Flames of bigotry

Updated March 22, 2019


IT is yet another needless death at the altar of moral vigilantism. On Wednesday at Bahawalpur’s Government Sadiq Egerton College, a third-year student stabbed to death Khalid Hameed, head of the English department, accusing the professor of ‘spreading obscenity’.

It appears the young man had taken exception on religious grounds to a mixed gender event being held on the college premises — despite the institution being a co-educational one — and attacked Mr Hameed for his role in organising it.

The student, unrepentant and defiant, was arrested by police while the victim, unfortunately, succumbed to his injuries while being taken to hospital.

The state cannot escape responsibility for Mr Hameed’s terrible fate. Over the decades it has repeatedly capitulated to self-proclaimed guardians of public morality and allowed them to define ‘acceptable’ norms of behaviour.

Instead of being a bulwark against bigotry and intolerance, it has institutionalised religious discrimination, soft-pedalled hate speech and ignored the denunciation of individuals, or even entire segments of the populace, as apostates and/or traitors.

Educational institutions, which should encourage diversity and critical thinking, are particularly susceptible to moral policing of ‘wayward’ youth. This can take the form of diktats by the administration — such as attempts to enforce strict student dress codes — or strong-arm methods by conservative students, who conflate any form of enjoyment with immorality, to prevent or disrupt on-campus events.

Given the state’s historical appeasement of right-wing elements, at times to preserve tactical political alliances, the censorious voices and puritanical narratives have become ever more strident. Consequently, progressive thinkers and opinion-makers — or even anyone perceived to be so, such as the slain professor — find themselves extremely vulnerable to violence.

Blasphemy is an especially emotive term, capable of triggering horrific depredations: the mob lynching of Mashal Khan in April 2017 is but one example. Worst of all, such vigilante ‘justice’ is often worn as a badge of honour by the perpetrator.

Consider the depraved triumphalism with which Salmaan Taseer’s murderer ‘justified’ his crime, and his deification by segments of society that continues to this day.

A crackdown against extremist organisations may be ongoing and much needed. But what is to be done about a mindset that considers it incumbent on people — the ‘right’ kind of people, that is — to ‘purify’ society, by coercive means if necessary?

It may be an uncomfortable truth, but terrorist and sectarian outfits who commit wholesale slaughter are only an extreme manifestation of the same prejudiced, judgemental mindset.

Published in Dawn, March 22nd, 2019