The death of critical inquiry

If amidst this brutality, the victim blaming is dominating then there is not much hope for progress and enlightenment

Being an Indian, lynch mobs are fast becoming a reality for us here, with every single passing day some gruesome incident being shared on mainstream media. A group of people going totally crazy over an alleged "beef in the fridge" and bricking/stoning a 65-year-old man to death; teenage cow "smugglers" who are going about their business, as usual, being hanged in trees; sexually assaulted tribal girls found hanging from trees; and so on.

It brings to mind the Jim Crow South in the US where "niggers" were lynched and burnt on wooden crosses. I remember watching the movie The Great Debaters and crying for hours at various scenes, painfully aware that the incidents dramatised were based on real ones. The biographical drama film, directed by and starring Denzel Washington, is based on an article written about the Wiley College debate team by Tony Scherman in 1997, in which the efforts of the debate coach, Melvin B. Tolson (professor of English) at the historically Black college were highlighted as he struggled to place his team on equal footing with whites in the American South during the 1930s - Jim Crow laws being common and lynch mobs, a pervasive fear for blacks.

Throughout the movie, the famous paraphrase Of Augustine of Hippo: "An unjust law is no law at all" has been used several times. James L. Farmer Jr. (the initiator and organiser of the 1961 Freedom Ride movement leading to desegregation of interstate buses) played by Denzel Whitaker was on the Wiley debate team along with Henrietta Bell Wells when they went against the University of Southern Carolina and not Harvard as shown in the movie. His experiences in his childhood including a lynching he witnessed were the catalyst for his lifetime activism against racism.

The debate final scene is profound as the opponents present their views on non-violence and civil disobedience and invoke Gandhi and Henry David Thoreau, lifelong advocates of civil disobedience. In his winning presentation, James L. Farmer Jr. is shown arguing how there is no morality in the Jim Crow laws of the South where a man can be lynched with impunity. An immoral law requires that it be resisted, resisting it becoming a duty whether by violence or civil disobedience. He clinches the win by telling the audience they should pray he chooses the latter.

The blasphemy laws are such laws - unjust laws which are not laws at all. It is a moral obligation to resist such laws and a duty to fight such laws. The latest lynching of a humanist student in Pakistan, Mashal Khan, of the Mardan University is just one more incident in the growing statistics of people being killed under the pretext of having "blasphemed". A blasphemy law in 2017 makes no sense. Every time you go to the doctor's clinic and rely on the diagnosis of science and the healing of allopathic medicines you are committing blasphemy.

Every time you refuse to take up a second wife, kill a Jew, or kafir, or let a minority practice their faith, you are committing blasphemy. The Internet enables you to study the rotation and revolution of the Earth (blasphemous observation and one which house arrested a scientist until he recanted this fact) and even view the Earth from the point of view of an extraterrestrial being should there be one and they decide to visit us. Every technological advancement is blasphemous in nature and yet those who commit murder rely on these inventions to spread the terror of blasphemous laws and end up targeting innocents who just want to "walk on this Earth peacefully" (Mashal Khan's words on his Facebook page).

The difference between the lynchings in India currently and the ones in the 1930s Jim Crow South are that the "unjust law" was changed because of the Civil Rights Movement and the extremist Hindutva murderers have a possibility of being held accountable especially by conscientious Hindus themselves as well as a secular Constitution. The thousands of "university educated" students seen graphically hitting a prone, and critically wounded Mashal even as he breathed his last while chanting 'God is Great', will definitely get away with this gruesome murder. This is not an attempt to put across my country's brutality is lesser than yours, but to explore what it is about taking away a life just because the person looks different than you, has a specific dietary habit and thinks on a wholly different level than most.

Ochlocracy or "mob rule" is not new to me, having witnessed the forced exodus and ethnic cleansing of Kashmiri Pandits from my home state of Jammu, Kashmir and Ladakh in 1990. The "majoritarianism" erupts every summer since 2008 as jihadis and some nostalgic, third generation, Kashmiri nationalists of elite families dreaming of the "unfinished business of Partition" recruit stone pelters with money and the Wahhabi/Salafi version of Islam to battle the forces of "Hindu Endia".

Every summer the cycle of violence follows the same pattern of a mob targeting a security picket with stones or starting street skirmishes with the riot police until things come to a head and result in casualties usually with pellet guns and point blank shootings which give the impetus for more mobs to swell and defy curfews and the ill-equipped, overworked, mostly deranged, PTSD-suffering personnel posted in a conflict zone end up trigger-happy. There is the occasional "collateral damage" civilian getting killed from his/her own people's anarchism too, easily dismissed as one who got in the way.

The same ochlocracy was present at the Salem With Trials in colonial Massachusetts during the 1690s and in Farkhunda Malikzada's killing in 2015 in Kabul. Readers may recognise the similarity between the circumstances of the deaths of Mashal Khan's in Mardan, Pakistan, M. Farook's in Coimbatore, India and Farkhunda Malikzada's in Kabul, Afghanistan - a rumour or misunderstanding regarding an alleged blasphemy or atheism and a crowd quickly swelling with "dishonour-to-the-Prophet-or-Islam-deserves-death" mentality.

Then there are similarities in the mentalities that believe a human life can be executed without a trial, without a hearing and in the most gruesome manner as possible to revenge a deity, an omnipotent Father or Maker and his very human and frail messengers, especially if they have not been following the religious norms to the T. The suspicious murder/suicide? of the model-cum-student hailing from the Maldives, Raudha Athif in a Bangladeshi hostel is one such example.

The debate is also raging whether blasphemy was actually committed or not, taking away the whole point of even if there had been anything critical, who decides what is blasphemous or not and why even have the concept of blasphemy in the first place. If amidst this brutality, the victim blaming is dominating then there is not much hope for progress and enlightenment - two important factors for two nations grappling with poverty, unemployment, water woes, undernourishment, hygiene and extremism.

I read the shares of brave Pakistani dissenters, social critics and journalists whom this Mardan incident had broken and their submission to censor themselves from now onwards bringing up the fact that along with Mashal, free expression and critical inquiry had been killed. The very fact that people think they can drag a wounded man from his room and beat him to pulp, or accost two teenagers towing a few cows and hang them from trees, only because the socio-cultural-politico environment has enabled them to show their innate hatred, insecurity, prejudice and arrogance does not bode well for the subcontinent.

As I mourn for the latest victim of this atrocity, my heart remembers the scores of Mashals in closed rooms with hidden books in trunks, secret poems in diaries under beds and in closets, humanistic souls who long to keep a pet dog, doubting individuals venturing to ask things which trouble them, sensitive souls who long to share what is in their minds but are afraid of being labelled as not "true Muslims"or straightaway ostracized from their communities for daring to bring up uncomfortable topics. The Mardan incident may have added to the already existing anxieties but if seen in the context of the history of heresy, especially in the Muslim World, I doubt it will stop many of them from pursuing their critical inquiry into truth - maybe much more discreetly.

For it is the lure of the truth, to live life to its full potential, to not live this shallow, borrowed culture/worldview but to create one's own that encourages people like Mashal to go on and face the mob despite being warned by well-meaning teachers and concerned friends that it was dangerous for him to be present on campus. Like I said earlier in my previous blog post, Pakistan can and will prevail if it seizes this moment in history and turns over the reasons of its origins. I can guarantee they will find Lankan, Afghani, Indian and Bangladeshi dissenters along with the increasing Maldivian ones to help them through.

This is my tribute to Shaan-e-Hind, Mashal khan who died tragically in a mob lynching. Rest in courage!

Arshia Malik is a Srinagar-based writer and social commentator with focus on women issues and conflict in Kashmir. She makes her living as a school teacher and is an avid collector of literature. She is currently writing a book about her life as a female in Kashmiri Muslim society

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