With the sudden fury of a flash storm, images of an angry mob lynching a young man to death at the Abdul Wali Khan University in Mardan, Pakistan, broke across the news cycle and social media platforms to chilling effect last Thursday. Mashal Khan, a 23-year-old journalism student at the institute, had been attacked after a series of accusations that he had posted blasphemous content online following an argument with a group of fellow students. Whether he had done so or not was irrelevant – the insinuation of wrongdoing was enough.
From the moment the allegations were made he was as good as dead. Everything that took place afterwards was a brutal formality in a country long driven by a mindset that allows people to kill with impunity whenever they perceive their religious sentiments have been offended. And so it proved in this case also. The savagery of the assault was captured in chaotic video footage taken on mobile phones, which showed the crowd shouting “Allahu Akbar” and stomping on Khan’s lifeless body — the final rites of a slaughter in which the victim was stripped naked, clubbed, beaten and shot.
But even amidst such horrific scenes, the most desperate images were those of Khan’s family stoically facing up to their loss, none more so than his father, who before the full glare of the world’s media called for justice for his son “so that’s incidents like these do not happen with the children of others.” A crowd-funding page has been set up in his name. On top of everything else, the economic future of his family was dependent on Khan.
Since then, it has emerged that there is no evidence Khan committed any blasphemy at all. According to some claims, anger against the student might have been whipped up by the university itself after his comments on a television interview about how the institute was being run. It could be that Khan’s only crime was to expose the failings of a few university officials rather than abuse the Prophet of Islam.
By normal human standards a tragedy of this scale would be considered a tipping point as far as blasphemy is concerned. In Pakistan however, any such hope is an absurd fantasy. When it comes to the Blasphemy Laws there is no heartbreak terrible enough to force the country into a moment of introspection. Khan may be the latest victim but the funerals of those accused of blasphemy occur with an all too regular drumbeat.
In 2011, the governor of Punjab, Salman Taseer, was assassinated by one of his own bodyguards after calling for a presidential pardon for Asia Bibi, a poor Christian woman sentenced to death for allegedly showing disrespect to the Prophet of Islam. Several months later, his political colleague Shahbaz Bhatti, who at the time was Pakistan’s only Christian cabinet minister, was shot dead after speaking out against the Blasphemy Laws and in support of minority rights.
In May 2014, Rashid Rehman, a 53-year-old lawyer, was gunned down for defending individuals accused of blasphemy. Also in the same year, a young Christian couple, Shahzad Masih and his wife Shaima, were beaten and then burned to death when they were blamed for burning pages from the Holy Quran.
All in all, over 50 people have been killed have been killed in Pakistan for being implicated in blasphemy charges, each leaving behind a fresh set of grieving families but no real impetus to do anything about it. Nothing it seems will ever change.
How has it come to this?
For one, as already outlined, there is the ever-present threat of being killed for engaging with the issue of blasphemy in a manner that falls foul of the established orthodoxy. Debate on the subject is as good as dead, and those who might choose to enter this Sisyphean undertaking are at risk of being killed themselves. Unsurprisingly, no leading lawmakers or public figures dare comment for fear of the assassin’s bullet.
Moreover, for all the incalculable grief the Blasphemy Laws continue to cause, there is a great deal of support for the legislation among average Pakistanis, as if accepting that loss of life is a reasonable price to pay to uphold the sacred. Moves to revise the laws have been rebuffed by public outcry and street protests, forcing the hand of the administration. When Salman Taseer was murdered, his killer Mumtaz Qadri was hailed as a Ghazi, a warrior, and over 100,000 people attended Qadri’s funeral after he was executed for the crime. This public sentiment in turn has led successive governments to either stay silent on the subject or, unencumbered by their conscience, to pledge allegiance to the laws. What can they do anyway? The idea that it is okay to kill people for blaspheming is enshrined in the country’s laws.
Further, the case for the Blasphemy Laws and other religious legislation in Pakistan is represented by hardline Islamic groups who have an outsized voice in the debate. Like any other powerful lobbying group fighting to further their own interests, they are highly energized, quick to mobilize, and single-mindedly focused on the issues that matter to them. Over the years the religious right has harnessed the full power of their resources and energy to exert tremendous influence over the political system in Pakistan and taking up the cause of the Blasphemy Laws has been one means of achieving this.
On a more fundamental level, it is also important to understand that Pakistan’s issues with blasphemy are so so much bigger than just grievous acts of violence. A highly charged and restrictive religious narrative has been allowed to penetrate the workings of the state to such an extent that the two are inextricably bound to one another. It is not just the legislation that is harming the country but the values that surround it – prejudice, narrow mindedness, and a rejection of pluralism are an accepted part of the prevailing zeitgeist. To challenge this is to challenge the existential foundations on which modern day Pakistan rests. For the time being, at least, the country’s understanding of itself is one of the very things that paralyzes it.
This then is Pakistan, a place that has reconciled itself to heartbreak without end, without pause, and without resolve. If outrages like the murder of Mashal Khan cannot force it to change, it seems no amount of sorrow ever will.
Usman Ahmad is a British freelance writer and photographer currently based in Pakistan. Follow him on Twitter.