As published in The News , Pakistan on 29 May 2017

A comment
by Javed Jabbar

Is Mashal Khan's brutal mob killing in a northwestern university in Pakistan in April 2017 on unfounded allegations of blasphemy a symptom of a malignant disease that stifles intellectual freedom in Pakistani universities in general ?

There is a malaise which occasionally erupts into sores and boils . But its main roots are structural and managerial flaws . They are religion -driven only in some specific aspects and individual cases . There are other causes for the ailment . Unresolved tensions between a Federal Higher Education Commission and newly empowered , assertive Provincial Governments ; proliferation of new universities without a commensurate expansion of qualified faculty ; deficient standards of most public sector colleges and schools that provide students unprepared for the next levels of education ; weak governance and ineffective enforcement of discipline , for both staff and students . The last of these factors most tragically enabled the hyper-swift , unchecked murder .

No-go areas for freedom of speech and research on campuses cover facets of faith , institutions , organizations and gender . These include : atheism ; questioning the reverential status and finality of Prophet Muhammad ; the sacredness of the Quran's text ; strong criticism of the superior Judiciary and the Armed Forces ; the extremism of campus-based student wings of two or three political parties ; gay and lesbian rights . In these respects , the intellectual freedom which is supposed to be a hall-mark for universities does not exist in Pakistan . The country has plenty of company .Neither does such freedom exist in virtually all other 56 Member-States of the Organization of the Islamic Conference . It is cold comfort to note that even in certain non-Muslim-dominant countries , specially in neighbour India , religious and political extremism can frequently assault free speech .

Other than the red list of stay-away subjects , there is considerable scope for freedom of expression , verbal and written . The quality of most research output in the social sciences by academia in Pakistan is below globally-acknowledged par . Yet faculty and students with unorthodox or comparatively liberal views engage in candid exchanges . Discussions include diametrically opposite definitions of , and perceptions about secularism ; the need to promote respect for pluralism and religious minorities ; the military's dominance in certain spheres ; political misgovernance and corruption ; the need for gender equity and increased investment in human resource development and other direly required reforms . Discourse is often robust and lively .

As a visiting professor or guest lecturer at over 25 universities , colleges and other higher education and training institutions , civil and military , across the country , this writer has expressed views at strong , distinct variance from those held by religious political parties, including a couple with student wings on campuses , as also at variance with views held by some of the hosts . Even when one has stressed the merits of secularism and the wilful mistranslation of the term and concept in textbooks and in mainstream Urdu mass media to mean " atheism " or " godlessness " ,there has not been a single episode over the past 50 years when one's candid views have been heckled or challenged . My frequent references to the need for vigorous ijtehaad ( the application of new knowledge and experience while remaining Muslim ) have been similarly accepted or even endorsed by most listeners .

In a few instances , I have sensed unease in sections of students and faculty . But not once have I been threatened or prevented from speaking . Surprisingly , one is also re-invited .

Sceptics may see non-disruptive reaction to my utterances as evidence of their innocuousness ! One respectfully disagrees . The record speaks . Perhaps YouTube may offer an example or two of the explicitness used by this writer to convey thoughts and opinions on subjects considered sensitive -- without causing violent reactions .

Though campuses in Pakistan are not always vibrantly bustling wth radically progressive debate and non-violent discourse on controversial themes , inter- actions between differing perspectives do occur --- while abstaining from the restricted zone of subjects cited earlier . A creeping religiosity has steadily advanced in society at large even as the realms of entertainment , TV , cinema , and fashion shows prominently project women who do not wear hijaabs or burqas . Campuses reflect primarily reflect the conservative rather than the modernist trends .

Showy , faith-based piety , otherwise apparently as cultural as it is religious , decorative rather than violently destructive can , however , be occasionally combustible to become suddenly explosive . This fuse is lit by conditions external to campuses , primarily the obscurantism and exclusivism fostered by madrassas , sections of media ( including unlicensed religious TV channels that continue to transmit by obtaining stay orders from high courts against regulatory shut-down orders ) , a new frenzy in some segments of society to react instantly and violently to suspected or actual examples of blasphemy signalling a disturbing collective derangement , a general grievance against western excesses in Palestine , Iraq, Afghanistan , Yemen , Libya , Syria , et al . In at least two verses of the Quran , God reserves the right to hold accountable those who attempt to character-assassinate Prophet Muhammad -- violent retribution by humans for blasphemy is thus prohibited in Islam .

In this very same Pakistan in which a religion-linked lynching took place on a university campus , not once in the ten general elections held in 1970 , 1977 , 1985 , 1988 , 1990 , 1993 , 1997 , 2002 , 2008 and 2013 have the religious political parties secured more than ten percent of the popular vote . Mainstreams of both society and campuses , notwithstanding the no-go areas for intellectual freedom , consistently prefer religious and political moderation . The terrible killing of Mashal Khan is a shameful aberration which should accelerate substantive reforms required in the universities of Pakistan as part of a larger social , progressive renewal .

The writer is a former Senator & Federal Minister, presently Member , Senate Forum for Policy Research