A year ago, an inflamed mob brutally assaulted 23-year-old Mashal Khan with bludgeons and bricks on the pretext of blasphemy in Abdul Wali Khan University. They beat him to a literal pulp, and then shot him dead. Many of these young men filmed the lynching on their cell phones as it took place, presumably to be viewed later for sadistic delight — something like a ‘snuff’ movie, perhaps.

Liberal commentators blame the country’s Blasphemy Laws for the grizzly incident. However, the truth is that what happened in Charsadda that day had nothing to do with the Blasphemy Laws or any other laws for that matter. It was a straightforward case of raw lynch mob violence, which needed no law to justify its crimes. The crime, by its very nature, was disturbing. But we Pakistanis are veterans of 1947 in Punjab, 1971 in what had been East Pakistan, the 1970s in Balochistan, the 1980s in Sindh, the 1990s in Karachi, and the years since 2001 all over the country. To us, violence and killings are almost commonplace. Shakespeare’s Marc Antony could have rightly spoken of this as being a land with ‘all pity choked with custom of fell deeds’.

When and where, we must ask, did such abnormal social attitudes begin to be considered normal amongst us?

For a long time, Pakistan has been seen as a special kind of political confection. In a ‘normal’ state, its purpose is seen as nothing more and nothing less than the freedom and wellbeing of its citizens. But we Pakistanis, it is asserted by those who have assumed authority over us, have a special destiny that requires us to render endless sacrifices for the state itself. Ours is claimed to be an ideological state, and our sovereignty, as defended by our armed forces with such skills as we have witnessed, has ideological, not geographic, borders.

This ideological state needed, first, to establish its intellectual raison d’être. And, clearly, Jinnah’s assertions — all that stuff about religion not being ‘the business of the state’ — was not going to be good enough. Our feckless, incompetent old-time politicos had little interest in statecraft beyond flying flags on their havelis and having a chair to sit on when visiting the local tehsildar. The actual tasks of government were fulfilled by the legates of the British Raj, the civilian and military bureaucrats and the Babus I have written about earlier.

In their frenzied anxiety to protect their privileges, these Babus feared open democratic contention with the more intellectually sophisticated Bengali leadership and the ethnically self-conscious Pakhtun and Sindhi dissidents. There were also the members of the literate, left-leaning intelligentsia in Karachi, Lahore, and other cities. To counter such troublesome types, the Babus of the day contrived an ‘Islamic’ narrative which, it was felt, would overcome Pakistan’s inherent ethnic, regional, and class particularities.

Jinnah’s liberal, inclusive vision was converted into a faux Islamic exclusivism. Conformity was imposed on the pluralism prized by Jinnah and a unitary state, belying his crusades for provincial autonomy, was created.

The institutions Zia promoted and the retrograde educational systems he erected have polluted the intellectual atmosphere of the land, and given birth to today’s bigoted, obscurantist political culture

As history was to show, these contrivances simply could not work. Bengal seceded as Bangladesh and the ethnic entities in what is left of Pakistan have remained as restless and as self-conscious as ever.

But our establishment Babus cannot be accused of failing to repeat their most egregious follies. The uprisings of 1968-69 and the Bhutto interregnum of 1972-77 had brought another disturbing set of ideas to the table, which threatened the basic class nature of Pakistani society: an amalgam of populism and socialism. Therefore, once Bhutto’s overthrow had been achieved, the failed Islamist narrative was revived in a still more vigorous and forceful manner.

The philosopher Antonio Gramsci, who witnessed the rise of fascism in his native Italy, identified two fairly distinct forms of political control: domination, which referred to direct physical coercion by the police and armed forces, and hegemony, which referred to ideological control and, more crucially, consent. By hegemony, Gramsci meant the permeation throughout society of an entire system of values, attitudes, beliefs and morality that has the effect of supporting the status quo in property and power relations.

The hegemonic ‘Islamic’ narrative was again thrust onto Pakistan on July 5, 1977, when we heard the military usurper of the day snarling over the media about what he called ‘an Islamic system’. The institutions he promoted and the retrograde educational systems he erected have polluted the intellectual atmosphere of the land, and given birth to today’s bigoted, obscurantist political culture and its poisonous fallout of violent insurgency, terrorism, cold-blooded mass murder, and mob violence.

To make matters worse, this usurper sought to expand his malign influence even beyond Pakistan’s geographical borders. In the east, he dabbled in the violent politics of Indian Punjab, bringing the two countries almost to the brink of war. Still more dangerously, from June 1979, he began to enable and promote the mujahideen guerrilla raids into Afghanistan. Training camps were created for these warriors and expensive weaponry provided to them, with the assistance of the Americans and the Saudis, leading to the Soviet counter-invasion of Afghanistan at the end of December 1979 and a war that has continued to rage and spread ever since.

Some of this weaponry found its way into Pakistani territory in the next few years, and was sold into the hands of ethnic and sectarian extremists, ordinary dacoits and, in our biggest city, also turf gangs. The consequences have included a generalised collapse of law and order that the sincere elements in our administration are still struggling to contend with.

The further consequence was even more deadly. As anyone who has read any history knows, if a state is to remain a state and not ‘fail’, if a society is to remain functional and the organs of the state are to remain under the government’s control — the military, paramilitaries and police — must establish and assert monopolistic control over serious weaponry. Gun power, if set loose and released from the control of the state, is a power for anarchic destruction of the state that has unleashed it. These destructive forces were unleashed in Pakistan by the retrograde Zia regime. To date, Zia’s successors, both military and civilian, have completely failed to reverse these policies.

Thus, the pseudo-Islamic narrative spawned by the bureaucratic Babus —this country’s real rulers —failed to hold Pakistan together when it came to the test. In its revived, more formidable form, it is, as the police term goes, ‘armed and dangerous’.

Can this deep-seated malignancy be excised and removed? It has to be. For, otherwise, there are those both outside and within who will carry out their own bloody, terminal butchery

The writer is a poet, author and columnist

Published in Daily Times, April 15th 2018.