Yet another innocent individual falls prey to our narrowly-conceived religious symbols as well as collective societal apathy. Mashal Khan, a hapless student of Abdul Wali Khan University in Mardan was brutally lynched by his fellow students for allegedly publishing blasphemous content online last week. So far, the investigators have found no evidence regarding this alleged act of blasphemy. Reportedly, a sentence— “Allah is the greatest and Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) is the messenger of God”-was found written boldly on a wall of his hostel room where he eventually locked himself to avoid angry mob. Probably he wrote these words in last-ditch bid to save his life by letting his fellow students know that he was not a ‘non-believer’. However, the bloodthirsty ‘believers’ rejected this ‘testimony’ forthwith and chose to instantly ‘punish’ him for his ‘unforgivable sin’.

The most agonising aspect of this gruesome episode has been the fact that this barbaric act was not committed by a single individual but a group of individuals. The individuals who are not illiterate villagers or the radicalised students of a religious seminary but the students of an advanced university. They all proudly call themselves Muslims. They beat an innocent fellow Muslim to death while chanting the slogans “Allah is the greatest”. And they hardly bothered to reasonably verify the facts before taking such an extreme action.

This barbaric act speaks volumes about the state of growing intolerance and apathy in the body politic. Observably our social and religious institutions are decaying. The polity has undergone a significant radicalisation. Regrettably, lacking the compassion and empathy for others, religious faith has readily been replaced by certain stuck-in-the-mud theological dogmas and a set of religious rituals. Therefore, the adherents of a ‘Religion of peace’ as well as the followers of the ‘Messenger of peace’ now feel no hesitation at all in mercilessly lynching people in the name of religion.

Amr Bil Maroof (enjoining good) and Nahi Anil Munkar (forbidding evil) are the two fundamental principles prescribed by Islam to reform a society. But sadly, ignoring altogether these guiding principles, we have evolved our own standards of behavior and ethics in the society. At present, the things like dishonesty, deceit, corruption, injustice, immorality and apathy etc. have become hallmarks of our society. We hardly speak or act against these evils that have plagued the society. Instead, we have been ever-ready to take lives in the name of Islam.

Muhammadanism is one of the popular names of Islam. The Prophet Muhammad (SAW) was known for his compassion, kindness and mercy for others. He treated even his worst enemies kindly and gently during his life time. Similarly, Allah Almighty has also declared Muhammad (SAW) as Rehmat-ul-Alameen (the mercy for the entire universe). So no one can justify an inhumane act on the pretext of persevering the exalted name of the Prophet of Islam. The Islamic Sharia has essentially prescribed a set of procedures and punishments to deal with the phenomenon of blasphemy. Indeed, Islam does not allow lynching individuals arbitrarily and inhumanly.

In February last year, Mumtaz Qadri was hanged in Adiala Jail Rawalpindi for gunning down the former Governor of Punjab Salman Taseer. Despite a media blackout on this event, thousands of people poured into the city to attend the funeral of Mumtaz Qadri. The ulema and leaders of a particular sectarian school of thought in Pakistan instantly came forward instigating their followers against the government. They glorified Mumtaz Qadri by equating him with Ghazi Ilm-ud-Din Shaheed. They readily portrayed a self-confessed assassin as a great saint, Ashiq-e-Rasool, Mujahid and Shaheed. Thus a strong narrative was added to our national discourse encouraging people to lynch suspect blasphemers arbitrarily. Regrettably, neither the state nor any section of the society, including the intelligentsia and the media, dared to seriously challenge or counter this narrative by offering an alternative narrative on this issue. So none other than the Mashal Khan had to pay the price for this fallacious narrative.

The phenomenon of lynching generally denotes an extra legal trial and punishment inflicted by an individual or group of a people on another individual without a due process of law. Lynching is a typical manifestation of the mob rule. It essentially departs from the basic doctrine of natural justice which provides that a person is presumed to be innocent until he is proven guilty. It is aptly said that a mob has many heads, but no brains. A little undesirable stimulus can easily turn a peaceful crowd into a violent mob. For a long time, lynching has been a common tool to persecute the members of a minority group. Following the abolition of slavery in United Sates after the Civil War, there were witnessed numerous incidents of lynching against the African Americans there. Most of the civilised countries in the world have now overcome this menace by introducing effective anti-lynching legislation and ensuring the rule of law in the society.

The recent Mardan lynching is not the first incident of this kind in Pakistan. There have been a number of similar incidents in the country. In November 2014, a Christian couple was burnt alive in a brick kiln by an angry mob for allegedly desecrating the Holy Quran. Former governor Punjab Salman Tasseer and former federal minister Shahbaz Bhatti were assassinated on account of criticizing the misuse of the blasphemy laws in Pakistan. Rashid Rehman, a human rights activist and lawyer, was killed for providing legal aid to a blasphemy accused in Multan. Likewise, an elderly member of the Ahmadi community, accused of blasphemy, was also killed by a teenager inside the police lock-up in Sheikhupura district. In Gojra and Joseph colony (Lahore), an angry mob set ablaze Christian homes after hearing an alleged act of blasphemy by an individual.

At present, there exist a set of substantive as well as procedural laws dealing with the subject of blasphemy in Pakistan. It has been observed that the human rights bodies and the some other quarters usually demand to either reform or abolish altogether the blasphemy laws after every unfortunate lynching incident in Pakistan. As a matter of fact, the issue of lynching or the persecution of minorities hardly involve any existing blasphemy law in Pakistan. Things only go wrong when people turn violent by taking law into their own hands. In the absence of these blasphemy laws, people would tend to be more violent and hostile towards the blasphemy suspects. Therefore, we need to ensure the proper enforcement of blasphemy laws and plug the loopholes in the existing criminal justice system in Pakistan. In the absence of the rule of law and effective coercive apparatus in the country, people frequently choose to openly defy laws and persecute others with impunity.

The state and the society will have to assume joint responsibility to promote tolerance in the society. In order to make our younger generation more moderate and tolerant, the academic subjects of comparative religions and interfaith harmony should be incorporated in the curriculum of our educational institutions. Pulpits and loudspeakers in mosques should not be allowed to be misused by semi-literate and narrow-minded clerics. There should also be some serious endeavours to exhaustively overhaul all important components of the criminal justice system in Pakistan.

Apparently, the university administration played a shady role in the entire lynching episode in Mardan which certainly has brought a bad name to Pakistan internationally. Since the Chief Justice and Prime Minister of Pakistan have taken serious notice of this unfortunate incident, therefore we can hope the perpetrators of this ghastly criminal conspiracy would soon be brought to book. Obviously this is not the first incident of lynching in Pakistan. But this should be the last one. No state can afford to neglect its primary responsibility of protecting its subjects against inhuman and arbitrary acts of violence. Nor can an individual or a group be allowed to act as the prosecutor, adjudicator and executioner simultaneously by relying on the extra-legal presumption of ‘guilty until proven dead’.