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The Cost of Free Thought in Pakistan

The Cost of Free Thought in Pakistan

“Either grant me the bliss of the ignorant or give me the strength to bear the knowledge”
wrote Mashal Khan on his Facebook wall, nine days before his brutal lynching in Abdul Wali
Khan University, Mardan, Pakistan. On the 13th of April 2017, an angry mob of fellow
students; at the university, including some members of staff, accused him of having posted
blasphemous content online, dragged him out of his hostel room, beat him with sticks,
stamped on him, shot him and then mutilated his dead body. Videos of the murderers
celebrating their heinous act emerged in which they chanted Allah hu Akbar (God is Great).
The investigation later conducted did not find any evidence of blasphemy by Mashal.

One visit to his Facebook profile is enough to understand how bright a mind Mashal Khan
was. He paid the highest price for being a courageous freethinker in a country where free
thought and its expression is punishable by death.”When I held his hands to kiss them, I
found that even his fingers were broken” said Mashal’s mother in an interview. His hostel
walls were full of quotes from philosophers. One quote said, “Freedom is the right of
every individual”; but freedom is a luxury not afforded to anyone in an Islamic Republic like

One would hope the nation learned something from this tragic incident but 6 years later, there
is no improvement, in fact, it seems to be getting worse. Blasphemy laws remain in place and
there are clerics openly calling for the execution of blasphemers on Ramzan transmissions
(which are watched by millions in Pakistan). A blasphemer for them is anyone using their
right to free speech, questioning or criticizing Islam and its tenets.

The Lahore High Court Bar Association issued a press release on the 6th of April, 2023
according to which there are 400,000 blasphemers operating online in Pakistan and the
authorities have vowed to initiate a crackdown against these young dissidents.

This should alert the International Human Rights groups and they should work to pre-empt
such a mass crackdown on those merely exercising the right to Freedom of Speech and
Expression. The international institutions must urge Pakistan to repeal its inhumane and
archaic blasphemy laws which are at the root of such crimes. They belong in the dustbin of
history. Otherwise, the country must be punished with strict sanctions.

There are many other cases of violence and persecution where innocent people have been
killed/incarcerated over blasphemy allegations, which were hardly ever proven against them.
Amongst them, Salman Taseer, the governor of Punjab, is a prominent name who was shot
dead by his guard for the crime of opposing blasphemy laws in 2011. There’s Junaid Hafeez,
a young university professor, who was sentenced to death in 2019 after being in solitary
confinement since 2014. A recent case is that of Priyantha Kumara, a Sri Lankan man,
lynched by a mob in Pakistan’s Sialkot over alleged blasphemy in 2021. Aneeqa Ateeq, a 26-
year-old woman, was sentenced to death by a Rawalpindi court for insulting the Prophet
Muhammad in 2022.

Freethinkers, atheists, and ex-Muslims in Pakistan live a suffocated life, forced either to stay
closeted or censor themselves in their speech and expression of non-belief in the religion of
the majority. Apostasy is punishable by death in Islam. It is the 21st century and it’s a shame
people are still deprived of the basic human right to reject the religion chosen for them at birth, upon knowing better. Apostasy and blasphemy are human rights, and should nowhere
be a crime, let alone punishable by death. Those of us in the West, who are privileged enough
to be able to freely speak our minds, must raise a voice for the oppressed and voiceless in
countries like Pakistan. Ex-Muslims are one of the most persecuted and targeted groups in the
world, with thirteen countries that punish apostasy by death. Rescuing and providing a safe haven
for them should be a major agenda on the list of Human Rights Organizations.

Many have taken inspiration from Mashal’s story and are now engaged in social media
activism including a prominent ex-Muslim name Harris Sultan. History tells us that
whenever the powerful tried to crush dissent by force, it created a bigger counterwave of
revolutionaries and was eventually overthrown. The name Mashal means light and that is
exactly what Mashal Khan represents. He is a torch, that has and will continue to guide many
out of the darkness of dogma, and into the light of knowledge and freethinking. To honour
Mashal, we must also be the torchbearers of truth and rationality and unite against our
oppressors. Let’s vow to avenge Mashal and many other victims of this cult mentality, by
waging a war against the draconian ideology of Islam, by exposing it, lynching it, paralysing
it, and finally, crushing it as it has no place in the civilized world. Mashal’s blood will not go
to waste.

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Areej Fatima is a Pakistani freethinker, Columnist, and belief defender. She has a MA in International Relations.