Are we complacent in normalizing violence under the pretext of Blasphemy?

By Talal Raza

Courtesy: “Justice for Mashal Khan” Facebook page

On April 13, 2017, a mob of students at Abdul Wali Khan University killed a 23-year old journalism student named Mashal Khan on charges of committing blasphemy. The mob also critically injured another fellow student for following Mashal. The news spread like a wildfire across the country. A flurry of debates started online as to what might have been the exact nature of “blasphemy” the student might have committed. Soon, a number of social media posts associated with the account of Mashal Khan began circulating over social media. Also, social media videos showing the mob killing and beating to death Mashal within the premises of the university also surfaced. The brutality with which his lifeless body was tortured sparked a flurry of debates as to how come a mob was able to be an accuser, jury and executioner at the same time within a span of a few minutes. As the investigations opened up, more teachers and students affiliated with Mashal Khan pointed out that it was actually his criticism of the university policies that didn’t go down well with certain quarters that they decided to make a case against him and incited students to violence. The initial investigations also found no evidence of blasphemy in the call record and social media account of Mashal and that the alleged blasphemous posts circulating on social media were found to be from fake accounts. As it became clear that allegations were false, major political parties, stakeholders and civil society came out in favor of Mashal Khan.  The Parliament of Pakistan passed a resolution condemning Mashal’s murder and called for amendments in the blasphemy law to deter those who took law into their own hands under the pretext of punishing wrongly accused “blasphemers”. Till the writing of this report, it has been learned that around 27 suspects have been arrested and a Joint Investigation team comprising of police officials are investigating the matter and present their findings in front of Supreme Court. [1]

While the calls for bringing to justice the murderers of Mashal were made by all circles, another incident took place in which a man was killed by three sisters for committing blasphemy 13 years ago. It came about that the man had committed blasphemy in 2004 and a case was also registered against him but he fled abroad. After he returned Pakistan a few days ago, he got a pre-arrest bail. Till now, it has been learned that the sisters have been arrested and a case against them have been registered.[2]

Intellectuals do not view these incidents in isolation. In fact, they believe that the aforementioned killings are an outcome of systematic campaign against the progressive voices that began in January when four bloggers were allegedly abducted by some mysterious “unknown” actors and were later accused of committing blasphemy among “patriotic” social media circles. Although, the bloggers were set free, the focus remained on whether they actually committed blasphemy or not. The calls for further investigating the case and find out who had picked them up illegally were silenced. The attention eventually focused on how social media was another platform for “blasphemers” to disrespect Islam. Afterwards, an Islamabad High Court Judge threatened to order closure of entire social media if the blasphemous content was not removed. It was followed by FIA’s announcement for opening investigation against the NGOs for supporting, promoting and funding blasphemous content over social media. Throughout this process, it seems as if the state has somewhat been complacent in romanticizing the idea that anybody can be accused of blasphemy, be picked up and tortured by anyone. Thus, it is no surprise that in aforementioned instances of blasphemy, the perpetrators also believed that they could kill their fellow student on charges of blasphemy without following upon the law and order.

In the midst of this, there have been calls from certain quarters including civil society and parliament for amending the blasphemy laws to prevent people from its misuse. However, I believe that such amendments, if at all undertaken, would least likely to prevent aforementioned acts as they had nothing to do with the implementation of blasphemy law in the first place. Rather, they were classic examples of mob vigilante where the mob became the prosecutor, jury and executioner irrespective of whatever was written in the law. In fact, in Mashal Khan’s case, videos showed that the mob meted out its version of justice in front of hapless police personnel.

To address this heads on, the short term measure involves giving exemplary punishments to those involved in taking law into their own hands irrespective of the fact whether a person committed any blasphemy or not. In the long run, we need a systematic transition from the violent ideals towards more humane and empathetic ideals. Our society is badly in need of heroes that could inspire them for their empathy not for gore and bloodshed.




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