Two days ago, I received the news through a WhatsApp message wherein my younger brother sent me a video clip and requested me to watch it. Although the video was brief, about 45 seconds, but it was long enough to make me sick to my stomach. What I was seeing was barbarism at its worst – a large crowd beating an already dead man. That video, along with many others, has gone viral. At a time when the global opinion about Muslims and Pakistan is already worsening, this occurrence has merely aggravated the problem. Despite the extremity of the incident, I was not surprised. What happened to Mashal Khan is not something new.
The above incident has been preceded by a flurry of such incidents. In 2009, there was a similar incident of mob violence against Christians in Gojra. In 2013, a Christian colony in Lahore was attacked. A Christian couple was burnt alive in 2014. In 2016, Ahmadi places of worship in Chakwal were attacked. Hence, what has happened in Mardan is only the latest in a series of such incidents.
Although specific details of each incident vary, there are nevertheless several things common. All of the aforementioned incidents, demonstrate a variety of elements – use of religion in perpetuating violence, venting out of core violent instincts, complete inability of anyone near the mob to even raise a dissenting opinion, impotence of the state apparatus to give protection at the time violence was taking place, and lastly but perhaps most importantly, the reluctance of political parties to stir any debate on the failure of our administration to give protection and on the controversial blasphemy laws in Pakistan.
The last element shows that the issue perhaps does not register as an issue with the populace. After all, by design, political parties try to stir debate on issues if there is some genuine concern for it in the public.
One can claim that these incidents are still occasional and therefore do not represent the so-called “moderate” majority. However, I beg to disagree. The majority may not be physically participating in such violence, but it holds views which are conducive to such violence. Many of Pakistanis are willing to believe in the accusation of blasphemy even without any proof and often demand “maximum” punishment for the accused.
For example a few months ago, secular five bloggers were abducted. Following their abduction, a malicious campaign was waged against them on electronic and social media, accusing them of blasphemy. Some TV anchors were openly demanding their death, a view endorsed by a large number of Pakistanis on social media. Since I knew one of the bloggers named as Salman Haider through Facebook, I therefore decided to write an article defending him. I was aware that Haider was a devout Muslim and there was no way he could be a blasphemer. I still remember the response to the article on the Facebook page of The Express Tribune. An overwhelming majority of commentators was simply insistent on calling him a “blasphemer” despite the fact that no proof had ever been presented against him. Based on their perception, many of the commentators wanted him to die. Some even said that I should be abducted or killed just for writing an article defending him.
The entire abduction episode gives us a good and clear idea of the collective mind-set of our society. It is this very mind-set which lowers the threshold of mob violence whenever an accusation of blasphemy is made.
But what is the cause behind it? I think the general diagnosis of some liberals that the root cause is Pakistan’s blasphemy laws is somewhat misplaced. In my opinion, the blasphemy laws are only a symptom. Yes these should be amended but we need to address the real problem.
Repealing the laws, if such repeal is even successful, will only remove a symbol of the religion’s infusion with the state; it will by no stretch of imagination prevent people from endorsing or instigating violence. In fact, the law cannot be repealed through democratic ways in the first place until the major issue is tackled. Let’s not forget that laws, even if imposed through dictatorial ordinances, can only be repealed through legislature. No party has the guts to do it and one of the main reasons is that unfortunately, most of the ordinary Pakistanis want these laws in place.
In my opinion, it is our cultural setup which is the main reason. This system gives religion extreme reverence and cultivates an identity based on it, which is extraordinarily sensitive on all religious matters. This reverence of religion is primarily cultural. The issue is not restricted to the fusion of religion with the state; the state is one of the patrons of religion, but is not the sole determinant of its reverence.
All of this cultivates an atmosphere where a mob can actually get away with extremely violent acts in the name of religion. People, even if they do not actually feel the anger, can still get violent to vent out their instincts under the guise of religious sensitivity, knowing fully well that no one will be able to stop them. In fact, we know of several instances where the police and respective administrations were merely silent spectators while the mob was imposing their “justice” on the victims.
Can we change it? Yes, it is an extremely tall task but we need to start. We have to control the hate speech on electronic media and also present a counter narrative to violence in the name of religion. Only by coming up with an effective counter narrative can we tackle the issue. Most importantly, we need to make ourselves understand that when we kill, endorse violence or even express excessive outrage, we are portraying the legacy of our Prophet (pbuh) in wrong manner.
Acting violently, endorsing violence or even tolerating it, and then expecting the world to consider Islam as peaceful is not going to happen.
A slightly different version was first published at Express Tribune