By Hira Hashmi
Mashal Khan Yusufzai, a 26-years-old student of journalism at Abdul Wali Khan University, belonged to a family of limited means from Swabi district. He was a promising young man with an inquisitive and critical mind. Because of his passion for learning, Mashal’s relatives decided to support his education. Securing the top position in intermediate exams from the Institute of Computer & Management Sciences (ICMS), Peshawar, Mashal secured a scholarship for engineering in Moscow, Russia. Coming back to Pakistan, he got enrolled in Masters in Journalism and was preparing for CSS exams (Central Superior Services), entry point to Pakistan Civil Services.
In his social media profile, he described himself as a humanist and his posts showed him as a passionate debater, avid learner, women’s rights supporter, and opponent of racial discrimination. His hostel room at the university campus – which adorned posters of Che Guevara and Karl Marx and slogans such as “Freedom is the right of every individual” –showed he had a socialist inclination. Ironically, all these findings were used to demonize and justify the killing of Mashal, by those with vested interests.
On 12th April, 2017, Mashal Khan, accused of blasphemy, was beaten, shot, and killed by a bloodthirsty mob at the premise of Abdul Wali Khan University in Mardan, the second largest city of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Province, bordering Afghanistan and home to radical pro-Taliban Islamic extremists. The province, which is politically volatile and a hotbed for extremist activities owing to proximity to Afghan border, has not got to this situation overnight; rather, it is a culmination of a process that was bred and nurtured systematically for decades.
Preface to the current heated debate revolving around blasphemy and the blasphemy law is the use of social media for blasphemous content. In the first week of January 2017, Federal Investigation Agency (FIA) arrested three activist bloggers in connection with a case pertaining to the publishing of blasphemous content on social media. A petition seeking the removal of blasphemous content from social media was endorsed by many and the case generated considerable attention at the government level. Though on January 28th the activists were returned home, the Prime Minister, Nawaz Sharif, issued an order for the removal of online blasphemous content and advocated strict punishment for posting such content. Later, on March 16th, the National Assembly also passed a resolution condemning posting offensive content against Islam and Islamic personages on social media and unanimously agreed to the formation of a committee of parliamentary leaders to monitor such content.
The tragic death of that Pashtun student was a pretext for settling personal enmity by the perpetrators, who benefitted from the securitization of the blasphemy law. Mashal, a party member of ANP (Awami National Party), rather than being a tea party member, openly protested, boycotted exams, advocated for reforms, and expressed his opinions against the corrupt practices of the university. The university administration, too, has a Pro-ANP leaning, which turned deadly against him for speaking against the rampant corruption at the university in a local TV interview, just two days before his death.
The injustice meted out to the departed soul is not one single isolated incident. It screams about what is wrong with the Pakistani society. It is the consequence of an aggressive religious nationalism ingrained for decades by the state into the minds of the public. Adding fuel to the fire is the constant “fatwa factory” which issues adverse fatwas at the drop of a hat. In the name of blasphemy, the minorities have been particularly subjected to mob justice, which speaks volumes about the state’s injustice, creating space for vigilantism, and obtaining some sort of silent endorsement of the majority.
Mashal’s killing is a direct result of the institutionalization of the blasphemy law by the state machinery to single out opponents and critics. A remnant of the General Zia-ul-Haq era, the blasphemy law was crafted to cater to the hardliners, who raised voices of dissent and who didn’t approve of the military rule in the country.
The advent of social media saw an unprecedented growth in critics voicing their opinions and exposing the corrupt malpractices within the system, much to the discomfort of the “elites”, who have been dominating the politics of the country. The blasphemy law became a potent tool in silencing the dissenters. With the backing of right wing groups and the press, targeting an individual in the name of blasphemy on fabricated and unsubstantiated ground became an incredibly easy job, with the Ulemas (Islamic scholars) choosing to side with the regime and turning a blind eye to this blatant misuse of the law. And in such a toxic environment, an incident like the one in Mardan was inevitable.
Till date, various cases have been registered at the Sheikh Maltoon police station under clauses 427, 297, 302, and 148 of the Pakistan Penal Code and section 7 of the Anti-Terrorism Act. Twenty suspects were identified from the video capturing the horrific incident. This trend of filming such shocking incidents too shows the absurdity of our society. Beside the students, the suspects also included four employees of the university and a local councilor of a political party. Altogether 59 people have been detained over the incident and are being interrogated.
The civil society activists in Pakistan are actively voicing against the brutal murder on social media and television programs and are also arranging demonstration across cities. Any more silence will encourage such barbarism and intolerance. A strong government response to curb the misuse of blasphemy law is much needed. The hidden interests of the elites, who project themselves as the protectors of the honour of religious faith, must be exposed. Also, the self -destructive narrative of the law, which has consumed dozens of lives in Pakistan, needs to be re-examined objectively.
Author’s note: “I don’t condone mocking of any religion or religious figure by any individual or group belonging to any religious community. But I’m against the misuse of any law that through channels of securitization, discriminate or harass or butcher someone.”
Hira Hashmi is a master’s student at the Department of International Relations, South Asian University, New Delhi. Her area of interest is culture and world politics. Currently, she is working on refugee crisis as her research topic. She is from Pakistan and has pursued her graduation at the University of Karachi.
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