The tragedy of Pakistan’s blasphemy law
Mashal Khan, a student describing himself as a humanist, was murdered at his university in Mardan.
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Mashal Khan, 26, was a journalism student at Abdul Wali Khan University in Mardan, a city in northwestern Pakistan. His campus room was decorated with posters of Karl Marx and Che Guevara, bearing slogans such as “freedom is the right of every individual”. On Facebook, he described himself as a humanist, although he was also a practising Muslim. He posted prolifically on social media, showing a consistent interest in women’s rights and anti-racist causes. He was outspoken, often challenging his peers on intolerant views and giving interviews to local media about alleged corruption and poor management at the university.
On 13 April, a mob of students marched through the campus, looking for Khan. They found him in his dorm room, stripped him, beat him and shot him dead. The harrowing assault was captured in mobile phone footage which was shared around the world.
Why was Khan murdered? Friends said that, a few days before the lynching, he’d had a heated debate with fellow students. Initial reports suggested that he had been accused of offending Islam, a dangerous charge in a country where blasphemy is a crime that carries the death sentence. There is an incredibly light burden of proof in Pakistan’s blasphemy cases: accusers can even refuse to give details of the alleged crime for fear of blaspheming themselves. This means that the law is commonly used to settle personal scores or persecute minorities. And in practice the mere accusation of blasphemy can be enough to incite an angry mob to violence, long before it goes to trial. The tacit endorsement of this abuse of an already unjust law is perhaps exemplified by the fact that the university’s first response to Khan’s murder was to launch an investigation into the alleged blasphemy, not into the lynching. The institution quickly changed tack, saying this was a “clerical error”.
Exact figures are hard to come by, but since 1990 at least 65 people have been murdered over blasphemy allegations. Few people have been brought to justice and there has been no attempt to penalise false accusations.
Unusually for a blasphemy-related killing, Khan’s murder sparked outrage across Pakistan, with spontaneous protests calling for justice. Khan was lauded as a hero across the national press, and his posts were widely shared on social media. The prime minister Nawaz Sharif condemned the murder, and prominent religious leader Mufti Naeem said Khan was a “martyr”. There are several possible reasons for this difference in response. The first is the video footage of the assault, which clearly lays bare the violence and horror of the incident. Secondly, police quickly said that there was no substance to any blasphemy accusations against Khan, and he was, by all accounts, an observant Muslim.
For all the public outpouring of grief and anger, there has been little attention paid to the law itself. Introduced by the British during colonial rule, Pakistan’s blasphemy laws are among the world’s most repressive. Attempts at reform were halted entirely after the assassination of two politicians advocating the cause in 2011 – Salman Taseer and Shahbaz Bhatti.
The conservative religious lobby is powerful in Pakistan. A senior elected official from the Jamaat-e-Islami, a mainstream political party which endorses and spreads extreme views, responded to Khan’s murder by saying: “I will cut the tongue and eyes of those who want to amend the blasphemy law.” Such aggressive defence of the law from both violent and non-violent quarters means that policymakers shy away from doing anything more than responding to the immediate consequences – in this case, pursuing Khan’s killers for murder, but not looking at the law itself.
Indeed, Sharif’s centre-right government recently tried to clamp down on blasphemy by asking Facebook and Twitter users to report blasphemous content to the authorities. This is hardly the action of a government that wants to protect intellectual and religious freedoms.
Khan’s father, Muhammad Iqbal Khan, told reporters that his son’s nature made him at odds with Pakistan’s religious conservatism: “He was the kind of a person this society can never tolerate,” he said. “You can call him a revolutionary, reformist, humanist, whatever, but he wasn’t a conservative person. My son was a voice of the voiceless.”
Although the state’s attempts to bring Khan’s murderers to justice are to be welcomed, if this is not matched by any substantive effort to reform the unjust laws that underpinned it, Pakistan will remain an unsafe environment for freethinkers like Mashal Khan.