Mashaal Khan was a bright, young, 23-year-old activist student of Mardan’s Abdul Wali Khan University when he was lynched, last year in April, on the university campus by an angry mob of fellow students and university staff in broad daylight. The frenzied mob of several hundred was outraged by an alleged blasphemy against the dignity of the Prophet of Islam, said to be committed by Mashaal. Blasphemy against the Prophet is a capital crime in Pakistan. So savage was the act of lynching that the victim’s mother could not find a bone intact on her deceased son’s forehead to kiss him goodbye.
Nothing could be more ironic than silencing, so brutally, an intrepid, outspoken young critic of bureaucratic corruption on the campus of a university dedicated to a stalwart humanitarian and apostle of peace. Khan Abdul Wali Khan wasn’t just a known pacifist himself but he was also the son of Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan, one of the closest comrades of Mahatma Gandhi. Ghaffar himself was an apostle of ahimsa (non-violence) and was acclaimed as the Sarhadi (Frontier) Gandhi, in deference to his provenance from the then North West Frontier Province of British India, now the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KPK) province of Pakistan.
An anti-terrorism court, trying 57 people for the crime, found 31 of them guilty of brutally murdering the activist on trumped-up charges. In its verdict delivered in Mardan on February 7, the court found no evidence of blasphemy against Mashaal. For the brutal murder, the court sentenced one accused to death, five to life imprisonment and 23 to five-year imprisonment; 26 of the accused were set free.
The blasphemy law of Pakistan has long been a source of great controversy, not only in its legal fraternity, but more so in its silent civil society. With the boost in Pakistan’s use of social media, debate on the issue has found intense traction and alacrity. The argument of civic debate is anchored in the premise—buttressed by statistics compiled by more than one source not confined to Pakistan but spanning the globe—that this law has been abused and used freely to settle family feuds and personal scores.
Issues of religion, dogma or sect can be toxic and explosive even in a sophisticated and culturally sound society. The example of Northern Ireland, where a low-intensity armed strife smouldered for decades between its Anglican and Catholic sects, comes to mind.
But in a deeply fractured society like Pakistan, with its thick overlay of feudalism, a law of such gravity and sensitivity as blasphemy against the founder of Islam can be lethal, and has been corrupted since its inception.
It doesn’t take much in a semi-literate social ambience where word of mouth is still the favoured medium of communication, for a mischief-maker to point the finger at a rival for having allegedly profaned the Prophet.
The burden of establishing innocence is on the accused and not the accuser. In more than 90 per cent of reported cases of blasphemy, the accused is a non-Muslim—already handicapped with suspicion and disloyalty to the majority’s faith. Semi-literate minds marooned in an archaic set of beliefs that don’t accord equality of status to minorities, are prone to presuming the accused guilty.
Pakistan’s deeply rooted and politicised clergy has long been in the vanguard of those presenting themselves as defenders of the majority faith. Clerics, with few exceptions, have ardently advocated the cause of meting out exemplary punishment to those suspected of blaspheming the Prophet. It isn’t uncommon for an accuser pointing the finger at an alleged blasphemer from a minority faith to have a mullah or a preacher or two vouching for the charge without putting any effort to establish its veracity. A corrupt police and a conniving bureaucracy complete the circle against the accused and make sure that they wouldn’t easily avoid the hangman’s noose from reaching their neck. It’s reminiscent of Inquisitions in medieval Europe.
The government in KPK is in the hands of the Imran Khan’s political party, PTI, which has social justice as its hallmark. Imran’s cathartic social philosophy has largely rid the KPK police of political influence-peddling and bureaucratic intervention.
It was like a breath of fresh air, therefore, that on the heels of what many in the civil society and social media denounced as half-the-justice delivered in the savage lynching of Mashaal, the KPK government announced its intent to appeal and seek stiffer punishments.
But while the KPK government may take time to trigger its appeal process, the well-entrenched forces of obscurantism in KPK wasted no time in bringing out legions of their purblind supporters rooting for the guilty on the morning after the court verdict.
Throngs of howling followers of clerics raised slogans of support for the guilty right outside the university campus, the venue of the heinous crime. They hailed the guilty as ‘martyrs’ while those set free by the court were lionised as ‘heroes’ and ‘defenders of the faith’.
The frenzied rabble, egged on by a clergy, was staging a show of strength to awe the government with its nuisance power. Several of Pakistan’s leading religious-political parties joined the circus, threatening the government with ‘dire consequences’ if the guilty weren’t set free. One of these political factions is an ally of the ruling party in Islamabad.
To an untutored mind the kind of street-power staged with elan in Mardan may be just another everyday clerical spectacle. To those plumbing its sinister reality, however, it’s symptomatic of a deep malaise relentlessly devouring Pakistan’s civic and political landscape.
Karamatullah K Ghori
Former Pakistani diplomat