Who killed Mashal Khan? It was a mob of over 4,000 students of Mardan’s Abdul Wali Khan University. These were members of the post Ziaul Haq generation, who were fed on hatred and an in-group morality. They grew up in an environment where opportunities for socio-economic growth were slim, injustice was the norm, and violence against the weak was legitimised. These frustrated young adults cannot see a bright future for themselves. They aspire for a sure shot ticket to paradise. Some of them may have been looking for an adventure of a lifetime that will make them famous. Lynching Mashal was probably the most important event in their insipid and difficult lives, and a chance to show the world that they mattered. They bristled with anger and were self-assured to be a part of the mob. These were self-righteous young adults who felt grateful that they were a part of the mob on a witch hunt.
The mob must have been emboldened by the lynching of Christians in Gojra and Kasur, and of Ahmadis in Jehlum. They have seen the society celebrate Mumtaz Qadri. They could have been reassured by the attitude of their university administration which had initiated an inquiry into blasphemy allegations against Mashal to stop him from raising the issue of mismanagement. The administration must have learnt this strategy to suppress dissent from the deep state itself. The latter had detained Karachi University professor Dr Riaz Ahmad when he refused to back down from protesting the illegal detention of Professor Hasan Zafar Arif. Earlier this year, five bloggers and activists, including Waqas Goraya and Salman Haider, had gone missing. On returning to their families, at least one of them has claimed that they were detained by security agencies. Since their detention, a well-orchestrated hate campaign has been underway in the country accusing them of blasphemy. News channels and television anchors have been used to level these allegations and to create an atmosphere of fear and suspicion. It seems the deep state has learnt that this is a successful ploy to suppress dissent following the three-year-old instance where it effectively bullied a television news channel into submission. To defame the rebellious news channel, blasphemy allegations had been leveled in a concerted effort through the social media against the host of a morning show broadcasted at the channel and a qawwal who had appeared as a guest at the show. The host has since fled the country and the qawwal has been assassinated near his Karachi residence.
But this was not the first time the state used religion as a tool to pursue its objectives. Not too long ago, General Pervez Musharraf had allowed extremists to seek shelter in our tribal areas after 9/11 attacks, so he could negotiate a better deal with the Americans. During the 1990s, an entire generation was prepared to fight the state’s proxy war in Kashmir, again, using religion as a tool to attract and motivate the gullible and frustrated youth. This strategy was mastered during General Ziaul Haq’s tenure, as the state prepared itself to fight against the Russians in Afghanistan on behalf of the Americans. The society went through an unprecedented transformation during the 1980s, when religious violence was actively promoted by the state. Everything from school curriculum to television content was reconstructed to support the state’s pro-jihad narrative. The state actively promoted militarism among the youth to condition them to wage a religious war against an infidel Russia. During this period, all kinds of weapons and drugs were made freely available in the country, and dissent was muzzled using state apparatus and religious ideology as tools.
The post-Zia generation is now in its bloom — steadily taking over the society and replacing older generations. These angry close-minded men under 40 will soon gain important positions in bureaucracy, university faculty, journalism, judiciary, and military. The more they take control of the society, the more factionalised and intolerant the society will become.
But why stop with Ziaul Haq when Zulfikar Ali Bhutto was the first head of the state to regulate religion. Succumbing to pressure from extremists, he had let the state decide who gets to be a Muslim and who gets excluded from the Islamic community. Once that precedent was set, flood gates were opened for people to denounce each other as infidels, a tradition that continues today. Religion was made an integral part of the 1973 Constitution, under Bhutto’s tenure. The 1973 Constitution was built upon the Objectives Resolution of 1949. The Resolution was passed by the then Constituent Assembly of Pakistan after ignoring protests from the minority members of the Assembly, who opposed including religion in the document. Ironically, Sir Zafarullah Khan, an Ahmadi, was one of the foremost members to assure the minorities that their rights as equal citizens will be protected by the Islamic state.
Time and again, religion has been used as a tool for politics. It is used by the state to wage its proxy wars or to keep dissenting voices in check. It is used to suppress voices asking for social justice and to hold people under bonded labour. Mashal’s lynching is a symptom of a much deeper rot in our state and society. This rot has been growing over the last seven decades, putting us on a path that will lead to chaos and destruction. It is high time that we mend our ways and stop exploiting faith for political and personal gains, or else our society will succumb under the fire that we so happily use to burn each other.