Last month, a Pakistani university student named Mashal Khan was beaten to death by his fellow students. He was stripped naked, stomped on, hit with wooden planks, and thrown from the second storey window of his accommodation. His “crime” was blasphemy.
It’s been reported by various news outlets including Reuters that Khan was engaging in a heated discussion about religion with fellow students in his dorm room, which concluded with several members of the discussion accusing him of blasphemy. Word quickly spread, and soon a baying mob had assembled outside Khan’s room. This mob eventually broke down Khan’s door and murdered him in a sickeningly barbaric fashion.
Khan’s Facebook posts indicate he was a thoughtful, intelligent young man with clear leanings toward humanism and an aversion to religiously inspired intolerance; a brave public display which will have undoubtedly influenced his fate. Just a month ago he posted “to all the women in Pakistan who are working for change, don’t give up on your dreams, your bravery and resilience in the face of such adversities is admirable”, alongside several pictures of recovered victims of acid attacks.
In the aftermath of such a depressing event as his murder, the answer to the question of why it happened has in recent times been obfuscated to the point of farce. The majority of mainstream current affairs commentators in the UK and the US (with notable – but notably few – exceptions) reliably fall over themselves in attempts to conjure mind-bendingly obscure reasons or excuses for such behaviour. The perpetrators are psychopaths; they were just criminals on a drugs binge; aggressive Swedish foreign policy is to blame; the baying crowd amounts to .000001% of the global Muslim population you bigot; you’re statistically more likely to get killed by your lawnmower than to be beaten to death while studying journalism at a university in Pakistan in the month of April on a Wednesday.
There is of course a very straightforward and blindingly obvious answer to why such an act occurred: religious belief. Ardent, fevered, unwavering conviction in religious dogma. It’s the same reason Bangladeshi atheist bloggers get hacked to death with machetes in their own homes for uploading similarly toned (but doubtless far better written) blog posts as this one. Or was that caused by western imperialism; I forget.
For far too long, moderate believers have been allowed a free pass when it comes to the logical consequences of their belief systems. Shortly after the Westminster terror attack several months ago, humourlessly pious Christian Peter Hitchens appeared on the BBC essentially arguing that a major cause of all terror attacks is drug abuse. While there are doubtless many western jihadists whose backgrounds are steeped in petty criminality and recreational drug usage (I haven’t heard of a full-on junkie jihadist yet), the implication that a bit of coke or pot provides the impetus to the slaughter of random citizens on the street to the sound of ‘Allah Akbar’ is patently ludicrous. The drug abuse theory is convenient for Peter Hitchens given he has spent the last several years and endless column inches decrying recreational cannabis use as being the greatest threat to human civilisation (hyperbole, perhaps, though still a fair summation given the voracity with which he has pursued this particular cause).
When Hitchens P and other ‘people of faith’ weigh into this debate, there is an inherent conflict of interest: they are incapable of conceding that the predominant motivation for religiously inspired violence is religious faith itself, precisely because they are themselves the faithful. They cannot bring themselves to admit there is a logical equivalency to their own blind acceptance of dogmas regarding life and the universe, and that of the murderous jihadist. In reality, the only differences separating them are a) the dogmas to which they adhere, and b) the enthusiasm of said adherence. But this simple fact is not emphasised enough in public discourse. Indeed, it is increasingly dismissed as false. BBC programmes like The Big Questions seem compelled in the interests of ‘balance’ to invite on self-appointed Muslim spokespeople who have a hard time attempting to conceal their theocratic sympathies, confidently propounding that there is absolutely no link between jihadism and religious belief or ideology. In fact, these types are usually so busy trying to argue that the dogma itself is eminently peaceable that the topic of whether beliefs cause actions is rarely even broached. The one reliably sane voice on this subject is Douglas Murray, although even he appears to have softened his tone in recent months, endlessly having to preface his points with tired caveats so as to pre-emptively avoid the ‘bigot’ smear. For me, Murray’s finest hour came in a Sky News interview shortly after the Charlie Hebdo attack, in which he appeared to be channelling the spirit of the late Hitchens C, but that is a topic for another post.
It is evident that Mashal Khan had an intellectual curiosity which led to a critical questioning of authority and a suspicion of conformity, engendering a compulsion to think and conclude for oneself. These are traits which should be nurtured and encouraged in students of universities throughout the world. Tragically for Khan, vocally expressing such traits while at university in a theocratic society led directly to his brutal murder by fellow students. Those of us fortunate enough to enjoy the decisively important rights of free expression and the free exchange of ideas must not shy away from speaking honestly and openly about the consistently violent and oppressive consequences of religious fervour. If we fail to recognise the blatantly obvious cause of such barbarism, strip said cause down and beat it senseless with rigorous intellectual honesty and rational scrutiny, then we are condemning future inquisitive and free-minded individuals to a similar fate as Khan.