A murder most foul, carried out in a manner most beastly and barbaric. That it happened at a supposed seat of learning makes it even more despicable than it would have been were it an act done in caves away from the reach of civilisation. That it was done by urban, educated and seemingly better-off young men of the digital age makes it harder to digest than it would have been if it were the deed of some bloodthirsty militant faction of a terrorist organisation or a criminal gang.
When we saw the video of IS burning alive a Jordanian pilot or of the bodies of our own soldiers getting desecrated by cold-blooded murderers we asked ourselves: what kind of mindset would visit such inhumanity upon another human being? Now that we know and have seen how Mashal Khan’s body was treated by self-appointed executioners from decent families after they had dragged him out of his room, thrown him off the second floor, tortured and killed him, our queries about human nature and its propensity for extreme violence are practically silent.
What we have done so far is condemn it (there are some who have actually endorsed this murder). We have promised an inquiry. And of course we have done the bravest thing no one has done before: tell everyone and ourselves that no one will be allowed to take the law in his own hands. Yes, we have buried Mashal and have hospitalised his friend, who survived the lynch brigade and is still, in the eyes of the University administration, a suspect who might have actually committed blasphemy. And, yes, we have tweeted extensively on the subject.
This, in sum, is our response to what has to be one of the most heart-breaking news of the past decade. One only has to think for a few seconds of what might have been passing through Mashal Khan’s mind when he was being picked on limb by limb by those he must have had tea with at some point. Only then can we grasp the depth of the tragedy. Or simply imagine the mental state of his parents who must have spent sleepless nights when he ran a slight fever but finally had to see his body being reduced to a pulp in a university where he was sent to find a bright future and become a star.
It is only when we look at this side of this collective murder of Mashal Khan that we realise how inadequate we all are in understanding the implications of the event. No less inadequate is our effort to figure out why it happened. We have tried to explain it with reference to our falling moral values, the purposelessness of our young minds (the murderers are all adults and some may even be political and administration position-holders) and of course on the fasaadi culture that Ziaul Haq planted and which was later allowed to flourish.
All these are relevant explanations for us: but to Mashal Khan and his family these do not matter. He is gone and his family disturbed for life. ‘Could he have been saved’ is an academic question or a point of forensic inquiry, which like all forensic inquiries will be manipulated to fit the pretention that we are a sane nation. But let us still ask the question: could he have been saved? The answer is ‘no’ – for various reasons.
We are now reaping what was sowed some years ago. Recall how this province was made an experiment lab of our most recent dictator – who is currently living a fine life – Gen Pervez Musharraf. The killers of Mashal Khan were born and raised in the years when Musharraf’s pseudo-liberalism had installed a clergy-driven government in the province. He handed the reins of power to the very rightwing forces that he globally claimed to fight so that he could receive his yearly allowance from the Bush Bank of USA.
Recall how in the then NWFP extreme public religiosity was imposed to the extent that public advertisements showing even the face of a woman were considered a sin and a crime. Music in public transport was banned. Cultural activities were snuffed out. Musicians and artists were rendered jobless. Some were beaten out of the province. Cinemas were closed down. And a reign of strict self-serving puritanical morality was introduced in schools, colleges and universities where every dissenting voice was dubbed as satanic.
The Manufactured by Musharraf Administration (MMA) was at the helm for a full term and brought out that side of the national culture where tolerance of dissent is zero and co-existence with an alternative worldview next to impossible. The generation that is in university now was in school back then. Killing in the name of religion becomes easy if you are brought up in a particular way.
If this sounds like a stretch, consider the statistics: the total number of lynching or extrajudicial killings in the name of religion between 1946 and the mid-80s of the Zia regime were two – yes, two. From the Zia years to 2014 these had risen to a harrowing 57 – yes, 57. Consider another set of disturbing data. The total number of blasphemy-related accusations between 1927 and the mid-80s (Zia years) were seven. From the mid-80s to 2014, the number rose to 1,335. Seeds of hatred and intolerance sprout late, but they surely do sprout.
So Mashal Khan is a victim of the opportunistic politics of the Musharraf era, infamous for dollar-deals with the US. But that alone isn’t sufficient as an explanation. The curse of the present times is an important part of the missing puzzle of the bestiality that became Mashal Khan’s tragic fate.
Over the last few years, freedom of speech has become licentious. There are judgements all around. These are mostly about demeaning the other and defining people as enemies who deserve no sympathy.
These judgements have gone beyond distributing degrees of patriotism; these are now religious decrees about others’ faith and about their qualification to be Muslim. The unbridled social media is ticking up this trend. Commercialisation of religion on TV channels has aggravated it further, with each in a rat race to establish that it has the best understanding of the code of Islam. Mostly this ‘best’ is all about calling the other the worst. Sectarianism is paraded as diversity of opinion. Fatwas are delivered as analysis. Calling others kafirs, jahils, infidels, atheists (in the popularly misunderstood sense), non-believers, ‘murtads’, enemies of Islam etc is now a trend. With their little knowledge, Wikipedia information, inadequate lives, personal failures, short tempers and long tongues, these hatemongers are all over the place – infecting minds, poisoning hearts, darkening souls.
As if this wasn’t bad enough, you have state institutions perceived to be patronising these witch-hunters, who appear on television every night and spout hate laced with desperate threats. They incite the public, take names and openly declare groups (not just individuals) to be outside the circle of Islam, and therefore deserving of terrible death. The whole system knows what this is about. The judges know it. Pemra knows it. The prime minister knows it. The army chief knows it. And yet, there is nothing anyone can do about it because these witch-hunters are the designated issuers of black warrants on the media. The state loves them. They love themselves.
It is demons like these that defile sanity. These are products that find ready replicas in universities, colleges, on the streets and inside homes. These characters father fetishisation with violence and thrill to kill for causes that are not even remotely connected with the spirit or letter of religion. The state backs them. The state protects them and then when they (or those like them) drag a student’s body through the corridors of a university with the aim to burn it, the state goes into a state of hypocritical shock and remorse. Mashal Khan could not have been saved, not even by a hundred guards. He, after all, lived in the age of free fatwas available at a price.
The writer is former executive editor of The News and a senior journalist with Geo TV.