As it became clear that Mashal Khan had not actually committed the blasphemy he was murdered for, Pakistani officialdom finally deigned to admit that his murder was indeed regrettable. Freed from being in the awkward position of criticising the public lynching of an actual blasphemer, the Pakistani political establishment, from PM Nawaz Sharif to the mainstream opposition, commenced with repetition of the trite clichés trotted out every time innocents fall victim to fundamentalist barbarism in Pakistan.
The content of most of these condemnations made it clear, however, that the problem for the Pakistani political and media mainstream was not the actual killing, but the form in which it took place. The ‘law of the jungle’ could not be allowed to prevail, according to Imran Khan. The state ‘will not tolerate citizens taking the law into their own hands, claimed the prime minister. Rightwing journalist Ansar Abbasi claimed that ‘mob justice could not be condoned’, since it was ‘the state’s responsibility to punish the responsible’. Save for a minority of progressive voices, what was conspicuous by its absence in mainstream discourse was the complicity of the state, its laws and policies in the lynching of Mashal Khan.
This oversight is not accidental. There has long been a widespread delusion in the Pakistani mainstream that extremist violence is an historical anomaly or external conspiracy. From the security establishment to prominent politicians to major media houses, the consistent narrative propagated about religious terror is one that sees it as external to the Pakistani state, an exogenously-induced irritant that the state is simply trying its best to repel.
This discourse is rampant in rightwing and ultra-nationalist spaces. From anchors like Amir Liaqat and Orya Maqbool, to social media postings of popular pro-establishment pages and accounts, the message that is pushed out and consumed by millions is that terrorism is the work of groups beholden to hostile foreign powers and domestically enabled, bizarrely enough, by liberals and progressives. The Pakistani state, on the other hand, is a paragon of selfless Islamic virtue, merely trying its best to protect the Pakistani people from these evil external enemies out to disrupt peace in the country.
However, incidents like the one in Mardan lay bare the desperate brittleness of these narratives in their entirety. The fanaticism that fueled Mashal’s lynching was not orchestrated by India or Israel – it was the culmination of a process that was organically created, nurtured and sustained over decades by the Pakistani state to protect its own interests.
Mashal Khan was killed, first and foremost, because of the state’s laws. However politically dangerous it may now be to tread this terrain, the facts are beyond doubt–Pakistan’s blasphemy law (specifically the introduction of 295-C or the mandatory death penalty and elimination of pardon in 1986) has contributed enormously to vigilante justice and religious persecution. A glimpse at the historical record suffices to demolish the rightwing argument that the penalty exists to prevent citizens from taking the law into their own hands. In the 59 years before 1986, there were a mere seven accusations of blasphemy and two examples of vigilante killings; in the 28 years after the introduction of 295-C, blasphemy accusations increased by 19,000% to 1,335 and vigilante murders by 3,100% to 65. There are only a handful of other Muslim countries – such as Nigeria and Sudan - where similar blasphemy-related violence occurs; tellingly, all of them have death penalties for blasphemy. The evidence is clear – when the state communicates signals about the permissibility of killing those accused of blasphemy, the population responds, both in terms of killing as well as the abuse of allegations for petty self-interest.
Mashal’s murder was also the consequence of an aggressive religious nationalism ingrained for decades by the state into the minds of students in educational institutions like the one where the lynching took place. Since the Zia years, in order to stifle left wing dissent, the state has pursued educational policies aimed at inducing in students, as Zia put it, an unbending ‘loyalty to Islam and Pakistan’ and ‘a living consciousness of their ideological identity’ rather than inculcating a capacity for critical thinking. This was complemented by a now 33-year-old student union ban which in practical terms amounted to a ban on progressive student groups, as the state continued to support and arm rightwing fascists like the IJT to control dissent on campuses.
The consequences of such policies have been permanently destructive. Campuses that were once bastions of progressive politics have gradually been purged of critical academics and pedagogy in the name of eliminating ‘anti-state’ thinking. And after decades of brainwashing, students who in the past would hold the state to account on its policies, now lynch other dissenting students to death in the name of protecting the faith.
Finally, Mashal’s killing was directly engendered by the more recent weaponisation of blasphemy by the state to silence progressive critics. Threatened by the rise of increasingly bolder criticism on state policies and corruption on social media, Pakistani state officials have discovered anew the usefulness of blasphemy allegations to silence dissenters; from security agencies orchestrating campaigns to vilify progressive activists critical of the establishment, to high court judges deflecting from charges of corruption by threatening to ban social media over alleged blasphemous content, to the government diverting attention from the Panama case by calling on the public to report blasphemous activities. The resultant fabricated hysteria about the threat of blasphemy, fomented by multiple state institutions and backed by the rightwing press and violent Barelvi groups, made the likelihood of a needless atrocity like Mardan inevitable. All it needed was for some members of a university administration to emulate the state’s tactics for silencing a student critical of institutional corruption.
Understanding the link between state structures and the fanatical lynching of Mashal Khan is not merely an academic exercise. It is important in order to overcome the self-destructive narratives that prevent any objective understanding of the religious fascism that has consumed tens of thousands of lives in Pakistan. It is important in order to uncover the elite interests that are being hidden underneath claims of protecting the honour of Islam. It is important because we continue to think we can fight terrorism by shaking our fists at enemies across the border while these fanatical ideas continue to be instilled into the minds of millions of young people through state-sanctioned content in schools, universities, madrassahs, the media and the internet every single day. In order to stop the rot, we must first understand where it has come from.
The writer is a researcher on gender, development and public policy and a political worker for the Awami Workers Party. He tweets @ammarrashidt