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Pakistan, Gripped By Fear, Tries To Normalise Blasphemy Laws, Anti-Liberal Violence

By Khaled Ahmed

June 10, 2017

Pakistan’s blasphemy law is the Stockholm Syndrome par excellence, “a condition that causes hostages to develop a psychological alliance with their captor”.

On April 13, Mashal Khan, a journalism student at the Abdul Wali Khan University in Mardan, Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa, was killed by a mob of fellow students, who “shot him, stripped him, mutilated and pulped him, and threw him from the second floor”, after accusing him of being “secular” and “liberal”, and not saying his Friday prayers in the mosque.

The media thought this must be labelled “death for blasphemy”. But the killers murdered Mashal Khan, not for blasphemy, but for being “liberal”, perhaps conditioned by the recent “disappearing” of a bunch of “liberal” bloggers by the deep state.

Perhaps for the first time, Pakistani leaders rose as one to condemn the killing; Imran Khan, whose party, the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf, rules in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa, went in person to condole with Mashal’s father, not knowing that a councillor from his own party, Arif Khan, was among the killers whom, significantly, the police subsequently failed to arrest among the many whom it did. Such is the pro-killer syndrome in the province that his party, by and large, thinks that secularism is blasphemous. (At least, his coalition partner, the Jamaat-e-Islami, thinks so).

But Pakistan has not missed the threat from Imran Khan’s member in the National Assembly, Ali Muhammad Khan, quoted saying that those who are secular had better leave Pakistan. Then, another member of Khan’s party, National Assembly member Musarrat Ahmad Zeb, charged that the Taliban attack on Nobel Laureate Malala Yousofzai was “staged” — she accused the army of building Malala up as a champion of girls’ education and granting residential plots to the doctors who apparently falsely claimed that she had been shot in the head.

Pakistan’s blasphemy law is the Stockholm Syndrome par excellence, “a condition that causes hostages to develop a psychological alliance with their captor”. In this case, Pakistan has developed its “alliance” with the Taliban and the organisations they serve, al Qaeda and Islamic State.

The Economist (April 24) opined thus: “Pakistan’s blasphemy laws have been a source of infamy for decades. International human rights groups regularly document their abusive implementation… Nineteen people are currently on death row for blasphemy. Members of Pakistan’s beleaguered Christian minority are used as targets by hate-mongering mullahs and others… Accusers often level false claims of blasphemy to settle land disputes, and other entirely worldly affairs. Police, scared of the mobs that round on alleged blasphemers, rarely resist pressure to lodge charges. Judges in the lower courts are unwilling to throw out even the most nonsensical cases for fear of retribution”.

The Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa chief minister, Pervaiz Khattak, was upset with the victim’s father, Iqbal Jan, who complained about the laxity of the law in the face of “pious crime”. Khattak reportedly said, “Don’t throw all responsibility at us. Throw it at someone else too. The provincial government doesn’t have Aladdin’s lamp…” Was he referring to the Stockholm Syndrome that the Islamic World is smitten with?

Mashal hailed from Swabi, not far from Peshawar where the Panjpir madrasa steadfastly supports the Taliban’s extremist version of Islam and has remained immune from punishment because its custodian is the brother of an ex-ISI officer, still helping the prime minister patch up with Pakistan’s home-grown killers.

Blasphemy in Pakistan has acquired a broad meaning; “innuendo” can get you in trouble, but being “liberal” is signal enough for the pious seeking easy paradise. Section 225-C of the Pakistan Penal Code explains how the punishment of death can be attracted: “Whoever insults the sacred name of the Holy Prophet (PBUH) by words either spoken or written, or by visible representation, or by imputation, innuendo or insinuation, directly or indirectly, will be punished by hanging”.

This is one crime that can be committed “without intent”; anywhere else in the world, a murder is not acknowledged as a murder unless you first establish intent. This is what happened to a semi-literate Christian girl, Aasiya Bibi, in 2011; when then-Governor of Punjab Salmaan Taseer recommended amendments to the law to save people from wrongful accusations, he too was killed, by his own police guard. Now, the Barelvi organisations are not agitating for retaining the law as it is; they object to the delay in the hanging of Aasiya Bibi.

Muslims are suffering today at the hands of fellow-Muslims because as victims, their faith in the 21st century is tending to extremism — an extremism of the victim’s identification with the tormentor, grown out of an inability to meet the challenges of a connected world.


Khaled Ahmed is consulting editor, ‘Newsweek Pakistan’