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No plan or paddle

Updated May 20, 2017


IN the last few weeks, two names have dominated the news and views cycles in Pakistan. And I don’t mean Imran Khan and Nawaz Sharif.

In their own ways, Mashal Khan and Ehsanullah Ehsan have exposed the widening fracture in our society. The former was a bright, open-minded young man with a healthy curiosity about the world around him. The latter is a vicious, self-confessed terrorist who has revelled in the murder of thousands of innocent men, women and children in the name of Islam.

But more than revealing his cold-hearted cruelty, he has also highlighted the divisions in how our society views Islamist militancy. When a TV channel aired an interview with Ehsan recently, many objected on the grounds that it gave publicity to a terrorist who should be tried for his many crimes.

The increase in mob violence shows the state’s weak writ.

But there is a precedent for putting killers before TV cameras: recall the televised confession of Saulat Mirza, the MQM’s hit man, shortly before his execution. Clearly, this unexpected broadcast was intended to implicate the killer’s patrons in his crimes. So while I have no problem with Ehsan’s TV appea­rance, I do object to the softballs thrown at him by his interviewer. Surely, some tougher questions would have exposed the barbaric nature of the groups he spoke for.

Clearly, his captors gave him this opportunity for the purpose of establishing the links between Indian and Afghan intelligence agencies, and the jihadi groups Ehsan represented. He was encouraged to present himself as a misguided young man who abandoned militancy once he came to realise his masters were killing at the behest of hostile powers.

On the opposite side of the spectrum, we have Mashal Khan, a young man who was savagely murdered by a mob of his fellow students with the alleged collusion of university staff. His killing, on trumped-up blasphemy accusations, has become commonplace in Pakistan.

Now, according to his father, Mashal’s sisters are being harassed when they go to their classes. Unsurprisingly, a group of religious parties are defending Mashal’s killers.

This grotesque crime speaks as clearly for the kind of nation we have become, as does the official attempt to whitewash Ehsan’s crimes. Decades of the establishment playing footsie with extremist groups, combined with the brainwashing that began under Zia, have produced a generation that, with few exceptions, thinks it is perfectly normal to take the law into our own hands to ‘defend the faith’.

Years ago when I was a student at Karachi University, I recall arguing about religion with the head of the Jamiat on the campus, Javaid Akbar Ansari. Often, our conversations took a distinctly unorthodox turn. But those were more tolerant times.

The fact that mob violence is increasing speaks volumes for the enfeeblement of the state’s writ. People find courage in numbers, and in the sense of immunity that the charge of blasphemy confers on them.

Above all, they take advantage of the incompetence of the legal system in Pakistan. All too often, cops, prosecutors and judges either sympathise with extremists, or fear them. Witnesses are scared of coming forward.

More worrying still is the ambiguous and woolly public response to this threat. When Nausheen Leghari, a medical student and IS supporter, was recently apprehended with a suicide vest in Lahore, many on social media urged the authorities to forgive her. Had she succeeded in her plan, she might have killed scores of Christians praying in a church on Easter. For me, this amounts to blasphemy.

When Mashal Khan was murdered in Mardan, the horrifying killing was filmed and quickly went viral, provoking a multi-media storm. Had the crime occurred far from a camera, it might have been reported on page seven. And it would certainly not have received the kind of attention that it has. Some arrests have been made and, for a change, a few of the killers might actually be punished.

But had a Hindu, Ahmadi or Christian been subjected to a similar lynching, I doubt very much we would have seen the same reaction from the state or the media. After a Lahore court recently released all 46 accused of attacking a church and adjoining houses in 2015, how many Christians would have any confidence in our judiciary?

We have created a society in which people like Ehsanullah Ehsan are secretly admired, while the dwindling band of Mashal Khans are forced to duck for cover. The government has become a hapless witness, and seems to have retreated to the security enclave of Islamabad. Other actors including sections of the media, the clergy, the higher judiciary and the security establishment have usurped powers they were never meant to exercise.

So here we are, drifting down a raging river without a plan or a paddle, while the crew bicker among themselves.

Published in Dawn, May 20th, 2017