Published Global Affairs / June 2017
Written in the immediate aftermath of Mashal Khan's lynching
APS happened while Operation Zarb-e-Azb was underway. It shook the nation to its very core; and pushed the armed forces to expand the scope of its offensives. Military courts were set up in the aftermath. A death row inmate (Qadri), once lauded by clergy and lawyers for killing a Governor, was finally executed along with scores of militants.
And soon another operation would come into effect after shrines, rallies and public places were targeted in a resurgence of terror in 2017. If the first was driven by vengeance, the second came from desperation. Pakistan’s survival was at stake – unless it tackled the darkness head on. But the darkness was deeply rooted in controversial laws and religious sentiments and shining a light towards the unholy nexus remains fraught with danger.
This is why Operation Radd-ul-Fassad needs to sharpen its intensity. It has a promising design and an ambitious scale, prompting the Army COAS to declare there are no more ‘no go’ areas. But the fault lines run deep, so much so that the PM once came under fire for daring to advocate religious harmony. His office keeps him safe for now. But as was witnessed in Salman Taseer’s case, rank and privilege are powerless in front of a possessed man with a weapon and an idea.
Such is the level of toxicity in the region. Such is the depth of depravity of its denizens. And on 13th April, it hit critical mass when Mashal Khan – a university student of journalism in Mardan was lynched by a frenzied mob made up of his fellow students. Blasphemy was cited as the reason though no evidence exists. What did exist was a young man, outspoken and open minded. His name means ‘torch’ and he talks of books and rain and Peshawar Zalmi on his social media timeline. He champions the cause of the downtrodden. He referred to himself as a ghost on more than one occasion. He was clearly a misfit in the environment. His father, a poor man, a dignified soul, beseeched the media for justice – to save other Mashals from being snuffed out. But clearly he didn’t expect any. Neither did the horrified onlookers.
One sickening act dealt a severe blow to the spirit of Radd-ul-Fassad and attempted to shred the precious National Action Plan before it could gain traction. Though no mullah was directly involved in its execution – the lynch mob carries the seal of approval of the homegrown hardliners. Later, the local clergymen reportedly incited people against Mashal’s family, refused to read his last rites, and tried to degrade his memory.
There’s a common thread running through these incidents – fanaticism, patronage by powerful men, mixed messages from the State and an absence of accountability. Pakistan may need protection from the spies, saboteurs, warlords, and radicals, but it needs saving from its own demons just as much. Without embarking upon a lengthy discourse, it cannot hope to implement the most crucial parts of its grand plan or sell its vision of a progressive nation with any conviction. Without securing its future generations, it cannot fortify its CPEC laced investments and enter the prestigious club of civilized nations.
A line must be drawn, because winning these battles will determine the outcome of a larger war. As reforms are imminent for seminaries – the radicals are now flexing their muscles. If a moderate voice is fearful of reading a poem on air because someone can whip up a blasphemy charge then things are bad. When every Pakistani hastens to add a disclaimer on his / her social media profile that they don’t own any other account because they are afraid of becoming the next statistic in a falsified blasphemy case, it is time to change. When a grieving father is compelled to testify for his martyred child’s good character and religious beliefs then that time is now.
That the counter terrorism department stepped in makes sense, for Mashal’s lynching is the very definition of terrorism. It took days for the State to issue a condemnation. A lone mufti has stood up to the cabal and declared Mashal a martyr. Society will take the apathy as tacit approval. The next lynch mob will take its cues from the official position.
There are no scapegoats in this case – no insidious networks with ties to Afghanistan or India. The Governor’s killer was a trusted guard sworn to protect him. Mashal Khans’ tormentors were his peers. These are not isolated incidents when a Fulbright scholar rots in jail – and an enlightened soul is lost forever. There is malware in the code. And these recurring patterns have somehow failed to register on a State level.
This vulnerability will be exploited not just by the ISIS, Taliban, JUA or any number of sectarian outfits Pakistan is trying to expunge but also the enemy agents they have been rounding up by the dozens. Now that the line between a Talib and the Taliban has been breached, it is just a matter of time when someone comes along to set them on hapless Pakistanis. The enemies who wish to isolate Pakistan must be rejoicing – for they have been handed the blueprints to a fatal flaw in the social fabric on a blood soaked platter. Such incidents cast long shadows and leave a permanent mark.
Initial investigations point to the university administration in instigating the attack; blasphemy, is and always has been a mere pretext. The next Kulbhushan Jadhav or Uzair Baloch will find a network of young men in universities already programmed to seek and destroy any one who doesn’t conform. The Taliban’s narrative of anti Malala, pro Aafia, minority hating spiel already aligns with an average Pakistani’s lopsided worldview. Where narratives align so can agendas.
No armies will be needed to invade cities. No propaganda machine will be wheeled out to tarnish Pakistan’s image. One word will set off a horde of mad men baying for blood. They will not require IED’s and suicide vests. They will be ticking time bombs waiting for the signal and will dictate who gets to live or die. Society will crumble. The nation will fragment. Because Pakistanis may be able to put aside their differences and unite against terrorism and even become soldiers in this war but they will not be able to survive the culling. This is no longer a hypothetical. Mardan was just the tip of the iceberg and one cannot unite a nation and fight a war with everyone looking over their shoulders all the time.
But Qadri’s execution also shows that the law can prevail provided the State can defend itself against reprisals and stand by their bold verdict. It proves that Pakistan still has a conscience. Even if the judiciary gets browbeaten into submission, there are some institutions left standing, able to ward off the powerful lobbies that dictate the theological parameters and rewrite scripture on a whim.
And there’s an opportunity here to wrench the narrative back provided the State can withstand the backlash and ensure that once they dispense justice, no shrines can be set up in a killer’s name, libraries dedicated to their memories or processions held to commemorate their despicable lives. Their names must be erased from history books. Because if they don’t enact the law, that message of ‘zero tolerance’ will carry no weight; the soft image of Pakistan will find no takers – its dreams of economic prosperity will yield no harvest. Make this the highest priority though the path is littered with minefields of rigid sentiments and unholy alliances.
A day after Mashal’s tragic death, the army foiled an attack on Easter celebrations and while that is a significant victory – the sacrifices and conquests have gone unremarked because of the looming crisis. The State now aims to reform security services, seminaries and educational departments. And Radd-ul-Fassad has to set the flawed premise right, peddled by self righteous mullahs and self serving politicians in order to proceed with its reformist agenda. That the murderers came from educated backgrounds makes this all the more critical because the next soldier, statesman and scholar will come from these cadres. Seminary students have limited reach. Radicalization has already begun to rear its ugly head in places once considered centers of secular thought.
It will have to be a collective effort to correct the national trajectory and ensure that core values of a civilized society become the baseline. They can engage with movements like ‘Badal do’ with its slogans of empathy, and calls for inclusivity – that welcomes diversity and advocates for change. By acknowledging activists like M. Jibran Nasir who champion human rights and represent the face of a compassionate Islam. And by drilling the concept that nothing is more sacred than protecting the sanctity of a life regardless of sect, religion and class differences.
Cultural exchanges to broaden horizons are the need of the hour especially in conservative, backwater parts of town likely to fall prey to a puritanical brand of religion that has no room for mercy – and no tolerance for debate. Academic discourses will ensure that they develop a capacity to appreciate alternate view points and understand other cultures. Such age old traditions that have protected the armed forces and empowered them to withstand the tempest make for a useful guide. Equip our ‘at risk’ generation with the same tools of common decency and kindness to guard against coming storm. Unless there are barriers already in place – the tide of extremism will lay waste to everyone including the cream of the crop being groomed for leadership.
In APS, a faculty member Ms. Afshan Ahmed gave her life to save the students. She and others like her represent the true face of Pakistan. And there are many ways to broadcast messages that demonstrate how there is honor in saving lives – none in destroying it. That even on the battlefield, heroism and chivalry are never far from reach; and fallen enemies are never mocked, or degraded, especially soldiers who die for their country. These forgotten ideals must be instilled in the youth and genuine role models presented for reference.
Radd-ul-Fassad will be required to anticipate and adapt to changing threats. It can do that by throwing its weight behind the victims of persecution; the Aasia bibis, Junaid Hafeez’s, Mashals - the noble fathers and grieving families. It can do that by saving the shrinking spaces. Without arts, culture and music, murder becomes the only form of entertainment. It can do that by acknowledging the services of minorities and promoting the rich diversity. The Interior Minister busy enabling the clergy via social media witch hunts continues to muddy the waters at a time when clarity is needed. The mixed messages need to be sorted out. And it can do that by allowing media watch dogs room to breathe and be vigilant against the appearance of extremist ideology instead of hunting down imaginary blasphemers.
Has Pakistan crossed the Rubicon? Can it salvage its liberal heart from the ashes of Mardan and the dying embers of its moderate spirit? Will it have the courage to purge the poison from within its ranks and realize that the very existence of such laws is an invitation to reenact Mardan?
By attacking a defenseless young man in the name of Islam, the killers challenged the writ of the sorry State, such as it is much the same way the Taliban did in Swat when they strung up citizens, demolished schools or shot Malala. The Taliban may have been unseated but their ideology clearly remains. The perpetrators of the Mardan debacle belong to the same school of thought and have thrown down the gauntlet. This is a turf war and they will not cede territory without a fight. Till the judicial system is strengthened, military tribunals become the only option otherwise judges are strong-armed and lawyers gunned down in broad daylight where even a whiff of blasphemy is suspected.
They can ensure the sou moto notices issued against suspects is not mere formality – that there are real consequences to subverting the tenets of a peaceful religion. By not delivering speedy justice to previous victims allowed radicals to make a mockery of the law. Taseers’ guard violated his oath. The Mardan mob broke the covenant. And there are many like them ready and willing to cross red lines set by humanity to reach the Promised Land.
Somewhere along the way Pakistanis became hostages to the radical ideology that commands street power and has no shortage of funding. Since no prominent leader had the moral courage to confront the clergy who refused to lead the prayers of a slain governor. None had the integrity to protect the one who did and who was later forced to go into hiding.
This was January 2011. Had a stand been taken then, things could have been different now. Recent images posted showing the small turn-out at Mashals funeral vs. Qadri’s procession; the contrast was jarring.
A monument to Mashal will be needed to mark this moment – to remember his humanity and to commemorate his short life. And to ensure Pakistan never forgets. And if the State waits for the outrage to die down and does not address this on war footing then all the operations and intelligence coups in the world cannot stop their world from imploding. The momentum cannot be allowed to fizzle away. Mashal must be a turning point. The future where the best and brightest will either be dead or exiled is round the bend since the nation is precariously close to losing its moral high ground. It will come to pass, unless they seize the controls and rein in its rogue sons of the soil. Till then all the leading lights in Pakistan are in danger; all the pillars of its strategic vision on notice. Till then all of us are ghosts.