“Religion is the opium of the masses.”

–Karl Marx

 

A picture of Che Guevara and Karl Marx hangs in room number 73, hostel # 1 where a bright, young student once lived amongst his vibrant books and ambitious dreams.

“Allah ‘O Akbar” (God is great) chants the barbaric mob comprising of young students, as they mercilessly torture the naked corpse lying in a pool of blood, of their fellow student, near the steps of a courtyard at Abdul Wali Khan University in Mardan.

Mashal Khan, was a 23 years old, promising Journalism student lynched to death by a mob due to unsubstantiated blasphemy rumours, in an incident that fits into a soaring pattern in the country. Amidst chaos and anarchy a bright future was stolen from a young man, dreaming of a better tomorrow. Khan was a fine young man, but perhaps he was too ahead of the times his people were living in. It can be said that he was killed for being different from his peers, for reasoning and asking questions, for exercising his right to freedom of speech and expression. There is a high possibility that he was framed, as blasphemy is the most convenient cover up for murder.

I’m unable to decide whether I’m ashamed, angry, frustrated or simply disappointed at what we’ve become. It breaks my heart to think of what he could have achieved if he would have still been alive. While scrolling through my Facebook feed I just came across pictures uploaded by MPA Meraj Khan, of Mashal Khan’s home in his village, Zaida, Swabi, where his awards are put on display by his proud sister, his mother had lovingly framed a childhood picture of him wearing a red sweater staring grumpily at the photographer. She writes in the caption that there are at least six Laptops present that he had won on different occasions.

This mob mentality is one of the biggest vices faced by our society, without reason, without rationale, people start copying what their peers are doing, even if it means participating in killing another human being. Educational institutions that are devoid of stringent rules regarding student associations and politically charged parties are a hub of organized violence, just a few weeks earlier, severe clashes took place in Punjab University headed by the Jamiat and resulted in countless students who got injured.

Historically, Blasphemy Law was introduced to prevent religious violence though ironically it has enabled people to incite more religiously infused violence. The original law was applicable on all religions, committing deliberate and malicious acts intended to outrage religious feelings of any class by insulting its religious belief was criminalized, and that is where our current law stems from . Today, Blasphemy is a crime punishable by death. Though in majority of the cases, only the accusation is sufficient to influence vigilante justice.

No one is immune from this law, regardless of one’s faith or status in the society. One of the most noteworthy incidents was the murder of Salman Taseer, the former Governor of Punjab in 2011, by his own security guard, Mumtaz Qadri, in the midst of a posh market at the foothills of the Margalla Mountains. Taseer was riddled with bullets due to his strong stance on amending the blasphemy law and appealing for a presidential pardon for Asia Bibi, a Christian woman on death row. I was studying O level math in the academy when I found out about Mr. Taseer’s murder, which was the first time I had heard about blasphemy laws and the debate around it. One month after Mr. Taseer’s brutal murder, a minister of religious minorities was shot dead hardly a mile away from the very same academy. Shahbaz Bhatti, was 42 years old at the time of his assassination, he was an outspoken critic of the Blasphemy laws, which is exactly why he was killed by the Tehrik i Taliban, Pakistan. 6 years have passed since these assassinations but unfortunately not much has changed.

In an attempt to Islamicize the laws, General Zia’s Military Government added a number of clauses to the laws. Not only was the death penalty introduced for anyone found “guilty” of defaming the Holy Prophet (P.B.U.H) through S.295 C, Ahmadi’s were also declared as non-Muslims and the ghastly Hudood Ordinance was enacted. It is impertinent to note that only 14 cases pertaining to Blasphemy were reported prior to 1986.

Blasphemy Law (clause 295-C of the Pakistan Penal Code). The clause reads:

295-C – Use of derogatory remarks, etc., in respect of the Holy Prophet:

Whoever by words, either spoken or written, or by visible representation or by any imputation, innuendo, or insinuation, directly or indirectly, defiles the sacred name of the Holy Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) shall be punished with death, or imprisonment for life, and shall also be liable to fine.

The law prescribes a fixed death penalty for all those who are found guilty. The option of life imprisonment was made defunct after a 1991 Federal Sharia Court judgement.

The unfortunate reality is that these laws are used to oppress minorities and also used for personal vendettas like economic gain, professional rivalry and even jealousy. And the accused are killed by senseless and angry mobs as in the case of Mashal Khan. According to a recent report, over 65 people have been killed after being accused of blasphemy since 1990.

Pakistan’s Blasphemy laws don’t just violate human rights but they also encourage these bloodthirsty people to take the law into their own hands. Lawyers, friends and relatives of these people are also at a very high risk since the threat of violence follows the accused blasphemers like wildfire. Rashid Rehman, a competent human rights lawyer was shot dead in his office by two unidentified gunmen on 8th May 2014, his crime was that he defended and attempted to save an alleged blasphemer. A month before his murder, he was openly threatened in court in front of a number of witnesses, but during his murder investigation, the police didn’t charge any of the people who had threatened him that day. Even the Police and the Judiciary is targeted, in order to hinder them from carrying out their work impartially, without any kind of fear. A majority of lawyers decline to take up such cases and represent people accused of blasphemy due to fear of abuse and even murder. Another lawyer who dared to represent an alleged blasphemer was beaten black and blue in court until he promised to drop the case.

Majority of the blasphemy cases are targeted towards minorities, novel cases like Khan’s include a Muslim as the accused Blasphemer. Authorities often fail at effectively intervening and preventing such incidents even though they are aware of threats circulating against vulnerable religious minorities, or potential people at risk, they end up taking a step back in the face of an angry mob fueled by clerics admonishing murder in the name of God.

As a law student, the first lesson that I was taught in my criminal law class was that a person is always innocent until proven guilty, yet Mr. Khan wasn’t even given the opportunity to defend himself, he was given a death sentence without a trial let alone a fair one. Even if he had committed blasphemy, he should have been charged and arrested through proper channel, this unfortunate incident is a clear representation of the fact that our society has no respect for the law of the country, they feel that they have a right to punish whoever they think is erroneous.

A famous English philosopher, jurist, and social reformer, Jeremy Bentham once stated that “There is no pestilence in a state like a zeal for religion, independent of morality”. No doubt the blasphemy laws in our country are preposterous and easy to exploit, but Law is not the real culprit here, as to why people accused of blasphemy are killed. Up till this date, no execution has been conducted officially. In fact 51 people accused of blasphemy were murdered by people before they even got access to a fair trial and before the charges against them were even proved.

Blasphemy is such a sensitive issue that even the secular political parties are afraid to antagonise any religious parties and suffer their wrath. Those who have dared to speak up have either been killed or have been accused of blasphemy themselves. Pakistan’s former ambassador to the US, Sherry Rehman attempted to change the religious offences procedures in 2010, so they could be reported to a higher police official and the cases heard directly by the higher courts through a private bill, but was withdrawn due to pressure from religious and political parties. In fact a case of Blasphemy was registered against her in 2013 for speaking against the Blasphemy laws in a TV programme.

Simply put if you are accused of blasphemy you are bound to die either at the hands of a crazy mob or by the law as it’s not a pardonable offence and anybody disagreeing with the law is also at a risk of being labelled as a blasphemer. Surprisingly according to the Hanafi position, the option of pardon should be available even in cases of Blasphemy. In order to get pardoned there is no need to change the letter of the blasphemy law. There is only a need to revisit the judicial interpretation, and rectify the erroneous conclusion of the Federal Sharia Court that was reached on the basis of dubious research.

If anyone can be taken hostage, abused and killed on the name of religion, we need to ask ourselves whether it is really the religion that is telling us to commit such heinous acts or whether it’s the fault of these religious fanatics spreading extremism and exploiting others through wrong interpretations of religion. Our people have fallen prey to their own fabricated delusions and this incident should be a learning opportunity and a wakeup call for our people to start thinking rationally and avoid participating in the mob mentality, and instead try to diffuse the situation wherever possible. Mashal Khan’s death has brought out the demons hidden inside our people out in the light, his death will not go in vain. As Fidel Castro once said, “Condemn me. It does not matter. History will absolve me.”