In colonial Massachusetts, between 1692 and 1693, allegations of practising witchcraft were levelled against over 200 people. Out of these, 20 were executed. There was widespread hysteria, panic and violence, all stemming from mere, unsubstantiated accusations. The period is described by Charles Upham, in his book ‘Salem Witchcraft’, as the “darkest and most despondent period in the civil history of New England.”
Much like the fear and panic that gripped New England in the 17th century, Pakistan finds itself engulfed in the same hysteria. It seems as though our witch-hunt, which began after Ziaul Haq amended certain laws, has taken an entirely new shape and form, having infiltrated what are supposed to be ‘safe’ spaces, purportedly for imparting knowledge and education.
The latest victim of the witch-hunt was Mashal Khan, a young student of Abdul Wali Khan University in Mardan. On the basis of mere accusations, with no substantive evidence or proof, a mob tortured, killed and dismembered the 20-year-old student. Let us bear in mind that he was not officially accused of blasphemy, nor convicted of it or produced before the courts for a trial in this regard. The trial and execution were conducted by a mob, despite having blasphemy laws in place to safeguard religious sentiments and beliefs.
The Holy Quran says in unequivocal terms: “Whosoever kills an innocent human being, it shall be as if he has killed all mankind and whosoever saves the life of one, it shall be as if he has saved the life of all mankind”. There is no civilised society in the world that allows us to take the law into our own hands. Moreover, no religion allows for such barbaric, callous and brutal murder.
“You blocks, you stones, you worse than senseless things! O you hard hearts, you cruel men of Rome,” are the words of Marullus in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, which should resonate deeply within our society in the aftermath of this horrific murder. Much of the play is a scathing critique of mob mentality, particularly owing to its fickleness, as illustrated by the mob changing its loyalties five times in the course of the play. It is that arbitrariness that makes mobs all the more dangerous and condemnable.
While it is definitely reassuring that all major political leadership, including the prime minister, has explicitly, and in strong words, condemned this brutal attack, the fact remains that its punishment is a test for the PTI government in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa (K-P). That is not to say that lynching is only a problem in K-P. In 2012, there was a lynching in Punjab (July) and Sindh (December), which managed to extract the accused, in each cases, out of police custody and barbarically murdered them. Hopefully, we have not forgotten the lynching of a Christian couple in Lahore.
Regardless, what is required now is speedy justice. Mashal’s father gave an interview to an international channel, where he clearly stated that justice has never been dispensed in the past and therefore, he had no expectation of justice in his son’s murder case. However, he did emphasise the importance of ensuring that such a situation does not arise ever again. In order to guarantee that, the PTI government in K-P must take strict action against all those identified in the gruesome videos circulating on social media.
The most alarming fact is that it took place on a university campus. Universities and educational institutions are citadels for debate and discussion. We often argue that uneducated and illiterate persons carry out such attacks. Education is the answer to the evils in our society. The idea that education will embed within us the ability to rationalise, adopt non-violent approaches to our problems and respect the rule of law has been directly challenged by this cold-blooded murder. It is demonstrative of the fact that, in terms of education, we must begin from the grassroots level. Students in universities who have been indoctrinated and filled with hate for the major part of their lives cannot simply be de-radicalised by attending an institution of higher learning.
The presence of a video makes it all the more essential for the K-P government to — within a period not exceeding a month — identify, prosecute and punish all those involved to ensure that this crime does not suffer the same fate as such crimes have in the past.
When state institutions, particularly the interior minister, openly declares that all accused of blasphemy must be caught, then this tends to create a kind of witch-hunt amongst the public, eventually leading to cold-blooded murders. In fact, the statement attributed to a judge of the Islamabad High Court that if the state does not take blasphemy seriously people cannot be blamed for taking the law into their own hands, can be misconstrued. Such statements from the courts will certainly encourage people to dispense vigilante injustice, especially in a society like ours where religious sentiments can be easily manipulated and misused.
While condemnation has emerged from all important quarters, this is insufficient. What is required is a holistic and comprehensive revamping of the system and laws that allow such occurrences in the first place. Those in positions of power and authority must ensure that their statements are responsible, taking into consideration the volatile situation, with regard to religious extremism, that exists in the status quo. Such incitements, atrocities and violence in the name of religion cannot be tolerated and those involved must be punished.
Above all, no one should be allowed to exploit the name of the religion and a holistic approach to revamp and reexamine our primary and secondary levels’ curricula must be undertaken. It needs to encourage debate and discourse, and teach the true meanings of tolerance and peace.
Published in The Express Tribune, April 19th, 2017.