The struggle against mob mentality

Published: April 19, 2017


Mashal Khan. PHOTO: FACEBOOK The writer is a practising advocate at the Supreme Court, and a former president of the Supreme Court Bar Association

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.

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Reader Comments (4)

  • GKA
    Apr 19, 2017 - 1:10PM

    ” no one should be allowed to exploit the name of the religion ” : What about Two nation theory (the only nation based on religion) and Organization of Islamic Countries (the only multilateral organization based on religion). Recommend

  • Feroz
    Apr 19, 2017 - 3:14PM

    You have skirted the root of the problem which is the need for a blasphemy Law. All Religions teach us that God is supreme and can punish man for his sins. No religion has ever taught anyone that humans can tarnish, punish, target or hurt GOD, who is Supreme. Therefore when humans not just rise but want to kill to protect GOD, their reading as well as understanding of Religion and God is not just faulty but superficial and superfluous. If fear of the mob derails the very essence of the debate, one does not address the problem.

    Since the start of the year we have seen a concerted effort by elements in the power structure of the country try to deflect attention from their misdeeds, faulty policies and strategies and loaded question call out such citizens raising such issues as foreign agent and anti-national. When the disappearing act raised queries a multi pronged campaign was launched against such elements claiming them blasphemers. The Judiciary as well as politicians ran a virulent campaign calling for a hunt of all blasphemers on social media, finding them, prosecuting them, and of course killing them. Assumption was that lots of blasphemers were active on social media.

    If we distill what was communicated — find the blasphemers and kill them(blasphemy by law death). Now when the act has been carried out as in the case of Mashal Khan it is exactly as was wished for, only the method and the agent was different. In a country where everyone is a self appointed protector of God, such niceties as to who protects HIM is very trivial. The State through its ideology and the Rulers through the way they propagate the narrative are the real murderers, the foot soldiers can be anyone from among the millions indoctrinated and radicalized, their names and persona irrelevant. Recommend

  • reader
    Apr 20, 2017 - 11:50AM

    Agreed. “The State through its ideology and the Rulers through the way they propagate the narrative are the real murderers” but we all have grey matter and we can and should question, the State, the clergy, and the Rulers. Recommend

  • Feroz
    Apr 20, 2017 - 1:37PM

    Who will question ? Do you want to disappear or be called blasphemer, anyway choice is not yours. The only route open is to run for the EXIT which many are doing, risking life and limb and paying through the nose for a perilous journey. The sad part is that the Rulers who brought the country here have made alternate arrangements and transferred a large chunk of their assets abroad. Recommend

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