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Pakistan journalism student latest victim of blasphemy vigilantes

A 23-year-old journalism student in Pakistan has been killed by a vigilante mob over allegations of blasphemy. The brutal murder shocked many liberals who believe that state policies are emboldening religious fanatics.

Mashal Khan, a student at Abdul Wali Khan University in the northwestern city of Mardan, has become the latest victim of Pakistan's blasphemy vigilantes. Khan was murdered in broad daylight by a mob at the university campus on Thursday. He was accused of insulting Islam by fellow students after a debate over religion the day before.

But the manner in which Khan was killed shocked liberal and secular Pakistanis, who expressed their anger and revulsion on social media. The videos of the gruesome murder circulating on Twitter and Facebook show a similar style of lynching and "mob justice" that is often associated with militant Islamist groups like the Taliban and the so-called "Islamic State."

Khan was dragged out of his dorm by fellow students, who then shot and beat him to death. Pakistani media quoted eyewitnesses as saying that Khan was forced to recite verses from the Koran before his death. Khan's friend, Abdullah, was injured in the attack.

Khan's friends and teachers described him as an inquiring student who often debated political and religious issues.

"Whatever he had to say, he would say it openly, but he didn't understand the environment he was living in," one of Khan's teachers told Reuters, speaking on condition of anonymity.

Police have arrested 20 suspects involved in Khan's murder and have found no evidence to substantiate blasphemy allegations.

Neither Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif nor any other prominent government official has so far condemned the lynching.

Blasphemy is a sensitive topic in the Islamic Republic of Pakistan, where around 97 percent of its 180 million inhabitants are Muslim. Rights advocates have long been demanding a reform of the controversial blasphemy laws, which were introduced by the Islamic military dictator General Zia-ul-Haq in the 1980s. Activists have said the laws have little to do with blasphemy and are often used to settle petty disputes and personal vendettas.

But if you asked people on the streets whether they were in favor of the repeal of the controversial blasphemy law, their answer would probably be a "no."

"It is not about amending or repealing the law (blasphemy law), or making new laws; those who insult our religion should not go unpunished," Ali Asghar, a student in Lahore, told DW.

In der Großstadt Lahore im Osten Pakistans hat eine aufgebrachte Menschenmenge dutzende Häuser von Christen in Brand gesetzt (Arif Ali/AFP/Getty Images)

Pakistani activists say that religious extremism and intolerance are no longer isolated phenomena in the Islamic country

State support for fanatics

The Islamic country's human rights groups have expressed concern about mob vigilantism over blasphemy accusations. Activists say that in Pakistan it is easy to accuse anyone of committing blasphemy, which, according to the law, is punishable by death. Witnesses are usually not required to file a police case against the alleged blasphemer. In many cases in the past, those accused of insulting Islam or its prophet Muhammad have been killed by angry crowds.

Rights groups say the government's recent crackdown on alleged blasphemers is a major reason behind Mashal Khan's murder as such measures are emboldening religious fanatics in the South Asian country.

"The state's abject failure to protect Mashal Khan's right to life has created great panic and horror among students and academia. Unless all those who played any part in Khan's brutal murder are brought to justice, such barbarity will only spread," the nongovernmental Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) said in a statement on Friday.

"The malaise that manifested itself in Mardan will not vanish with brief shuttering of the university. All those who believe in positive human values must speak out and suggest ways to prevent vigilantes causing mayhem by using the name of religion. Staying quiet in the face of such barbarism will condemn us all as accomplices," said HRCP.

Online blasphemy

In March, PM Sharif issued an order for the removal of online "blasphemous content" and said anyone who posted such content should face "strict punishment under the law".

Rights groups say the authorities want to stifle dissenting voices as an increasing number of people are criticizing government policies and actions through social media and other cyber platforms. That is also the reason why the Pakistani government has introduced stricter measures to control social media and the internet, rights groups allege.

Screenshot Twitter #RecoverSalmanHaider (twitter.com)

Pakistani civil society has become alarmed over blasphemy accusations against liberal activists

In January, renowned rights activist and university professor Salman Haider disappeared from the capital Islamabad. Three other secular activists - Waqas Goraya, Asim Saeed and Ahmed Raza - also went missing. After several weeks, all these bloggers returned to their homes, with Goraya claiming that he was "abducted" by Pakistan's law enforcement agencies.

Many commentators in the Pakistani media later accused the bloggers of running anti-Islam Facebook pages. An Islamabad resident also filed a complaint with the police accusing the activists of committing blasphemy.

"This vigilantism is being supported by the state as well as the judiciary. Religious clerics are fanning hatred. Even the civil society has failed to perform its duties. All this culminated in the brutal murder of Mashal Khan," Aatif Afzal, an Islamabad-based rights activist and communication strategist with a media development organization, told DW.

Collective intolerance

Pakistan has witnessed an unprecedented surge in Islamic extremism and religious fanaticism in the past decade. Islamist groups, including the Taliban, have repeatedly targeted religious minorities in the country in order to impose their strict Shariah law on people.

According to the HRCP, 2013 was one of the worst years for religious minorities in the country. Several people were charged with blasphemy, many places of worship were burned down and houses were looted all over the country.

Asad Butt of the HRCP told DW that intolerance was definitely growing in Pakistan, and that many Pakistanis considered blasphemy an "unpardonable crime."

But how and when did Pakistanis become so intolerant towards other religions and their followers?

"The days are gone when we said it was a small group of religious extremists, xenophobes, hate-mongers and bigots who commit such crimes," Karachi-based journalist Mohsin Sayeed told DW. "Now the venom has spread to the whole of Pakistani society," he added.

Activist Afzal says that blasphemy violence will not stop in Pakistan until the government takes firm action against vigilantism and those who wrongly accuse people of blasphemy.

"It can be a defining moment in Pakistan's war against religious extremism. But I am afraid the political parties will not act. They are only interested in securing their vote bank," Afzal told DW, adding that Pakistani civil society will continue to build pressure on the government to reform blasphemy laws.

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