A tragedy always has a greater one lurking behind it. Waiting to descend like a slow mist over the aftermath of what is the first strike. Pakistan however has had a series of them. When Mashal Khan was dragged through the corridor of Abdul Wali Khan University in Mardan, Pakistan, he kept pleading and asking his assailants not to hurt him because he did not commit blasphemy. His assailants eventually became his killers. When they were were lynching him, he was professing his love for the Prophet Muhammed. He kept begging to be taken to the hospital. Tragic, but the aftermath even more so.
Pakistanis are now investigating and finding reasons to prove that he was pious and therefore lynched when he shouldn’t have been. In other words, there is a public acceptance of lynching in certain circumstances. Others are glad it happened because, where there is smoke there is fire. A few even think that intellectually curious people like Mashal Khan deserve this fate and must be made a lesson out of. All three cases tell a tale of a country that is deeply diseased; hemorrhaged in its cognitive abilities and cannot chose which path to take tech progress takes over their medieval thinking – amplifying bigotry, sectarianism and religious extremism.
To label is to be reductive. We may call this extremism but it is in fact a long-standing policy of the government to witch-hunt people they don’t like. Almost like genocidal maniacs they arrive too late to make a statement against such blatant jungle rule. Otherwise they could easily declare mob lynching a criminal offence and try them swiftly in anti-terrorism courts – courts that come in handy to crucify people they label anti-state. If a mob takes it upon itself to kill a student accused of blasphemy, and the authorities stand by, it is hard to understand what writ there is left of the government, if at all.
Fear is the go-to emotion in Pakistan today. Every right-thinking person has terror gnawing at them because if they condemn Mashal Khan’s murder then they call to questions their own credentials as good Muslims – Supporting an alleged blasphemer is just as terrifying a prospect as being killed by stones. For good reason too – the state made little ado about a handful of disappearances of prominent bloggers and journalists in the country over the last few months.
Proving both their sanction and their warning. So palpable, that we now refer to the disappeared as a state of mind. When we want to know why someone isn’t writing their newspaper columns or closed their social media accounts we are told they have disappeared. Neighbors, extended family, people whom you shamed in the past all become potential snitch, potential accusers who can get you killed. It is McArthyism. It is the Argentinian state in 1976-1983. It is Nazi Germany. Except that no one is talking about it so it is glacial as it is horrific.
Routinely members of the Ahmedi sect are rounded up in false up blasphemy charges. Rimsha Masih, a down-syndrome girl from the petrified Christian community was accused of burning pages of the Quran in 2012 and was almost on death row when somehow her life was spared. In 2011, Mumtaz Qadri, the security guard of Punjab’s sitting Governor Salman Taseer, killed the man he was sworn to protect because he said Taseer was a blasphemer. Taseer showed his support to a Christian woman, Asia Bibi. Asia Bibi is still in jail because she dared to squabble with Muslim women who likely framed her on blasphemy charges. Though the blasphemy law in Pakistan is a tool to settle feuds and grievances and disproportionately and makes victims out of non-Muslims, but Muslims are just as afraid of its far-reaching tentacles.
Muslims for whom innovation, invention, brands and art have been elusive and removed, one ultimately understands why. There is an all-pervasive, ever present threat facing anyone who is non-conformist, even in the most benign sense. Our Galileos are elsewhere. As are our Einsteins and our Steve Jobs. The opportunity cost that this nation pays for the fear against freethinking could pay off world debt thrice over.
So the biggest tragedy then of mob lynching Mashal Khan is that people are going to find ways to justify it; explain it or say it was a case of mistaken identity. All of which is not the truth – the truth is that it is 2017 and the government in Pakistan allowed a mob murder, because people perceive, almost with surety, that they will get away with it. A lot of missteps; bad judgments and impurity towards crimes have to brought them to adopt this perception.
This can be undone, symbolically at least, if the men who did this to Mashal Khan are brought to justice. Sadly, out of the three leading parties only PML – N, the sitting government can do it. Maybe, just maybe all that opportunity cost of the progress we could have had, slows down.