket. Before that, barely over a dozen cases were registered in the history of the country. In the 20 years after, over 600.
Recent as the trend is, blasphemy accusations have rarely been about religion or law. They are driven by things far older and more primal – identity and power, which are desirable to all, especially those who have none of either.
Ayub Masih was a Christian bricklayer who had applied for a government programme that gave housing to the landless, and would thus be freed from bonded labour. Such was not his destiny. He was accused of blasphemy, arrested, sentenced to death. Every Christian family in his village was evicted. His land was given to Akram, the neighbour who had accused him and later shot him in the halls of the sessions court. No action was ever taken against Akram who for the first time in life possessed a power that could shield him from justice, as the powerful are always shielded.
Masih’s sentence was overturned six years later by the Supreme Court, who concluded that the case was baseless. No matter – the message was clear. Perversion of justice was no longer just a rich man’s game.
Dr Younus Shaikh, a respected professor, was accused of blasphemy by his own students. He was initially sentenced to death, though later he had his sentence overturned and fled the country.
Salmaan Taseer, governor of Punjab and an elite businessman, was shot by a man who became overnight a saint to broken men.
Identity and power. Being more Muslim than thou has become the badge, the shield and the sword of those without access to any other, in a country which otherwise offers nothing to the powerless. What is a mob but a collection of the nameless?
Was Mashal Khan’s death, horrific as it was, any worse than those that have preceded it? Not necessarily, but change comes at moments that are often like all the moments that have come before. A drop falls, like any other drop, and one day the dam bursts. Maybe that day is not today. But, built into the very nature of the universe, across every atom, are these words: nothing lasts forever.
It seemed that somewhere the mood shifted – just a little. Maybe a few more voices were raised that were once quiet out of fear or wearied resignation. Maybe the lumbering political zeitgeist made a few more noises than it had in years, growled a little, showed just a spark of spirit despite all the vicious beatings that by all rights should have broken its spirit.
In a country where we have been whipped until we cower at the idea of raising our voice for those killed in such witch-hunts, hundreds poured in from across the country to Mashal’s small village to condole.
In this country, the villagers of Mashal’s village apologised en masse to his father for not standing with him in the beginning.
In this country, days after the murder, an imam in Chitral saved a mentally disabled man from a mob that had accused him of blasphemy.
It may be nothing. It may be the start of something. People are inherently neither good nor bad; most are simply pulled to and fro on the shifting tides of ideas and sentiment. Nothing lasts forever. There will one day be a victim who lays bare with his death the vicious hypocrisy, the manipulation of identity for power. He will not be the last victim, I am sad to say, but he will mark the moment that the tides shifted. May it be Mashal Khan.
The writer is a columnist and a student of persuasion. Email: zaairhussaingmail.com