Owning Mashal Khan: Pakistan’s road to redemption

MashalLike many, I feel shattered and heartbroken by the brutal murder of the university student Mashal Khan. In this op-ed published in The News, April 19, 2017, I try to contextualise the tragedy, share my observations about changes underway and suggest a way forward. Copied below with additional links and visuals. Please also sign and share this online petition: Pakistan Against Extremism: Minimum Common Agenda.By Beena Sarwar

The mob murder of a student at a public university campus in Mardan on April 13, 2017 hit home through videos and photos of the gruesome act. In the ensuing outrage, many are calling to hang the “animals” involved — even animals don’t torture other creatures to death like this –and see no hope after this brutality, extreme even by Pakistani standards.


Lahore: Mourning Mashal

But beyond the horror of this extreme cruelty, it is important to contextualise the depravity Pakistan has developed over the years and find a way out of it. The murder — for which here is no justification religiously, morally or legally — was not an isolated or spontaneous act.

The case fits into a well-documented pattern evident in many of the attacks on individuals accused of “blasphemy” – an English term that inadequately refers to any ‘gustakhi’, disrespect to Islam in Pakistan’s context.

Article 295-C of Pakistan’s Penal Code prescribing death for disrespect to the Prophet of Islam, on Him be Peace, was imposed by an amendment under Gen. Ziaul Haq’s military regime to Section 295. This was a British-era law prescribing three years of imprisonment for ‘deliberate and malicious acts’ that intend to ‘outrage or insult religious sentiments’. The critical term ‘malicious intent’ was left out of the Ziaist amendments.

The option of life imprisonment for 295-C convictions death lapsed in 1992, leaving death as the only punishment. Pakistan’s first ‘blasphemy murder’ followed when a young Anjuman-e-Sipah-e-Sahaba (ASS) member, as the now banned Sipah-e-Sahaba Pakistan (SSP) was called, stabbed the progressive Punjabi Christian poet and schoolteacher Naimat Ahmar in Faisalabad.

Since then the off-shoots of this lobby have been determinedly pursuing cases of “blasphemy”, developing a network of hundreds of lawyers for this purpose (‘Pakistani lawyers’ group behind spike in blasphemy cases’, Reuters, March 6, 2016).

Pakistan has yet to execute anyone for 295-C. However, vigilante mobs or individuals instigated by the “religious” lobby in conjunction with land and criminal mafias have killed more than 60 persons for alleged ‘gustakhi’ including “disrespect” to the Holy Quran since 1992, including inside prisons.

The pattern includes rumours and posters about the victims’ guilt. Independent investigations into all such ‘blasphemy’ cases have found them to be mal-motivated and false.


Murdered Christian couple Shama (four months pregnant at the time) and Shehzad

Examples include the lynching of Najeeb Zafar, a young Muslim factory owner in Sheikhupura in April 2009, the razing of two Christian villages a few months later, and Shama and Shehzad, the Christian couple lynched in 2014.

Vigilante violence and mobs have also been unleashed upon those accused of other transgressions, like the brothers Muneeb and Mughees in Sialkot, and the robbers burnt to death in Karachi in 2008 and earlier this year (those burnt in 2016 survived).

Fueling this vigilantism is the rhetoric emanating from clerics, politicians and certain television ‘journalists’ who seem bent upon getting people killed for mere allegation.

It has become a convenient tool to silence political and intellectual dissent as evident in the alarming rise in attacks and disappearances of humanist social online activists.

Young Mashal Khan, judging by his posts, was firmly part of this community. He constantly spoke out against injustices and upheld progressive values including women’s rights and a love for history and pluralism. On Feb 17, 2017, he tweeted: “Hide History and Hate Hindus. This is what we are taught in Schools … #Pathetic…” – striking at one of the basics of the false narrative perpetuated in Pakistan’s mainstream discourse.

He was leading a protest camp on campus against the misdoings at the public Abdul Wali Khan University where he was a journalism student. In a television interview two days before being killed, Mashal had highlighted problems brought on by the vacancy of the vice chancellor position, faculty corruption, and unfair fee structure.

Pakistan’s dominant narrative facilitates attacks against irritants like Mashal Khan especially when they don’t fall in line with social pressure to prove their faith through showy religiosity.

To counter the false ‘blasphemy’ narrative there must be sustained highlighting of some basic points in public discourse and on public platforms:

  • Regardless of anyone’s alleged wrongdoing, it is a criminal offense to attack and kill them. There is no justification for such murders.
  • Enforce the law to punish those making false accusations especially when the victims have been legally acquitted.
  • Highlight that Islam does not prescribe death for the religious offenses being used as a pretext for murder (for which there is ample research-based evidence).

Stressing these points and rule of law in the public discourse and in school curricula would counter terrorism more effectively than focusing on who is a traitor or not a “true Muslim”.

Is the tide turning? The wheels of justice in Pakistan may move slowly but we are seeing them start to turn.

The execution of Taseer’s killer Mumtaz Qadri last year may mark a turning point, the debate about the efficacy of capital punishment notwithstanding. A murderer was punished for his criminal action, regardless of the religious right’s attempts to glorify him as a martyr.

Police are investigating for hatespeech the cleric who refused to lead Mashal Khan’s funeral prayers. They have also arrested University employees who participated in his killing.

After the carnage at the Army Public School in Peshawar on Dec. 16, 2014, the entire state machinery came out against the terrorism — although the inconvenient questions raised by the APS families have since been stifled.

Civil society activists came out in outrage in major cities the day after Mashal Khan’s murder. Hundreds attended his soyem in Zaida village, Swabi. The mourners – including women – marched through the streets chanting slogans: Mashal innocent, ‘shaheed’, martyr, victim.

True, it is unlikely there would be such support for Mashal Khan if his innocence wasn’t so obvious. And we are still seeing poisonous comments on social media and by certain journalists trying to establish his ‘guilt’. The brutality in Pakistan may be the most extreme in terms of continuity and frequency but it is not an isolated phenomenon. We are seeing vigilantism and mob violence in India, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka, all of which share this “post-colonial moment” as journalist Raza Rumi notes.

Black and brown people are routinely targeted in the USA, more so since the last presidential election campaign. But Pakistan’s situation is exacerbated by factors including prolonged periods of military dictatorship. Plus the militancy cultivated since the first Afghan war in the 1980s in collaboration with the USA and Saudi Arabia, discriminatory legislation, and brainwashing children to despise ‘the other’ through textbooks.

In the USA, when President Trump announced his “Muslim ban”, thousands showed up to protest at airports and lawyers stayed up all night preparing briefs pro bono to ensure that the order was overturned. Closer to home, there is a determined and visible rejection of India’s “cow vigilantism”. In Pakistan too, people are increasingly countering the dominant narrative.

The strength of the pushback against fascism in the USA, India, and Pakistan appears to be roughly proportionate to the strength of their functioning democracies, and how long they have had a continual democratic political process. A continuation of this process will eventually reap dividends. But along the way there will be painful losses and more bloodshed.

Despair is not an option. We must fight the demons even if we will never reap the benefits in our lifetimes, for the sake of future generations.

As Mashal Khan’s dignified, grieving father Iqbal ‘Shayr’ (poet) said, we must ensure that what happened to Mashal is never repeated. (ends)

Below: additional resources


Video interview of Mashal Khan (English subtitles)

3 Responses

  1. Dear Ms Sarwar,

    I read your piece and it really highlights the brewing intolerance in Pakistan as well.



  2. […] the murder of Mashal I wrote a piece titled ‘Pakistan’s road to redemption‘ arguing that how we respond to such injustices is what will define us going forward. I also […]


  3. […] Owning Mashal Khan: Pakistan’s road to redemption […]


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