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Leaders of the mob

Violent rhetoric shapes violent actions

Leaders of the mob

The murder of a student by a mob at the Abdul Wali Khan University, Mardan, on the 13th of this month, was yet another incident illustrating just how intolerance and religious self-righteousness has entrenched itself in the very fabric of our society.

The murder of Mashal Khan, who was by all accounts a talented student and intellectually gifted young man, was shocking not just for the fact that it was a murder but also for the viciousness and barbarism of the mob that killed him — after he was shot dead, they stripped his body, broke his fingers and so on.

The mob cited ‘blasphemy’ as a reason for their violent and murderous action. Videos from the incident show cops standing around doing nothing to stop the perpetrators, and subsequently officials of the university said something to the effect of there being too many perpetrators to stop, blah blah blah.

Is it possible to stop a crazed crowd whose leaders are inciting violence and baying for blood? Well possibly if there’s a will there might be a way. Granted that incidents of violence and firing are over within minutes, sometimes seconds, no response at all seems to indicate any will at all.

Just as religious parties have used the blasphemy card to silence anybody who threatens their hold on power, so too do mobs and vigilantes use the same card to storm places and murder anybody they don’t like or approve of.

A great deal of the responsibility for this attitude rests with our national leaders. Of the religious parties, the Jamaat-e-Islami has long used mob action. Starting from the 1953 ‘anti-Ahmediya’ riots right up to any of their more recent demonstrations where effigies have been lynched or flags burnt, the message is one of vigilantism.

I remember seeing a photograph from one of their demonstrations some years ago, in which a young boy was pointing a gun (hopefully a toy gun) at the poster of the leader they were demonstrating against. I found this image terrifying: basically the youngster was being taught that it’s fine to kill anybody you oppose or do not like.

Leaders who are not from the religious right are as culpable. A decade ago PTI’s Imran Khan made a speech at a Tehelka peacenik conference in London in which he said, “Musharraf should meet the same fate as Saddam Hussain”, and “Musharraf should be strung up”.

Is it possible to stop a crazed crowd whose leaders are inciting violence and baying for blood? Well possibly if there’s a will there might be a way.

Later that day, I suggested to him that it was wrong and irresponsible for him to use such violent rhetoric as it taught people that mob actions are okay, and he was wrong to do this and should not use such rhetoric — his response was “I am right, and I will.”

He seemed to believe that he was indeed right and he seemed to totally fail to comprehend how a leader’s words can shape attitudes and determine actions.

General Musharraf did it too when he was acting the big leader on his visit to the UK: he addressed a gathering and spoke of ‘un-nationalistic’ journalists who asked uncomfortable questions that embarrassed Pakistan. He called such journalists traitors and suggested that if any of the audience came across such a person they would be right to hit them or beat them up (“aik tika daen” he said to great laughter and applause from that audience).

This was all the more shocking because the journalist he was talking about was the upright and very well respected M. Ziauddin, not some paid hack of suspect integrity.

During the last PPP government Shahbaz Sharif as Chief Minister of Punjab, also made plenty of very objectionable speeches against the Centre generally and President Zardari specifically. Hanging was mentioned, the tone used was both offensive and unbecoming, “Sun lo Zardari!” and “Oye Zardari” etc.

His tone was shocking, and one hopes that he now understands that such rhetoric is extremely dangerous.

So far as the Prime Minister goes, he has so far said all the right things regarding the investigation and prosecution of this recent incident of mob murder, but one hopes that the authorities proceed as per law and are not intimidated by the religion aspect of the case. All too often, the focus becomes the victim and the narrative becomes “they asked for it”, rather than “a mob has no right to take the law into its own hands”.

This is going to be a test case for the authorities, our police, our leaders and our society. Even if the religious rabble now threatens mob action against the progress of this case, the authorities must not be intimidated.

And hopefully now leaders like Imran Khan will remember that words are dangerous, words shape attitudes and actions, and words can kill.

Best wishes

Umber Khairi

The author is a radio producer and broadcaster with the BBC, and one of the founding editors of Newsline.

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