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Mashal Khan: Lighting a flame in our hearts by losing his life

Updated Feb 10, 2018 02:30am
Illustration by Aziza Ahmad
Illustration by Aziza Ahmad

Days before Mashal Khan’s death, his mother Syeda Bibi had a nightmare. She saw him standing by a tower about to collapse. It crashed, burying him alive. But this being a mother’s nightmare, the son rose up from beneath the concrete rubble, unscathed. She held him close and said, unbelievingly, “You’re alive?” seeking his confirmation against her doubting mind.

He said he was all right.

“How could you have possibly survived that?” asked the mother, grateful but still sceptic.

“I live because the tower fell,” said the son, cryptically.

In the wide-awake world, Mashal is dead. He did not stand up, dusting his white clothes – a colour he loved – after his brutal lynching at the Abdul Wali Khan University Mardan (AWKUM) on April 13, 2017. A day later, he would be brought home to his mother, a chilling personification of her nightmare, knuckles broken, skull shattered. She would not recognise the battered, bandaged body but from a birthmark on his arm that, when he was born, everyone found auspicious because it looked like “Allah” etched on his skin.

Sitting in Mashal’s whitewashed room with his pictures lined on the wall, she speaks of how, on many a night, she found him here reading late, falling asleep with a book on his chest. She says she raised her son like others raise their daughters — protecting him from the outside world. “I worried about the radicalising influence of mullahs and terrorists. I taught my children religion at home because I felt I knew it better than what they teach.”

To keep her children safe, Syeda Bibi raised a tower that, if you believe in the symbolism of dreams, is an ancient maternal archetype in the psychology of Swiss psychoanalyst Carl Jung. When she dreamed of that tower collapsing, it was perhaps a forewarning of her own undoing at the terrible death of her child. But there are other towers, in tarot and in verse, that do not stand for Jung’s safe maternal womb but portend forces bent upon destruction.

She – and Mashal’s father Iqbal Khan – knew of the dark towers occupied by sinister forces. Not as believers in the occult or dream archetypes but as thinking citizens of Pakistan, where nightmares have a way of creeping into real life. This fear of dark forces may or may not be Jung’s ‘collective unconscious’ of a nation playing out in our dreams; but who can deny that it has become our collective consciousness in today’s Pakistan — a wakeful state where the terrifying vision of nihilistic, anarchic hordes running amok in Hollywood’s Mad Max: Fury Road have come to resemble our own?

Reel versus reality memes that juxtaposed the death-faced Immortan Joe with a gasmasked Khadim Hussain Rizvi, the cleric who laid a violent siege to Islamabad for the better part of November 2017 with a mob fed on religious frenzy, made the chilling parallels darkly comic.

But for Mashal’s parents and those of us who seek to protect our precious little worlds from scheming forces in dark towers, the irony only brought home brutal, stark truths about Pakistani society. Blasphemy –invoking mullahs and rampaging mobs intent on murder, challenging the authority of a state in whose dark towers they were bred – like Frankenstein’s monster patched together from lies, distortions and hate. When the monster rose, it sought to bring down its own creator.

Like Robert Browning’s Childe Roland, who came to the Dark Tower (more so as the poem came to Browning in a dream), Mashal would come to AWKUM to be part of “The Band” — to seek and strive for truth in the face of failure and death. Recall the blind rage, the animal state of the lynch mob drunk on misguided righteousness, to see how ill-equipped was he who called himself a humanist — and by extension those who may identify with that ideal.

Ill-equipped to believe that his youthful idealism fired up by the ‘mad poet’ Ghani Khan’s verse and Bacha Khan’s non-violent politics would help him fashion a better world from a Marxist perspective and a Sufi outlook, much less negotiate a fatal encounter with bloodthirsty forces bent upon tearing down that world. When they came for Mashal, they did not ask him to give an account of Shams Tabrizi’s Forty Rules of Love (he read and recommended to friends Turkish author Elif ¸Shafak’s novel The Forty Rules of Love) for they would not know, much less care for, Tabrizi’s world view.

Mashal Khan at Pakistan Day celebrations | Photos courtesy Mashal Khan’s family
Mashal Khan at Pakistan Day celebrations | Photos courtesy Mashal Khan’s family

Iqbal Khan does not tire of asking as to how he was to know that his son would be killed in a university, emphasising the hallowed nature of a tower raised to scholarship. “We didn’t send him to university to be killed there,” he says.

Is it any surprise that the university is located in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa where, in 2016, the government refused to revise radical syllabi for fear of antagonising religious parties and donated 300 million rupees to a madrasa known to have hatched the Taliban? In a country where the state harbours zealots, and mobs susceptible to spontaneous combustion deliver judgment on the spot, what hope do individuals have of clearing their names of deadly accusations, however false?

“It is not as if students decided out of the blue to kill Mashal,” says Shahab Khattak, a lawyer helping Mashal’s family fight the court case against his killers. “Their syllabi and outlook were shaped by the Afghan War. Our electronic media promotes extremism and the world powers active in the region want that psyche because it serves them.”

Amidst a grove of poplars now sleeps Mashal, in a grave that in its length and breadth is more a tribute to his stature in death than his size in life. It is longer and wider than he was but in these parts a martyr – or a saint – is known by the size of his burial place. His father speaks of him as if he is still alive and plans to build a mausoleum here, with a resting place for tired travellers.

But even in death, Mashal is not safe; there are three police guards at the grave to protect it from desecration by those who think he blasphemed. No one has attempted to but there have been public threats from religious groups. Among them is Shujaul Mulk, a Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam–Fazl leader in Mardan, who consecrates Mashal’s killers as ghazis or Muslim warriors.

A nationalist, a socialist, a humanist and a Sufi is how his friends and associates describe Mashal who died because he lived by these ideals. To this, his family would add the honorific ‘martyr’ — a title disputed by those who accuse him of blasphemy, contrary to the findings of a joint investigation team that absolved him of the charge. Instead the team accused the university administration of using blasphemy as a murder tool to silence a voice that spoke up about rampant corruption, political patronage, nepotism and violation of student rights on campus.

Mashal was born after six days of torrential rain in Zaida village of Swabi district. Clouds split at his arrival, says his mother. Because he brought sunshine, they named him Mashal — a beacon of light. He would grow to be a precocious child, eager to go to school at the age of three. Barely out of high school, he asked his teacher Younas Khan, who often delegated coaching of fellows students to his bright pupil, if he could volunteer as a teacher at the school. “He was the kind of student who I knew would accomplish whatever goals he set for himself,” says Younas Khan.

A scholarship earned for excelling in his matric exams brought Mashal to the Institute of Computer and Management Sciences, a college in Peshawar. When visiting his village, he would proudly show his mother billboards put up by his college in Swabi, bearing his portrait as an outstanding student.

Iqbal Khan at his son’s grave
Iqbal Khan at his son’s grave

Being a top student at college earned him another scholarship to study engineering in Russia. There is little known about his time in Moscow except that he did not finish his degree and returned because, as his friend Aitezaz Hassan says, he felt Russia had no need for him. “I am interested in my own culture, not Russia’s,” Mashal told Hassan. “The folks there would be out partying while I would fast (in Ramzan).” He said to Ziaullah Hamdard, that “roads and buildings are fine in Russia. I am needed here.” Hamdard was a journalism instructor at AWKUM who resigned after holding the university administration responsible for Mashal’s death.

Back home from Russia, he found his friends in the village gone, studying in cities. Although an extrovert, Mashal turned into a loner, says Hassan. He would spend time reading books in the fields where he is now buried. He told his mother to “tell father I am not an average student” perhaps because he sensed that giving up a professional degree might have shaken his father’s confidence in him. He told Hamdard something similar – that his father was not happy that he had given up engineering – and added that “my mission is to serve humanity and I can do it best with journalism”.

For Iqbal Khan, a man of modest means, paying for Mashal’s stay in Russia had meant accumulating debts. But when his son said he wanted to study journalism, he understood because he knew Mashal had literary inclinations.

Mashal was nothing if not his father’s son — and not just in thoughts and action but also in body language. Watching videos where he decries corruption in the university or speaks for animal rights, one is reminded of how uncanny the resemblance is. It is easy to imagine that Iqbal Khan, a poet with a reformist, revolutionary streak and views steeped in left-wing activism and politics, has genetically passed on his liberal leanings to Mashal.

He once called his father a ‘wizard with words’ — except that his father’s progressive bent is imbued in the entire household, boldly conspicuous in his daughter, Stooriya Khan, whom Mashal coached. “To be Iqbal Lala’s son meant he was born into an institution,” says Liaqat Yousafzai. Yousafzai is an associate of Iqbal Khan’s in several sociopolitical movements and the man who galvanised fearful villagers to own up Mashal when the village’s cleric refused to offer his funeral prayer.

“He was not a child with a closed mind. Most of us go through life as if blind; he was all-seeing,” says Yousafzai. Najeeb, a friend of Mashal’s, says he read avidly, followed current affairs and had acquired a socialist outlook on issues — “perhaps because of his stay in Russia”. He would question everything around him that society does not want to touch, adds Najeeb. “Teachers and ulema don’t have the scholarship to provide answers [to those questions] and so they resort to violence.”

From what his friends and family tell of Mashal, it appears he was deeply aware of his place in this world. Like his humble father who does not mince words while speaking uncomfortable truths, the son spoke his mind with the unreserved intensity – some say arrogance – of someone who knew better.

This heightened sense of self also came from leadership qualities that earned him a fan following among his friends. It also made him unpopular among many others. Fellow students employ diverse epithets to describe him: “proud”, “modest”, “nonconformist” and “instigator”. But all agree he was brilliant. Physically and intellectually vain, he spent time in the gym and preened for pictures with his Elvis Presley quiff — besides debating serious issues in the classroom and on social media.

And yet, he was deeply caring towards people and animals, taking issue with the university administration on student rights, leading strikes against high tuition fees, raising funds for those who could not pay the fees and restoring sickly stray animals to health. Hamdard quotes him as telling his teachers: “If poor students are not allowed to sit for exams due to non-payment of fee, they will become terrorists.”

Mashal Khan sitting next to a public sculpture in Moscow in Pakistani attire
Mashal Khan sitting next to a public sculpture in Moscow in Pakistani attire

Walking in his father’s footsteps, he became associated with the Pakhtun Students Federation, an affiliate of the Pakhtun nationalist Awami National Party, but parted ways with it because, according to Hamdard, “he was bookish, with a mind of his own and felt he was being used by politicians”. He “became alienated from his colleagues in [the student federation] because they thought they could exercise leadership with guns”.

Mashal had the character of a moth that flew too close to the flame. He died because he morally and intellectually challenged those for whom his critical thinking shocked the very system that shaped their actions and beliefs, says Hamdard, the teacher he was close to. There was nothing wrong with Mashal himself, says his friend Najeeb, “it is just that our society hasn’t reached [his] level of rational thought or enlightenment yet”.

Many among us would nod knowingly at this. But in the year that Pakistan turned 70, Mashal would be another witch thrown in the great fires of inquisition the Pakistani state has stoked since – and even before – Zia’s years of Islamic McCarthyism. Iqbal Khan was once dubbed a ‘communist’ – as was his son for studying in Russia – by villagers for his association with progressive movements. The mullahs, who received Eid greetings on the phone from General Ziaul Haq himself, would refuse to lead the funerals of ‘communists’ among them in an eerie parallel to Mashal’s funeral.

Early in the year, the state took away some bloggers critical of the security forces and invoked blasphemy to silence them despite the explosive nature of the subject. It drove home the point, for many, that Pakistan really is doomed to stay anchored to Zia’s vision forever; regardless of the optimism brought on by quiet fleeting interludes that suggest a transition for the better. Mashal’s lynching provided the terrifying spectacle the state needed to put fear in the hearts of those critical of its policies. It also proved in no uncertain terms that when it comes to enlightenment, it is one step forward and ten steps backwards into darkness for Pakistan.

“Our states, being ourselves multiplied, are what we are; they write our natures in bolder type, and do our good and evil on an elephantine scale,” said American historian-philosophers Ariel and Will Durant. It follows, then, that a state fashioned after a society’s nature would endorse and reinforce that very nature. “What the state advocates manifests itself in individuals,” says Dr Faizullah Jan, a teacher of journalism at the University of Peshawar who has authored a book titled The Muslim Extremist Discourse.

In 2017, the state invited a mob to pile up a pyre and sent it out to look for witches to burn at the stake. As is often the case with the vengeful using blasphemy as a tool to trigger blind, feral mob sentiments, the AWKUM administration latched on to an instrument that the state itself employed and endorsed vocally to silence political dissent. Mashal’s murder was waiting to happen, as was that of the man shot dead by three sisters in Sialkot because he had allegedly blasphemed years ago. If his lynching shocked, it was because one did not expect the wild pageant of brutal murder to play out in a university, an institution of higher learning.

Mashal Khan (left) with his brother, doing homework at home
Mashal Khan (left) with his brother, doing homework at home

Yet, in a year when young militants were traced back, yet again, to universities, this should not have been a surprise. The debate about highly-educated cohorts of Al-Qaeda, Jamaat-e-Islami, Jamaat-ul-Ahrar and the Islamic State operating at multiple levels is as old as the history of terrorism and violence by these very organisations. A radicalising school curriculum and religious groups cottoning on to the identity crisis of the middle class, bringing violent ideologues to universities – where, according to Jan, youth treat a radical outlook as a “badge of honour and identity” – may be at the heart of the problem.

But, like other state institutions, a university seeks direction from power centres like the parliament, the establishment, the judiciary and the media. The message AWKUM got – from the security establishment, the interior ministry and the Islamabad High Court – was clear and unanimously reinforced: give a dog a bad name and hang it.

As his friends and class-fellows suggest, Mashal believed in initiating and continuing debate to reform society. He was at home in what Jan calls “the free market of ideas where people decide for themselves what is right or wrong”. But in a place where a progressive outlook is equated with atheism, anyone with Mashal’s world view could be perceived as a counterpoint to the narrative of intolerance and neo-liberal imperialist ambition. This threat, says Jan, translates into an ongoing struggle between two opposing forces that have divided society into ‘us’ and ‘them’. “It is all black and white now, with nuances ignored. These (mutually opposing) forces see the ‘other’ as a negation of themselves — a [threatening] ‘other’ that must be crushed,” the professor adds.

Mashal stood in between these two warring forces – as Aristotle’s Golden Mean – who neither subscribed to the extremists’ view (because he was a Sufi) nor endorsed the western imperialist designs (since he had read Marx). “Anyone in Pakistan, indeed anywhere in the world today, is endangered if they represent the Golden Mean,” says Jan.

Mashal’s death, then, has come to underpin the Pakistani zeitgeist as another year passes us by. Who really represents the spirit of our times? Is it Mashal or Khadim Hussain Rizvi? The victim or the victor? “It is really hard to tell when you are going through a moment; you only can tell in retrospect,” says Zaigham Khan, a researcher and analyst based in Islamabad. “What is sure is that, in 2017, the state delegated the monopoly over violence to the mob.”

In an increasingly polarised Pakistan, for many, Mashal Khan’s name is mud, kneaded out of volatile ingredients — allegations of blasphemy and the hatred and violence it invokes. To others, he is the beacon of a better tomorrow, as his name suggests, illuminating a dark narrative of intolerance and misuse of faith to show it for what it is — a weapon of oppression and domination.

The words he spoke to his mother in her dream are open to interpretation either way: “I live because the tower fell.”


This article was published in the Herald's January 2018 issue. To read more subscribe to the Herald in print.


The writer is a freelance journalist based in Peshawar.