The recent lynching of a university student in Pakistan who had been falsely accused of blasphemy highlights the fact that terrorist and separatist violence are not the sole security threats facing the successful completion of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC). Indeed, apart from the security threats posed by militant and separatist groups like the Balochistan Liberation Front and the Pakistani Taliban, CPEC’s planners and the Pakistani government need to prepare for the possibility of vigilante and mob violence instigated against CPEC personnel. Such violence could be triggered by false accusations, as was demonstrated by the brutal murder of Mashal Khan.
Mashal Khan’s murder occurred on April 13, 2017 at Abdul Wali Khan University in Pakistan’s Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province. On that morning, rumors — later determined to be false — had circulated around the campus that Khan had been found “promoting the Ahmadi faith on Facebook,” an act which is considered blasphemous in Pakistan. Rightly concerned about the growing tension, Khan’s instructors drove him “from campus to another location.” However, he returned to campus, pointing out: “I have done nothing wrong, why should I hide?” As one of his instructors noted of Khan, “he didn’t understand the environment he was living in.”
Beena Sarwar recounts what happened next: “When the mob came for him, he stood no chance ... They stripped, beat and clubbed him, then shot him. Videos circulating online show young men, some carrying backpacks, kicking and throwing stones at his near-naked, bloodied, lifeless body ... The police too said they were helpless. Hopelessly outnumbered and inadequately trained, the best they could do for Mashal was to prevent the mob from burning his battered body, which they took away even as dozens of charged young men demanded it back.”
However, according to eyewitness testimony, the police officers at the scene were complicit with the lynch mob: “They could have easily saved his life but they stood away from the mob ... I heard one officer say it’s good that they sent this non-believer to hell.” Such complicity of law enforcement officials with lawbreakers represents a pernicious form of lawlessness that the Pakistani state will have to address with its ongoing arrests and investigations, and future prosecutions and punishments, of those responsible for Mashal Khan’s brutal murder and the violent desecration of his corpse.
Salahuddin Khan Mehsud, the Inspector-General of Police of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, has confirmed that there was no evidence that Mashal Khan had uploaded blasphemous content to social media. However, “a lot of activity had occurred after the incident,” and “many manufactured and edited pictures, and videos were now circulating on social media sites.” As Khan’s university instructor Ziaullah Hamdard noted, following the murder, “fake accounts were created in Mashal’s name on social media and [blasphemous] things were posted.”
Mashal Khan’s Facebook status update from last December warning that “someone had made a fake profile in his name and to malign him” has gone viral following his murder, and IT experts have warned that a creating a fake profile on Facebook or other social media platforms is “an easy way to create hate for you especially among a group of people who may have issues with your views.”
Despite the growing evidence that Mashal Khan had been framed for blasphemy, some members of the local population have turned against his family because of the false accusation. Two hardline clerics in Khan’s home town of Swabi are currently under police investigation for spreading “hate speech against the slain student and his family.” The harassment suffered by Khan’s family over the false accusation did not stop there: “A local imam had refused to lead the funeral prayers at Khan’s funeral … A technician who was asked to do so in the cleric’s place was confronted by several people afterwards.”
Not surprisingly, Mashal Khan’s father has requested that his son’s killers be tried in military court, given his “lack of faith in the civilian courts to deliver justice.” His distrust of the justice system is supported by the observation of a senior police officer that “many members of the police, prosecution service and judiciary sympathised with the attackers and he did not expect any guilty verdicts.”
As human rights advocates have observed, the blasphemy law has been used by agitators to incite vigilante and mob violence, and most of them have gone unpunished. Since 1990, dozens of people have been murdered in Pakistan over accusations of blasphemy. Indeed, in the week following Mashal Khan’s murder, two subsequent instances of vigilante and mob violence related to blasphemy accusations have occurred. First, three sisters shot dead a man whom they accused of having committed blasphemy in 2004:
“According to the police, the three women went to the house of Mazhar Hussain Syed, a faith healer, and asked him to pray for them. They also asked him if his son, Fazal Abbas, had returned from abroad. When told that he had returned from Belgium, they asked if they could see him. As soon as Abbas, 45, appeared before the women, they opened fire on him with the weapons they had brought with them secretly. Abbas died on the spot. The women raised slogans in jubilation after his death, asserting that they had finally eliminated a blasphemer.
Should the industrial employment offered under CPEC lead to similar societal changes in rural Pakistan, the CPEC planners and the Pakistani government should prepare for outbursts of protests or even violence against the factories in CPEC’s industrial zones.
In the second incident following Khan’s murder, a mob attacked an apparently mentally-ill man who had “declared himself a messiah and said he would lead his followers to paradise.” After his arrest, the mob proceeded to attack the police station demanding that the man be handed over to them to be lynched, prompting the police to fire “tear gas and live rounds on the mob, injuring eight protesters.”
Pakistan’s blasphemy law, despite being of concern to human rights advocates, does not in itself constitute a challenge to the successful completion or running of CPEC. This is because foreign investors and businessmen, as well as expatriate workers, have long understood the importance of obeying the laws and customs of the countries they invest or work in, including those laws and customs which may restrict their speech. The Chinese investors, managers, and workers involved with CPEC are expected to obey the blasphemy law when they are in Pakistan, just as they do the lèse-majesté law when they are in Thailand, and similar laws in other countries. However, what does pose a threat to the successful completion and running of CPEC is the potential for local agitators to use the blasphemy law as an alibi to incite mob violence against those involved with CPEC. Mashal Khan’s murder illustrates this, for even though he was innocent of blasphemy, the conspirators who sought his death used their false accusations of blasphemy to agitate the crowd into a murderous frenzy, and they framed him for blasphemy after he was already dead.
The Pakistani government’s establishment of a special security force for CPEC does not resolve this danger, as the security personnel could — as noted earlier of the policemen present at Mashal Khan’s lynching — neglect their sworn duties and support the mob instead. Further complicating that issue is the new transportation infrastructure being constructed under CPEC, as these new roads, highways, and railways could facilitate the movement and spatial spread of mob violence. If the Pakistani government does not nip this problem in the bud, it is possible that local agitators could deploy the blasphemy law to incite mass violence against those working at CPEC projects.
One possible strategy to combat this problem — which intriguingly echoes the ancient Babylonian king Hammurabi’s law that those who make false accusations should suffer the punishments for the very same crimes that they had falsely accused their victims of committing — was recently suggested by the Pakistani Senate’s Standing Committee on Interior, which is that “people falsely accusing others of blasphemy should be punished like a blasphemer.” If this reflexive penalty against false accusations had originally been part of the blasphemy law, Mashal Khan might still be alive today.
One potential source of tension are the social changes that can be expected to emerge from the industrial zones that will be established under CPEC. In Cambodia, for instance, such industrial zones have led to the emergence of a new class of financially independent urban women. While the incomes that these women earn from their factory jobs may be low compared to those working similar jobs in other countries, these wages are higher than what these women can earn back in their home villages, and many of these working women find themselves enjoying the earning power to “support themselves as well as their village-based families” (Derks, 2008, pp. 4-5). This earning power and their new lives in the city give these women options to recreate their identities, or at least to find their own “balance between what they consider to be ‘old’ or ‘traditional’ in village life and what they see as ‘too modern’ in the city” (Derks, 2008, p. 13; Lim and Widyono, 2016, p. 80).
Such economic empowerment is however a threat to the patriarchal establishment back in these women’s home villages, and even though many of these women have become the primary breadwinners for their rural families, suspicious fantasies of these women’s urban lives leads to their unkind depiction by the villagers as “loose women” who behave in “improper, immoral, or nontraditional ways,” especially when compared with the Chbab Srey, the traditional code of conduct for Cambodian women (Derks, 2008, pp. 11-12). Davis (2011) highlights how the resentment felt by these rural families towards these working women comes to the fore during Pchum Ben (Cambodia’s annual festival of ancestor worship) when these women, having returned to their villages for the festival, are teased by their rural relations as preta (hungry ghosts). While these families are more than happy to spend the money remitted to them by these women, they are not inclined to show these women the respect or gratitude that they deserve for their hard work and generosity (pp. 327-329).
Should the industrial employment offered under CPEC lead to similar societal changes in rural Pakistan, the CPEC planners and the Pakistani government should prepare for outbursts of protests or even violence against the factories in CPEC’s industrial zones. The women who deviate from their traditional roles by seeking employment in these factories could find themselves falling victim to false blasphemy accusations by reactionary activists seeking to preserve the traditional structure of family life. While the CPEC industrial zones have yet to be built, the experience of social transformation following the establishment of industrial zones in other countries like Cambodia highlights the likely social changes that the CPEC planners and the Pakistani government need to prepare for. Given the massive USD 46 billion investment China is putting into CPEC, both the Chinese and Pakistani governments will have to plan for this and other security challenges that could threaten to derail the megaproject.
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