Students across Pakistan are taking to the streets today to demand the basic right to live. Two years ago on this date, a student named Mashal Khan was killed by a mob in the name of blasphemy inside the premises of the Abdul Wali Khan University Mardan, which is located in the northwestern Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa province of Pakistan.
Blasphemy is a sensitive issue in Pakistan as instrumentalisation of Islam is as much a reality in the country as perhaps Islamophobia is in the West. Pakistan’s blasphemy laws stipulate the death sentence for insulting Islam or the Prophet Muhammad. While these draconian laws rooted in colonial legacies are there in place to punish blasphemy, they are hardly ever used because mob violence is often perpetuated against anyone even falsely accused of blasphemy. According to a BBC report, of 1,549 known cases of either blasphemy against Prophet Muhammad or desecration of the Koran, 75 accused people have been murdered before their trials. Meanwhile, no one has so far been executed by law for blasphemy.
Mashal Khan was 23 years old at the time when he was killed. After his brutal murder, a joint investigation team was formed to look into the case. The team found the blasphemy allegations to be false. This case, like all such cases, shows how blasphemy is a tool that can be used by anyone to incite violence. Nevertheless, it was not the only such case. Only recently, a professor was killed in Bahawalpur by his student for organising an ‘un-Islamic’ event where men and women were not segregated. A video of the student circulated on social media, where he talks about how “it’s a good thing” that he killed his professor as he “spoke against Islam”. Then, there is the case of Asia Bibi, who worked as a farm labourer in a village near Lahore. She was accused of blasphemy as she had taken a sip from the same cup of water as her Muslim colleagues. Many conservative Muslims in Pakistan do not share their utensils with people of other faiths as they attach a notion of impurity to non-Muslims. Bibi’s trial spanned over a period of nine years, during which she remained incarcerated in solitary confinement. The Supreme Court of Pakistan gave a verdict in her favour on October 31 last year. Soon after, reactionary forces in Pakistan, like the Tehrik Labbaik Pakistan party, came into action and gave the call for civil disobedience and violence.
All these cases go on to show how Islam continues to be instrumentalised in the country. As much as Islamophobia is a reality in Britain and other imperialist nation states, the reactionary Right in semi-colonial countries like Pakistan reproduce similar violence in the name of religion, which is Islam in Pakistan’s case. Before I am termed Islamophobic, let me state very categorically that I hold the same position on Hinduism in India as reactionary forces in our neighbouring country employ the majority religion there to further their nationalist motives. I do not think of this situation as rooted in something inherently wrong with Islam. It’s the instrumentalisation of Islam to serve certain political-economic agendas that I see as the root cause. The Right continues to rise in Pakistan as is the case across the globe. It is high time that progressive and leftist forces within Pakistan take the issue seriously and consciously tackle the phenomenon of religious fundamentalism. We will have to stop relying on the Pakistani state to provide protection against the reactionary forces. It is crucial to recognise the nature of the state, which is itself reactionary as well as bourgeois. We must also bear in mind that reactionary forces like the Tehrik Labbaik Pakistan party are creations of the state itself – the state uses such forces as and when it needs them and it also installs them into quarters of power when it sees fit. Therefore, it is only delusional to expect of the bourgeois state to protect us against reactionary forces. The fight against religious fundamentalism belongs to the Left and certainly not the Right. The Mashal March is a much-needed step in this direction.
- Minerwa Tahir is pursuing an MA in Gender and Sexuality at SOAS University of London.