Muslim tradition holds that in the early 7th century AD, in a town in Arabia, a slave called Bilal was tortured by his owner. His crime, so says Islamic history, was to walk away from the existing ideological landscape. To embrace a new religious and political order. To dissent. Bilal did not back off and 1,400 years later, he is considered a hero in Islam. Why? Because he dissented. But also because he blasphemed.
Move forward and the followers of the religion that Bilal evidently helped to spread, have adopted the traditions of his torturers. Two years ago, on April 24, Sabeen Mehmud was killed because she wanted to provide a safe space for people to gather and discuss ideas, to challenge ideology, to dissent. We were told that extremists had killed her. The same jihadists who have killed thousands of Pakistanis. The same ilk, who have killed thousands all over the world.
But in Pakistan, the situation gets evermore fascinating. The State itself has adopted the same techniques as Bilal’s tormentors. And against whom you ask? Surely, the State – which includes civilian and military both – must be performing its duties to the letter; and if horrible torture techniques are being used, it must be against those that have killed our children?
Well, no. The State still has its ‘assets’, which have always been in the form of Islamic terror organizations that have continued to indulge in violence all over the country. We always knew this was happening. There were some who even vocally questioned it. Perhaps in the hope that our small voices will gather momentum and the State will be made to answer. Answer for deceiving us by continuing to support our killers, while pretending to fight them.
It wasn’t meant to be though. Some activists and bloggers were abducted. They were spirited away to unknown locations and they were tortured. The rest of us continued to protest and in an unprecedented move they were released. Almost none of them have spoken about what happened to them and who did it.
The bloggers were accused of blasphemy. It was said that their social media pages were full of anti-Islamic content. That tactic has now become the norm. The State has weaponized blasphemy because it knows that it is a death sentence without a trial. It is the perfect way of silencing any questions about how its machinery works. Accuse someone of blasphemy and sit back. The caretakers of religion will take over.
That is what happened to Mashal Khan. His horrendous murder did what was required. The government beat the drum of blasphemy for months, prior to his killing. Perhaps it did so of its own accord or perhaps it was compelled to do so. But it got the job done. People got scared. Many of those who used to question the way this country was being run, have backed off. They have been intimidated into silence. But silence was not enough. We also needed to be shown clearly and irrevocably, who rules us.
So it transpired that Naureen Leghari, who admitted to plotting a terrorist attack on Easter, became the daughter of the nation, who should be rehabilitated. While small time bloggers and activists are tortured and killed, known terrorists like Ehsanullah Ehsan – who has recently surrendered – can be seen on TV smilingly parroting the state narrative of RAW involvement in terrorism in Pakistan.
Just silencing wasn’t enough. A slap in the face was also needed to ensure complete acquiescence. Not only do we not have the right to question State agenda, we also need to be shown how inconsequential we are. Because it is not about good Taliban and bad Taliban anymore. From the looks of it, all Taliban are good Taliban now. The enemy are those who need to be muzzled for looking askance at the State. While terrorists are given the benefit of the doubt, activists and writers are taken to task in the worst possible manner. And what better way to do so than to use blasphemy. It is a time honoured tactic. And it has again been successful. Journalists are self-censoring. Activists and bloggers have gone into hiding. At a time when we needed more voices to come out and challenge 70 years of propaganda and brainwashing, we have very very few left.
Because nobody wants to be the next Mashal.
(Published in The Nation)