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Opinion

April 19, 2017

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Murder most foul

Mashal Khan, a mass communication student at Abdul Wali Khan University in Mardan, was murdered in cold blood over allegations of blasphemy by a 500-strong mob of university students. This is a dark reminder of how intolerant we have become as a society. The mob dragged him out of his hostel room and stripped, stoned, shot and clubbed him while chanting slogans.

The incident indicates how deep the cancer of extremism has seeped into our social fabric and mentality. What is even more disturbing is that it happened on a university campus which is supposed to be a space for higher-learning, innovation, reasoning and debates among competing schools of thoughts.

According to a study by the Pew Research Centre in 2015, Pakistan ranked among the top ten countries most affected by social hostilities involving religion. When society is at once the accuser, perpetrator and ultimately the victim of its own follies, nothing serves as an eye opener, and incidents such as these serve as reminders of the ‘Ostrich syndrome’ plaguing the nation. The demons that we created in the 1980s under the Islamisation policies and the Afghan jihad, are coming home to roost: such is the banality of evil. It will take a generational effort to emerge out of the abyss we have fallen in.

The gut-wrenching incident of Mashal’s murder is alarming but not surprising. Pakistan has not reached this point overnight: this is not an isolated incident but a continuation of the disturbing trend in Pakistan that has consumed over 60 lives in vigilante violence and mob killings over blasphemy allegations. The anti-blasphemy laws introduced by General Ziaul Haq – that were given more teeth in the 1990s – have been taking their toll.

Even though the state has not executed anyone under the blasphemy laws, (20 people are on a death row in blasphemy-related issues) it has avoided parliamentary debate on amendment of these laws to stop their misuse. In the recent past, a section of mainstream and social media, state institutions and the religious-right has tried to whip up frenzy over alleged blasphemy. When the space for dialogue is choked, such mobocracy becomes the norm of the day.

Following Mashal’s murder, three trends are worth pointing out in Pakistan. First, religious prejudices and communal intolerance now run deep (from micro to macro and vice versa) and in a systematic manner in Pakistan. They are present at all levels and in multiple forms. Mashal’s murder is just a minuscule exhibition of latent and violent extremism besieging Pakistani society. Arguably, following the hanging of Salmaan Taseer’s murderer, Mumtaz Qadri, a neo-fundamentalist narrative emerged. The erstwhile apolitical religious groups are asserting themselves politically and ideologically using Qadri as a symbol and ‘blasphemy’ as the central issue.

Second, there has been an immunisation and normalisation of faith-based violence in Pakistan. Our social behaviours and attitudes have become so hardened and insensitive due to the prevalence of religiously justified violence that we tacitly approve it at worst, or ignore it at best. When Mashal was being lynched, stoned and thrashed by his own university peers, others were filming the horrific incident without any remorse or shame. Some even took turns to throw a stone or two at the hapless soul. Others did not even make an effort to intervene to stop the barbaric act.

Third, the glorification and rationalisation of religiously justified atrocities has lowered the threshold of violence in our society. The trigger-happy mob of the university students acted as judge, jury and executioner. The new (ab)normal is: mere allegations are sufficient to torture someone to death.      

It emphatically hammers a point home that without addressing structural issues such as the anti-blasphemy laws, madressah reforms and revision of education curriculum, military operations and the customary implementation of the National Action Plan alone will not suffice. We cannot afford to brush contentious issues under the carpet or gloss over them through cosmetic surgeries.

In the aftermath of Mashal’s murder, the statements by the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and central governments, notable political leaders, the suo motu notice taken by the Supreme Court, condemnation by prominent religious scholars and the civil society are reassuring but insufficient. Mere condemnations, arrests, trials and punishments of those involved in Mashal’s murder will not be enough. The debate on reforming laws should start in earnest.

We have learnt our lessons the hard way. The tragedy of the Army Pubic School attack in Peshawar in December 2014 gave birth to a non-partisan consensus to fight home-grown terrorism through an All-Parties Conference. Since then, we have made remarkable strides against anti-Pakistan terrorist outfits. Similarly, the outcry that Mashal’s murder has generated across all spectrums of the state and society should be galvanised to dispassionately analyse the ills of violent extremism.

More than ever, in addition to the ongoing policy initiatives to counter terrorism, Pakistan needs a national counter-extremism policy to focus on structural factors and causes of growing intolerance, religious and sectarian polarisation. Under a joint state-and-society approach, the government will have to take the lead by providing a vision and strong political will, while an unflinching resolve from different sections of society will be needed to overcome the challenge.

Religious tolerance, inter-faith and inter-sectarian harmony and the protection and expansion of common space is attained, maintained and protected through public laws and policies. NAP and Raddul Fasaad cannot fix the distorted ideological discourse, religious attitudes and structural prejudices. The moderate majority needs to speak out loud and reclaim the narrative or see their motherland further slide down the precipice.

 

The writer is an associate research
fellow at the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Singapore.

Email: isabasit@ntu.edu.sg

 

 

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