The mob lynching of Mashal Khan, a university student in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP), on trumped up charges of blasphemy has sent shock waves throughout the country. Pakistani parliament has been quick to pass a unanimous resolution condemning Mashal Khan’s murder and Supreme Court has taken a suo moto notice of the barbaric act.
A look at statistics pertaining to blasphemy allegations may be inexplicable with reference only to the received wisdom that associates radicalisation with Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. Though it indeed has endured for decades a planned project of radicalisation of the society, KP has fewer instances of accusations of blasphemy than the Punjab. Of all the 1,472 people accused under blasphemy laws between 1987 and 2015, 86 percent were from Punjab. Moreover, 730 of these were Muslims, 501 Ahmadis, 205 Christians, and 26 Hindus.
The appeals of a number of people convicted in blasphemy cases by district courts or provincial high courts are now being heard at the Supreme Court. Several others convicted by lower courts are languishing in jails waiting for their appeals to be taken up by the SC. To date, no death sentence has ever been implemented under the blasphemy law, including in the high profile case of Aasia Bibi, in whose defence late Salman Taseer had raised his voice and paid the price for that with his life. Aasia Bibi’s case is still pending a hearing at the SC.
Notwithstanding the possible lacunas in Pakistan’s blasphemy laws, the perilous social consequences that follow a blasphemy accusation far outweigh the harsh penalties prescribed in the laws.
The gruesome implications of the blasphemy charge are evident from the fact that 63 of those accused till date were murdered, either in full public view before the start of their trial or in captivity during the trial. And the assailants in these instances have rarely been prosecuted.
A person who is accused of blasphemy suffers from active victimisation by state institutions. S/he survives under a real threat to life, in extreme social isolation, and with very low chances of getting a fair trial or a post-trial life free of risk. The threat and menace of blasphemy is so unforgiving that no competent lawyers are willing to take the risk of defending the accused, given the backlash from lawyers’ wings of banned organisations or extremist outfits. Fewer judges even at the high court level are willing to acquit the accused, even when they see that the accused is not guilty of charges.
The case of Junaid Hafeez, a lecturer at the Department of English Language and Literature at Multan’s Bahauddin Zakria University, is an example in this regard. In 2013, he was falsely implicated in a blasphemy case by his colleagues at the university, under circumstances not very different from ones faced by Mashal Khan at Mardan University. With little progress on his case, he remains an under trial prisoner, even after a passage of more than four years. His first lawyer withdrew from the case on receiving life threats and his second lawyer, Rashid Rehman, was murdered by unidentified gunmen. Rehman was also an organizer with the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan in Multan.
After the lynching incident at Mardan, what this country needs is not just another judicial commission but a citizen-led social movement for restoration of internal peace and for acknowledging religious and cultural diversity of the Pakistani nation. This movement should start from our schools and colleges. The judicial review is very much needed to reform laws that promote extremism, but it cannot be a substitute to the collective decision making of Pakistani society. It must be remembered that courts cannot adjudicate what society cannot resolve.
The civil society needs to form senior citizens groups, comprising respected elders of the community drawn from academia, bureaucracy, judiciary, police, army and business. These groups may provide legal, social and moral support to those accused of blasphemy and act to ensure their fundamental right to a fair trial. Media can highlight the cases under trial in lower courts, diligently following up on the trial and subsequent outcome of the cases.
Pakistani establishment can forget at its own peril that we are at the border of a global theatre of war which is being fought with rallying cries of Allah-o-Akbar from both sides. Political stability cannot survive for long if it is to be achieved through just a mirage of democracy, when actually the government continues to retreat towards a theocracy.
By standing with those accused of blasphemy we are not promoting irreverence towards religion or, by any means, seeking an unrestricted freedom of expression. We want to protect the faith brought by the Prophet of Islam by following in his footsteps, acting as messengers of peace. Besides, by ensuring a fair trial to those accused of blasphemy we can restore the public’s faith in our judicial system as well as enhance the country’s standing in the international comity of nations.
The writer is an anthropologist based in Islamabad and serves as an advisor to the Centre for Culture and Development