A mob lynched 23-year-old Mashal Khan at a university campus in Mardan, in Pakistan’s Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, on Thursday. They shot him, threw him down from his second-floor dormitory and beat him with wooden planks until his skull was bashed in. The police intervened only to stop the mob from setting his corpse on fire. The mob lynched him because he was suspected of committing blasphemy.
Instead of looking into the violent murder that took place on campus grounds the day before, the administration at Mardan University issued a notice in which officials announced that they would investigate three students, including Mashal, for their alleged blasphemy and that they would be suspended until further notice. A university official said Khan’s inclusion in the notice was a “clerical error”.
Condemnations started thick and fast. Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif said that he was “very sad” and that “the state will not allow anyone to take the law into their own hands.”
Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf chief Imran Khan said “the law of the jungle” must not be allowed to continue. The familiar cabal of human rights activists, non-governmental organisations, and commentators repeated calls to reform and repeal Pakistan’s blasphemy law, which carries the death sentence for as little as an insinuation of disrespect towards the Quran or the Prophet Muhammad.
A natural question that many asked after the lynching was “what did Mashal do?” and “did he actually do it?” Many stuck to the idea that Mashal was innocent because he did not write what he was accused of writing. Mashal was accused of having spoken in favour of the Ahmadi sect – a regular target of blasphemy accusations – and there were rumours of him posting blasphemous content on social media. One report suggested a fake account with his name and picture was posting the blasphemous content, perhaps to frame him.
Raza Rumi, at the Daily Times newspaper in Pakistan wrote that the state should have upheld “due process, stick to the law, avoid incitement and bear in mind the maxim which is the basis of most modern democratic justice systems: ‘Innocent until proven guilty’.”
However, this framework, which is constructed around Mashal not having done what he was accused of doing, is dangerous. It implies that Mashal’s lynching would be justified had he actually posted blasphemous content because, according to the dictum, he would have been proven guilty. If the prosecutors can satisfactorily answer the two questions “what did he do?” and “did he actually do it?” then they would have an open and shut case of blasphemy, which activists would have a much more difficult time arguing against, legally speaking.
The inevitable death sentence
Ask yourself this: is there any scenario at all in which being beaten to death by a mob on a university campus is justified? If no, then it should not really matter what Mashal actually posted, should it?
Mashal’s death had little to do with the blasphemy law itself. He was neither charged, nor prosecuted, nor convicted. In Pakistan, one accused of blasphemy rarely gets to survive until the conviction.
Framing the murder as vigilante justice is also dangerous. It assumes that how a person is treated ought to be connected to his innocence or guilt, and only changes the identity of the punisher. It is short for the state saying: it is not the mob’s job to kill him, it is ours. Blasphemy does carry the death penalty after all.
Both frameworks make pretzel-like logical contortions to try to reconcile the injustice of Mashal’s murder while still holding blasphemy to be a moral crime as well as a legal one.
It is impossible to do. The only way forward is for people to believe that blasphemy as a concept is as antiquated as the time in which it was conceived. That no person should be punished for it, irrespective of whether they committed it or not.
Pakistan, of course, is far away from such a move. Only last month, the government believed that “a nefarious conspiracy” was afoot to subject the Pakistani populace to blasphemous talk. The courts took a lead on the government by issuing a decree removing all blasphemous content from social media.
“All relevant institutions should trace the perpetrators behind such content and ensure they are handed out strict punishment in accordance with the law,” Sharif tweeted subsequently. “Love and affection of the Holy Prophet is the most precious asset for every Muslim.”
“Love and affection of the Holy Prophet” is such a precious asset that Pakistanis are willing to torture and kill for it. And nothing indicates that they will stop anytime soon.