You hear deafening footsteps strutting across university halls, and despite the mountains of courage that guard your persistent heart, you wish that the footsteps do not get louder; but they do. A peculiar misgiving settles inside your bones, prompting a sense of grim disquietude that bounces off the walls of your hostel room, as you sit there, waiting for the mob. The footsteps get louder and louder, and then they stop; the door breaks open, and your fellow-students force themselves into your room. You hear guns cocking and wooden clubs clashing together, and on top of that, ‘Allah o Akbar’ being chanted in unison.
Allah o Akbar—God is great. The same God whose mercy and benevolence, as we are taught as children, surpasses any human conceivability. The same God who loves you to such an extent that His feelings cannot be summarised in scripture. The same God who would mould time and space to help his people in despair.
The barbaric lynching of Mashal Khan is a confrontation that keeps repeating. Violent interpretations of religion are not confined to the walls of shady quarters that offer profane guidance, but have settled at various levels within our society. The number of people who were accomplice or witness to this incident is evidence of how effortless it has become for religious sentiments to take a violent turn, and the regularity that it has acquired.
While the state may be involved in a topsy-turvy relationship with religious fundamentalism—sometimes condemning, sometimes utilising—it is not either of those two actors who are left suspended or unprotected in midst of physical conflict. The state, although blamed but not prosecuted, persists every attack conducted in regards to allegations of blasphemy; and violent fundamentalism wins a battle. The majority of the damage is directed towards society, which loses decades of social experience and wisdom every time religious sentiments end a life.
The lynching has prompted senators, members of assemblies, religious and legal scholars to condemn the incident and propose a revaluation of the blasphemy law. Although this is the least that is expected of them, it must also be assessed whether legal reforms alone can provide the necessary antidote. The issue of blasphemy stretches across various domains—legal, political, social, and religious.
I hope that the haze of conjectures soon vanishes and our society is not beguiled by the smaller details regarding whether or not Mashal Khan committed blasphemy or whether he was targeted by the university administration or whether it all happened because of a personal conflict. All of these things are important in dissecting the incident and prosecuting the guilty, which remains a priority, but they must not serve as a distraction from the broader issue surrounding intolerance and lead to social complacency. Whatever the rationale behind the incident may be, a couple of things remain unchanged.
Firstly, the crime was not proven. Secondly, no legal measures were taken in regards to the allegations. Thirdly, people were mobilised in the name of religion. Fourthly, people who wanted to save Mashal Khan were either too small in number, were forcibly stopped from helping him, or were too afraid to act.
The first three pointers reveal a particular mindset. There is not only an increasing frustration, which is not necessarily religious or spiritual in nature and can very well have socio-economic undertones, people have also found reasons to not involve the judicial system in matters of blasphemy. If they do look for legal solutions, the nature of blasphemy is such that the burden of proof becomes troublesome and can easily backfire if the crime is not proven. On the other hand, mob action decreases the probability of a criminal individual getting caught. While this predicament cannot be solved without the judicial system re-evaluating itself and the legal processes it offers; the collective resentment and bitterness that exists behind mob action should not go unnoticed.
Out of all the students who shamelessly marched up and down the university halls, with weapons in their hands, how many do you reckon had been directly brainwashed by an impious cleric, or had gone through the sacrilegious madrasah system? Not many, I imagine. In regards to those who had not, it is important to understand the forces and experiences that influence their actions. What sort of experiences or elements lead to violent interpretations of Islam; and how do sentiments that give an individual the confidence to pick up a weapon against another human being come about? A careful exploration of such questions should not be overlooked if we are to tackle the violent religious elements that exist within our society. Perhaps a grand reformation is needed, with the purpose of subduing those deep-rooted religious beliefs that can easily take a violent shade. It is also important to realise that such a reformation will not be anti-religious or anti-Islamic, but would rather provide a safer, more peaceful and accommodating interpretation of Islam.
In an article written by Khuldune Shahid last month, he argues that, “As long as critics of Islam continue to face security threats, fearing for one’s life cannot be ‘irrational’. If it’s a twisted version of Islam that has become mainstream so as to be part of legislations in a vast majority of Muslim states, we Muslims then need reform, not brutal silencing of the critics. For, more than the blatant critics, it’s reformists who lose when critique of religion is equated with bigotry against a people. And similarly it’s the believing and practicing Muslims, more than anyone else, who gain the most from Islamic reform that undoes the damage of literal Islam both in the West and the Muslim world.”
During the time that need for religious reformation is realised, other social measures should also be taken in regards to countering increasing intolerance within society, measures that do not necessarily have to come from the state or the legal system or various policy setting actors that have failed us time and again. We, as members of society, share this responsibility. Over the last few days, as I had been discussing the lynching of Mashal Khan with various people, I have come to understand that there can be no set physical characteristic of a religious fundamentalist who might become willing to take another life. Such sentiments can remain hidden until the day they reveal themselves, and can very well exist within our own households and social circles. Perhaps we can start by bringing the idea of religious tolerance in our discussions with family and friends; start writing extensively about notions of moderation, tolerance, and coexistence; invite people to peacefully discuss.
Along with an intellectual exchange that might lead to a softening of views, we should construct agents which promote peace and tolerance and not necessarily deal with broader spiritual or religious concerns. In regards to this, why not utilise the richness of our very own culture – the music, poetry, arts, and dance – to demonstrate that a small amount of beauty and sanity still remains within our society. In a time when hatred not only runs freely but is also encouraged, the least we can do, as a collective force, is to sow the seeds of tolerance.
“Yehi kaha tha meri aankh dekh sakti hai,
Ke mujh pe toot para sara shehr-e-naabeena,
Chalo ke baada-gusaron ko sangsaar karein,
Chalo ke thehra hai kaar-e-sawab khoon peena.”