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Why they lynched Mashal Khan

Updated Apr 29, 2017 07:24am

THE mental state of men ready and poised to kill has long fascinated scientists. The Nobel Prize winning ethologist, Konrad Lorenz, says such persons experience the ‘Holy Shiver’ (called heiliger Schauer in German) just moments before performing the deed. In his famous book On Aggression, Lorenz describes it as a tingling of the spine prior to performing a heroic act in defence of their communities.

This feeling, he says, is akin to the pre-human reflex that raises hair on an animal’s back as it zeroes in for the kill. He writes: “A shiver runs down the back and along the outside of both arms. All obstacles become unimportant … instinctive inhibitions against hurting or killing disappear … Men enjoy the feeling of absolute righteousness even as they commit atrocities.”

While they stripped naked and beat their colleague Mashal Khan with sticks and bricks, the 20-25 students of the Mardan university enjoyed precisely this feeling of righteousness. They said Khan had posted content disrespectful of Islam on his Facebook page and so they took it upon themselves to punish him. Finally, one student took out his pistol and shot him dead. Hundreds of others watched approvingly and, with their smartphone cameras, video-recorded the killing for distribution on their Facebook pages. A meeting of this self-congratulatory group resolved to hide the identity of the shooter.


Much of the Pakistani public, tacitly or openly, endorses violent punishment of suspected blasphemers.


Khan had blasphemed! Until this was finally shown to be false, no proper funeral was possible in his home village. Sympathy messages from Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and opposition leaders such as Bilawal Bhutto came only after it had been established that Khan performed namaz fairly regularly.

Significantly, no protests of significance followed. University campuses were silent and meetings discussing the murder were disallowed. A demonstration at the Islamabad Press Club drew about 450, a miniscule figure against the estimated 200,000 who attended Mumtaz Qadri’s last rites.

This suggests that much of the Pakistani public, whether tacitly or openly, endorses violent punishment of suspected blasphemers. Why? How did so many Pakistanis become bloodthirsty vigilantes? Evening TV talk shows — at least those I have either seen or participated in — circle around two basic explanations.

One, favoured by the liberal-minded, blames the blasphemy law and implicitly demands its repeal (an explicit call would endanger one’s life). The other, voiced by the religiously orthodox, says vigilantism occurs only because our courts act too slowly against accused blasphemers.

Both claims are not just wrong, they are farcical. Subsequent to Khan’s killing, at least two other incidents show that gut reactions — not what some law says — is really what counts. In one, three armed burqa-clad sisters shot dead a man near Sialkot who had been accused of committing blasphemy 13 years ago. In the other, a visibly mentally ill man in Chitral uttered remarks inside a mosque and escaped lynching only upon the imam’s intervention. The mob subsequently burned the imam’s car. Heiliger Schauer!

While searching for a real explanation, let’s first note that religiously charged mobs are also in motion across the border. As more people flock to mandirs or masjids, the outcomes are strikingly similar. In an India that is now rapidly Hinduising, crowds are cheering enraged gau rakshaks who smash the skulls of Muslims suspected of consuming or transporting cows. In fact India has its own Khan — Pehlu Khan.

Accused of cattle-smuggling, Pehlu Khan was lynched and killed by cow vigilantes earlier this month before a cheering crowd in Alwar, with the episode also video-recorded. Minister Gulab Chand Kataria declared that Khan belonged to a family of cow smugglers and he had no reason to feel sorry. Now that cow slaughter has been hyped as the most heinous of crimes, no law passed in India can reverse vigilantism.

Vigilantism is best explained by evolutionary biology and sociology. A fundamental principle there says only actions and thoughts that help strengthen group identity are well received, others are not. In common with our ape ancestors, we humans instinctively band together in groups because strength lies in unity. The benefits of group membership are immense — access to social networks, enhanced trust, recognition, etc. Of course, as in a club, membership carries a price tag. Punishing cow-eaters or blasphemers (even alleged ones will do) can be part payment. You become a real hero by slaying a villain — ie someone who challenges your group’s ethos. Your membership dues are also payable by defending or eulogising heroes.

Celebration of such ‘heroes’ precedes Qadri. The 19-year old illiterate who killed Raj Pal, the Hindu publisher of a controversial book on the Prophet (PBUH), was subsequently executed by the British but the youth was held in the highest esteem. Ghazi Ilm Din is venerated by a mausoleum over his grave in Lahore. An 8th grade KP textbook chapter eulogising him tells us that Ilm Din’s body remained fresh days after the execution.

In recent times, backed by the formidable power of the state, Hindu India and Islamic Pakistan have vigorously injected religion into both politics and society. The result is their rapid re-tribalisation through ‘meme transmission’ of primal values. A concept invented by the evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins, the meme is a ‘piece of thought’ transferrable from person to person by imitation. Like computer viruses, memes can jump from mind to mind.

Memes containing notions of religious or cultural superiority have been ‘cut-and-pasted’ into millions of young minds. Consequently, more than ever before, today’s youth uncritically accepts the inherent morality of their particular group, engages in self-censorship, rationalises the group’s decisions, and engages in moral policing.

Groupthink and deadly memes caused the lynching and murder of the two Khans. Is a defence against such viral afflictions ever possible? Can the subcontinent move away from its barbaric present to a civilised future? One can so hope. After all, like fleas, memes and thought packages can jump from person to person. But they don’t bite everybody! A robust defence can be built by educating people into the spirit of critical inquiry, helping them become individuals rather than groupies, and encouraging them to introspect. A sense of humour, and maybe poetry, would also help.

The writer teaches physics in Lahore and Islamabad.

Published in Dawn, April 29th, 2017