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Collective Madness

The horrific public lynching of Mardan University student Mashal Khan, on alleged charges of blasphemy, is not the first incident of vigilante justice in this land of the pure and, notwithstanding all the public outcry and outrage, it certainly won’t be the last.

Just after a few days of Mashal’s murder, another man – accused of blasphemy – was killed by three young women in Sialkot. The victim had been accused of blasphemy in 2004 and a case was registered against him. He was declared a proclaimed offender after he fled to Denmark. He had returned earlier this year to fight the case and was on bail, when the three women entered his house for spiritual healing and fatally shot him.

Another two cases of violence over blasphemy charges occurred within days of these murders – one in Chitral and one in Hub, Balochistan – but both accused men were saved from mobs by police intervention.

However, the public lynching of Mashal Khan on April 13 was perhaps a more shocking and horrendous crime simply due to the fact that Pakistan’s apparently educated, 21st century university students and staff members were involved in it. The murder remains a brazen display of collective madness and barbarism, which have taken deep roots into our society.

Although a mere allegation is not evidence or proof, but in the case of blasphemy, it is considered enough to condemn a person and justify his or her killing – without due process of the law. The mob, itself becomes the complainant, the judge and jury and the executioner.

In the case of Mashal Khan – a 23-year-old, known for his critical thinking, questioning mind, activism and passion for literature and politics – it was just a whisper campaign that led to his murder. These allegations were later discovered to be false, but for his murderers, the very fact that the victim openly professed and advocated secular ideas, was enough to target and kill him.

Unfortunately, in Pakistan, one common misconception about the word ‘secular’ is that it is taken as a substitute of atheism, though the word itself means anything not connected with religious or spiritual matters. Its other dictionary meaning is anything not subject to, or bound by, religious rules.

In the battle of ideas and ideologies in Pakistan, even the puritan and hardline Islamic religious parties, groups and scholars never branded secular parties or politicians as ‘infidels.’

However, in recent years, there has been a rise of a new wave of fanatical, religious-minded extremists, who are intolerant of many political, social and religious ideas, which were once accepted, owned, debated, rejected or, at best, ignored in the past.

These extremists are not just the product of seminaries or hail from poor, illiterate or semi-literate background, but they are also clustered in mainstream educational institutions and the so-called educated lower middle, middle and upper classes. The cancer of extremism has now spread to every class, region and background in Pakistan.

The State’s weak writ and the indifference of successive governments regarding this sensitive issue has made it more widespread and difficult to tackle. The misuse and abuse of the blasphemy law is one of the key symptoms of the challenge posed by the extremists.

A small section of the educated elite wants amendments in the blasphemy laws, but the mainstream religious forces see them as carved in stone. This debate can be decided later, when cooler heads prevail. But the challenge that stares us in the face, in the immediate present, is that people accused of blasphemy often do not even get a chance to face a judge and be convicted under this law.

All too often, a mob or a fanatic individual takes the law into his or her own hands, as in the case of Mashal Khan, who had been falsely accused of this crime.

While reforms and freeing minds of religious bigotry and extremism is a long-term process, State writ must be swiftly established by dispensing quick justice to those who take the law into their own hands and resort to vigilantism.

The State must make it clear, both through words and actions, that it alone has the monopoly over violence. Even if someone is guilty of blasphemy, the State alone can hand down a death sentence after due judicial process and implement it in line with the law of the land.

Any citizen, involved in vigilantism and violence, should be arrested, tried and punished.  This message should come across in Mashal Khan’s case in a loud and clear manner through timely prosecution, conviction and punishment of those involved in his murder.

Blasphemy is a very heinous crime, but only the State can take it up and punish the culprit. It is not the job or domain of any private citizen.