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Acts of Faith: Why People Get Killed Over Blasphemy in Pakistan

Blasphemy laws, originally introduced by the British and then retained by Pakistan’s legal system, have created a false binary between human rights abuses and respect for religion.

An angry mob sets Christian homes on fire in Joseph Colony, Lahore, in 2013. Credit: M Arif/White Star/Herald

An angry mob sets Christian homes on fire in Joseph Colony, Lahore, in 2013. Credit: M Arif/White Star/Herald

Part One: Love

Even though the rally had ended late, even though the night sky over Gangapur was turning translucent, Falak Sher’s wife insisted we stop by her house for kheer. There was no electricity all across the village, so she stumbled about in the dark, rattling pots and pans, intent upon hospitality. Outside, the lanes hummed with festive chatter: the village – birthplace of Sir Ganga Ram, the father of modern Lahore – had been looking forward to this rally for months now: a celebration of the glory of Prophet Muhammad (may peace be upon him) and an assertion of the finality of his prophethood. Sher, who worked as a police constable in Lahore, had asked for leave weeks in advance for the rally but the Zimbabwean cricket team happened to be in town, the first international team to tour Pakistan since the attack on Sri Lankan cricketers six years ago and all vacation had been suspended for the police force. Sher paid no heed and came home anyway. He had never missed a khatm-e-nabuwwat rally in his village, said his wife.

It was the 26th of May, the death anniversary of Mirza Ghulam Ahmad, founder of the Ahmadi faith, which considers itself a sect of Islam. This was no coincidence, for everyone at the rally agreed that Ahmadis, whom they disparagingly referred to as Qadianis, were fifth columnists, aasteen kay saanp, and that the death of their founding father was something to celebrate. Indeed, the showpiece of the rally was a nephew of the current Ahmadi leader, Mirza Masroor Ahmed, a large moon-faced man who had recently split ranks with his uncle and converted to Sunni Islam. All of Gangapur, a part of the central Punjab district of Faisalabad, seemed to roar when he came on stage to speak. When he paused, loudspeakers blasted the rally’s signature soundtrack, a rousing refrain of ghustakh-e-Muhammad teri ab khair nahin hai, khair nahin, khair nahin, khair nahin hai (O blasphemer of Muhammad, you are done for now).

From the edge of a neighbour’s rooftop, where the women of the village had gathered to watch the proceedings, Sher’s wife sang along, not caring that she did not know all the words. Back at her house, she fussed over the chief guest’s wife, pressing a second serving of kheer into her hands, ensuring it had enough pistachios and, by way of small talk, directing her attention towards the top right corner of the room where rainwater had seeped through the wall, leaving a large damp mark amid curlicues of peeling paint. If you looked at it closely, said Sher’s wife, wiggling her torch in that direction, if you tilted your head a certain way, the mark resembled the name of Prophet Muhammad (may peace be upon him). She paused, then clambered on top of a trunk and brought down a small pink frame. Inside was a piece of old roti, its overcooked centre similar in shape to the mark on the wall. “Subhanallah” (glory be to god),murmured the chief guest’s wife admiringly. Her host beamed, luminous with pride.

A hundred or so kilometres to the north, in Saroki village in Gujranwala district, Nazeer Cheema rose to offer his fajr (dawn) prayers. His house was silent: his wife was still asleep, his three daughters, married now, all had their own homes and his only son, Aamir, dead at the age of 28, lay buried next door. He would have been 37 had he not walked into the office of Die Welt, a German daily that had reprinted caricatures deemed offensive by Muslims, to try to murder its editor, Roger Köppel – and, after six weeks in a jail in Berlin, hanged himself with a noose made of his own clothes. Cheema, a retired college teacher, does not think his son took his own life; he believes Aamir was tortured to death by German authorities. So do the thousands who continue to flock to his shrine; they consider him a martyr, a modern-day Ilamdin. In the portrait that hangs above his grave, Aamir Cheema even appears to resemble his early 20th century predecessor: the same moustache, the same meticulous side parting, both unnervingly young.

He was a quiet child. His parents say they never heard him utter a single swear word and that he never lied. He was studying textile engineering at a German university, with one semester left towards the completion of his degree. Earlier, when some Pakistanis had gathered outside their consulate in Berlin to protest the publication of the offensive cartoons, he did not join them. “Nothing will come of it,” he told his cousin’s husband. A few weeks later, he barged into Die Welt’s office with a knife. His family back home was not aware of what he was going to do, which may have been for the best, says his mother. “We wouldn’t have been able to help ourselves – we would have tried to stop him.” It was early in the morning and she was not wearing her denture, so her lips sank into her mouth as she sighed, making her appear very old and very young, all at once. “In doing so, in persuading him otherwise, we might have sinned against the Prophet ourselves.”

An anti-blasphemy protest in Lahore in 2012 | M Arif, White Star

An anti-blasphemy protest in Lahore in 2012 Credit:M Arif, White Star/Herald

A love lyric, a ballad, a legend, an opera, an epic: there are many descriptions of the dhola, a genre of Punjabi folk music. It was through a dhola that a young Hanif Shaikh first learnt about Ilamdin, the 21-year-old carpenter’s apprentice who murdered the Hindu publisher of a ‘scurrilous’ pamphlet about Prophet Muhammad (may peace be upon him). Rajpal had already escaped two attempts on his life when, on an April afternoon in 1929, Ilamdin stabbed him eight times inside his bookshop in Lahore, relenting only when hapless bystanders began flinging books at him. Executed six months later – his final appeal fought famously by one Muhammad Ali Jinnah – Ilamdin grew into a folk hero of sorts, inspiring popular accounts of his exploits in many formats: film, poetry, prose and what can only be described as fan fiction. In the 1970s, an unabashedly hagiographic biopic titled Ghazi Ilamdin Shaheed (Honourable Martyr Ilamdin) hit cinemas, directed by Rasheed Dogar whose later credits would include the salaciously titled Pyasa Badan, Husn Parast (Thirsty Body, Beauty Worshipper) and Madam X. When Shaikh went to watch Ghazi Ilamdin Shaheed, he wept.

Shaikh is something of an authority on Ilamdin. He wrote an extensive account of the young vigilante’s life, tracking down his family home in Lahore’s Mohalla Sirian Wala. Originally named after the siris (slaughtered animals’ heads) sold there, it was later rechristened Mohalla Sarfaroshan to commemorate Ilamdin’s bravery. He recounts meeting Ilamdin’s bhabhi, sister-in-law, who reportedly cooked sweetened rice to celebrate the assassination of Rajpal. With equal familiarity and fondness, Shaikh lists other men who took the law into their hands: Abdul Rasheed, who stabbed the Arya Samaj missionary and shuddhi (reconversion) advocate Swami Shraddhanand in Delhi in 1926; Abdul Qayyum, who, in 1932, attacked a Hindu leader, Nathu Ram, in Karachi while he was in court on trial over a provocative book on Islam; Mureed Hussain, who murdered a Hindu veterinarian in 1935 in Palwal town of Gorganwan district, now in Haryana, India, because he had named a donkey after a beloved Muslim figure. Shaikh has written books on all of them; he is a bit of an expert on this particular brand of the subcontinental ghazi. But when the conversation turns (inevitably) to Mumtaz Qadri, the security guard who, in January 2011, pumped 28 bullets into Salmaan Taseer, the governor of Punjab at the time, he hesitates, looking troubled.

“If someone were to actually insult the Prophet, I’m afraid even I might not spare him. But Taseer didn’t blaspheme, not really – he only criticised the law.”

Shaikh, whose real name is something else, so wary is he even of musing out loud on this subject, has been thinking about this lately, this creeping expansion of what constitutes blasphemy. Suppose someone who cannot read, buys food from a street side stall, suppose what he buys is wrapped in newspaper which has the name of the Prophet written on it. If the wrapper is thrown away, wonders Shaikh, if the person who cannot read unthinkingly tosses it into the trash – insult would have occurred, but without intent.

“That isn’t blasphemy,” he says. “Is it?”

Christian women mourn after the Jospeh Colony attack in Lahore in 2013. Credit M Arif/White Star/Herald

Christian women mourn after the Jospeh Colony attack in Lahore in 2013. Credit M Arif/White Star/Herald

Part Two: Death

On the last page of the post-mortem report, the medical examiner had dismissed, with a large cross, the silhouette upon which she was meant to identify injuries, scribbling instead: “whole body is completely burnt, almost to ashes, only a bony skeleton identifiable.” She reiterated this six months later before a roomful of lawyers wilting in black blazers, patiently describing to the defence counsel how the victims were delivered to her in plastic bags, one labeled Shama, the other Shahzad. It was a mid-May afternoon, and the power was out in the antiterrorism court – load-shedding, Lahore – so the lawyers fanned themselves with their files, casting beseeching looks at the air conditioner as they listened to witness statements. Outside, the hallways were filled with villagers from Chak 59 and nearby settlements of Kot Radha Kishan tehsil – 104 in total – handcuffed to one another. Inside, the medical examiner’s voice was getting smaller with each sentence, describing bones retrieved from the site – “small, mostly fractured” – and “organs, completely charred, matted together.”

The court stenographer paused.

“C-H-E-R-R-E-D,” said the judge impatiently. “Red, like cherry.”

The lawyers looked pointedly at their feet.

A Christian home torched during the Joseph Colony arson attack in Lahore in 2013 | Azhar Jafri, White Star

A Christian home torched during the Joseph Colony arson attack in Lahore in 2013. Credit: Azhar Jafri, White Star/Herald

According to the Centre for Social Justice, a Lahore-based research and advocacy group, at least 62 men and women have been killed on mere suspicion of blasphemy between 1987 and 2015. So far, no one has been executed by the state. In this particular manifestation of an increasingly familiar phenomenon, on the morning of November 4, 2014, Shama and Shahzad Masih were dragged out of the 10-by-10 feet room in which they had sought refuge earlier that day, bludgeoned with sticks and hatchets by a mob that eyewitnesses say numbered in the high hundreds, then – and here accounts diverge – tied to a tractor, lugged across crushed stones on a half constructed road, doused with petrol and flung into the brick kiln where they would both have gone to work the next day, had Shama not been accused of desecrating the Quran. She was one of at least 1,472 people who have been accused under the blasphemy laws between 1987 and 2015 – specifically under sections 295-B, 295-C and 298-A of the Pakistan Penal Code. As estimated by the Centre for Social Justice: 730 of these are Muslims, 501 are Ahmadis, 205 are Christians and 26 are Hindus. The religion of the remaining 10 could not be ascertained – they were killed before any legal proceedings were initiated.

There was initially a great deal of public fury, and wholesale condemnation, after Shama and Shahzad were burnt to death, followed by what some chose to view as heartening signs, whatever that could mean in a situation of this sort. Human rights campaigner Asma Jehangir thought that the response from the religious parties was positive. The state said it would be chief complainant in the case. People were rounded up and arrested. But slowly attention moved on to other things: the factory fire in Jhelum that targeted Ahmadis who were alleged to have blasphemed, the boy who cut off his own hand in Hujra Shah Muqeem town to punish himself for what he considered as constituting blasphemy. “Woh joh bhattay pe sarr g’ay,” (those who burnt at the kiln) recalled one man, himself Christian, but from Lahore, about six months after Shama and Shahzad’s death in the adjoining district of Kasur. Consider the curiously passive construction of his sentence: those who burnt to death at the brick kiln, not those who were burnt to death, as if spontaneous combustion were somehow the cause.

In district Kasur’s Chak-59, a stone’s throw away from the murder site, Muhammad Ilyas says his son had nothing to do with it.

He pauses to light a cigarette, holding it between two trembling fingers. He exhales slowly. It is the only plume of smoke in the distance: the brick kilns lie dormant on that summer day in 2015. Every Wednesday, Ilyas visits his son, who he says is unjustly locked up in Shadman jail in Lahore. He himself spent four days there in November 2014, released only when his cough, a hacking sound that wells up from inside him, even as he continues to smoke, became worse. The scale and pace of life in Lahore both exhaust and unsettle him: when he tried to cross the road outside the jail last week, a motor-cyclist nearly trampled his toes. He wiggles them now, for effect.

No one in Chak 59 would say who the hundreds of men were whose rage led to the death of Shama and Shahzad, though they all concede, with an air of pronounced reasonableness, that the deaths did take place. “They came from outside,” Ilyas insists, referring to the mob. This is Conspiracy Theory Number One in almost all mob attacks over accusations of blasphemy. The crowd that has assembled around Ilyas nods in agreement.

As Ilyas continues speaking – “Shama’s sister had converted to Islam, that was at the heart of everything” – a voice emerges from the crowd.

“You’re not speaking the truth.”

Ilyas stops speaking entirely, surprised into silence by a man who makes his way to the centre.

“I didn’t know those two. I have no reason to defend them,” the stranger says, his words tumbling forth with great urgency and deliberation. The effect is of a man trying to tiptoe across a crocodile pond as quickly as possible. “I don’t. But the truth is you’re – we’re – all just repeating things we’ve only heard.”

Ilyas tries to interrupt. The man next to him puts a hand on his shoulder. “Let him say what he has to say.”

The speaker hesitates, then decides to wade ahead.

“It was a misunderstanding. The girl’s father-in-law made amulets; that’s what the Arabic verses were for – she couldn’t even read. It was all a misunderstanding. Think about it. In a country like this, you have a majority and you have a minority. The minority is the ghulam qaum, slave nation – it knows it has to live by the terms of the majority. Why would anyone deliberately go out of their way to insult the majority, which has all the power?”

Silence. “I have no reason to defend them,” he repeats. “I didn’t know them.”

“How long have you lived here?” asks the man sitting beside Ilyas, observing the stranger closely.

“About a year.”

“Have you ever had any trouble here? Has anyone ever given you any trouble?”

“Never,” declares the man. “Not once.”

Ilyas leans forward. “You’re Christian too. So why are you alive and well?”

When Muslims ruled Spain, 48 Christians were said to have been executed on various charges of blasphemy and apostasy, between the years 851 and 859. They are remembered today as ‘the martyrs of Cordoba’. Their accounts were related by Eulogius, a monk who encouraged public declarations of faith as a way to assert the identity of a Christian community. Death that resulted from these declarations was the perfect solution: “ … not only did it epitomise self-abnegation and separation from the world, but it also guaranteed that there would be no opportunity to sin again,” Eulogius wrote. He was also eventually put to death, and it is unclear if more Christians after him rebelled in a similar manner.

Blasphemy as political or personal protest seems somewhat far-fetched in Pakistan’s current climate, but proponents of Pakistan’s blasphemy laws often cite this episode in response to the question of why someone would deliberately insult the majority religion. But even as the laws pertaining to blasphemy have grown stronger, the aftermath of accusations is increasingly unfolding outside the courtroom, presenting a strange and seemingly unsurmountable dichotomy. The court in sweltering Lahore, after all, wasn’t adjudicating on the issue of blasphemy but rather on murders that resulted from it. How has blasphemy become such a deadly issue in Pakistan?

Anti-blasphemy protesters throwing stones at the police in Islamabad in 2012 | Tanveer Shahzad, White Star

Anti-blasphemy protesters throwing stones at the police in Islamabad in 2012. Credit: Tanveer Shahzad, White Star/Herald

It is possible, of course, to blame colonialism. When Lord Thomas Babington Macaulay, of “a single shelf of a good European library is worth the whole native literature of India and Arabia” fame, drafted the Indian Penal Code of 1860, he introduced a blasphemy law, imported from the British common law with some additional provisions – for instance, even words uttered out loud could be deemed offensive.

Macaulay thought the people of the subcontinent were a particularly emotional lot, predisposed to symbolic offense: “A person who should offer a gross insult to the Mohammedan religion in the presence of a zealous professor of that religion; who should deprive some high-born Rajpoot of his caste; who should rudely thrust his head into the covered palanquin of a woman of rank, would probably move those whom he insulted to more violent anger than if he had caused them some severe bodily hurt.” Indeed, he warned, “there is, perhaps, no country in which the government has so much to apprehend from religious excitement among the people.”

Whether or not religion was the main dividing line among the residents of the subcontinent – after all, no one really knew the relative numbers of various groups, or the demarcation of what exactly separated one group from the other, until the first census was carried out in India in 1871 – Macaulay incorporated religion into criminal law, noted anthropologist Asad Ali Ahmed in Spectres of Macaulay: Blasphemy, the Indian Penal Code and Pakistan’s Postcolonial Predicament. He referred to religion as the “inaugural site of difference” in the subcontinent. It was a classic colonial move: for the imperial power to fashion itself as the impartial umpire between antagonistic religious communities to create or at least highlight differences and then step in to arbitrate. Even at the time, Ahmed wrote, there was concern about making wounded religious sentiments, even when they did not lead to public disorder, a cause for action. The English lawyer Fitzjames Stephen warned that it would be fine as long as English magistrates continued to interpret the law restrictively but it “might lead to horrible cruelty and persecution if the government of the country ever got into Hindoo or Mohammedan hands”.

But as the British colonial state helped to shape patterns of community redefinition and conflict, it stood in self-definition apart from these processes, noted David Gilmartin, an American historian. It saw itself as a mediator standing outside the structure of society, rather than assuming the role of a cultural patron, as earlier states in the subcontinent had done. And so, “with the state no longer defining the moral parameters of the community or its political forms, individuals remade the community in the public realm by attaching their hearts to Muslim symbols and making their inner [feelings] public in open contestation.” This “love” manifested itself in the increasingly popular emphasis on public ceremonies such as the birthday of the Prophet Muhammad (may peace be upon him) and the public agitations in the early 20th century that mobilised the devoted for the protection of Muslim traditions and icons under threat – the Ottoman Caliphate, or the ‘martyred’ mosques in Kanpur and Shaheed Ganj (Lahore). It transcended divisions of interests and status, wrote Gilmartin, creating “an image of moral unity that transcended everyday political conflict”. He added: “Calls for devotion and sacrifice in defence of symbols of community often drew heavily on the gendered language of male honour, namoos, an idiom that not only evoked the universalism of patriarchy but also the particularistic (and highly competitive) loyalties attached to tribe, family and other kinship-based identities.”

Ki Muhammad se wafa tu nay tou hum teray hain” (only if you are to be loyal to Muhammad, will I be yours), wrote Allama Iqbal in Jawab-e-Shikwa, as part of God’s address to the Muslims. Indeed, the uproar for protecting the honour of Prophet Muhammad (may peace be upon him) was such during Ilamdin’s trial that the British were forced to intervene and add an additional clause to the blasphemy law. Nearly a century later, in the events that led to the murder of Governor Taseer, the verse was invoked again and again.

Azhar Jafri, White Star

Credit: Azhar Jafri, White Star/Herald

The blasphemy law was hardly ever invoked in all the early 20th century instances. Very few cases of blasphemy were, in fact, registered until the time of General Ziaul Haq, when new and stricter laws were added to those already existing. Religion had made a comeback of sorts all across the world then, thrusting itself into the public arena of moral and political contestation. The Islamic revolution in Iran, the rise of the Solidarity movement in Poland in protest against godless communist suppression, the role of Catholicism in the Sandinista revolution and in other political conflicts throughout Latin America, and the bloody occupation of the holy mosque in Makkah by a highly radicalised Salafi group gave religion the kind of global publicity that forced a reassessment of its place and role in the world. In our own backyard, the invasion of Afghanistan, a Muslim country, by a purportedly atheist imperial power, the Soviet Union, turned our society into an extended religious laboratory and our state an extended jihadi camp.

But even before Zia came to power and made Islamism official, the cultural work for this had been done, wrote Manan Ahmed Asif, an assistant professor of history at Columbia University, in a 2011 article, titled Forfeiting the Future, published in the Indian magazine, Caravan. The blasphemy riots of the 1950s, when Ahmadis were violently resisted by Jamaat-e-Islami and other religious groups, had taught one clear lesson to the religious right: the veneration of Prophet Muhammad (may peace be upon him) made great political theatre, with infinite appeal for nearly every segment of the Pakistani population, he added. The emergence of Prophet Muhammad (may peace be upon him) as a centralising and orienting raison d’être for Pakistan, however, was not, in Asif’s words, merely an organic outgrowth of a religiously inclined society; it was a deliberate state policy, aided by Islamist parties, to mould public faith. With the explicit support of Ayub Khan’s military regime, the figure of Prophet Muhammad (may peace be upon him) quickly became central to national political memory – the celebration of his birth, the mi’raj (his ascension to the heavens) and other milestones from his life were “heavily funded and carefully orchestrated events, with the massive participation of the religious elite across Pakistan.”

These changes could be seen in the sort of books that were being produced in those years: Islamic polemics against the Ahmadis and the leftists by the likes of Agha Shorish Kashmiri, Islamic fiction by the likes of Naseem Hijazi and Islamic poetry by the likes of Hafeez Jullandhri who composed Shahnama-e-Islam, a verse history of the Muslim governments of the past (Jullandhri, at the time of writing the book, was working as an adviser to Ayub Khan). “So the person who read these [in the 1980s] is now a middle-aged man with set views,” Asif says in an interview.

During the Zia era, the ideological framework of the blasphemy laws also became more complicated than it was during the British period: they were no longer intended to demonstrate state neutrality, but were an explicit state-administered defence of sacred Muslim persons and texts. This was a state that was shaping society as much as it was being shaped by it.

“Underlying the original laws and their postcolonial additions is an unstable dynamic of incitement and containment – that is, the laws’ attempt to regulate wounded attachments and religious passions can conversely constitute them. They have in actuality enabled social groups to organise in order to ensure the state takes cognisance of blasphemous events and practices,” Ahmed, an assistant professor at Harvard University’s Centre for Middle Eastern Studies, wrote in his paper, Spectres of Macaulay.

But, importantly, there have been no executions as yet. State officials have been particularly reluctant to intervene in disputes between Muslims, for fear that trials and executions will further sectarian conflict, he pointed out. The attempt to forge a bond between the state and the nation, according to him, founders on the numerical preponderance of blasphemy cases registered by Muslims against Muslims.

The anecdote that Ahmed narrated in his paper to demonstrate this concerns a stand off between Ahle Sunnat – or Barelvis – and Ahle Hadith – or Wahhabis – over what transpired at a conference about the life of Prophet Muhammad (may peace be upon him). And it is pretty instructive: some young Barelvi men in Kamoke town near Lahore attended a gathering of Ahle Hadith. They claimed that two Ahle Hadith clerics implied during the gathering that Barelvis were like ‘dancing girls’ and made fun of the Barelvi insistence on the Prophet’s intercessory role and perpetual presence.

The Barelvis responded insult for insult 12 days later. The Ahle Hadith lodged a blasphemy case against them, invoking sections 295-A and 298 of the Pakistan Penal Code. The Barelvis responded to this by lodging a case under section 295-C that carries the death penalty. The state dragged its feet, so, eventually, they had to compromise. But no one was entirely happy.

“It is this gap between the filing of the case and their inability to prosecute,” wrote Ahmed, “between their expectation that the government would perform its sovereign duty and its refusal to do so, between the law’s incitement to action and the administration’s tenuous regulatory capability that had led the blasphemy laws to become a site of passionate attachment and mobilisation, and a site of disaffection and betrayal by the state.” That explains both violent protests over the caricatures deemed offensive and mob attacks that follow the real or perceived instances of blasphemy.

For Barelvis, it is also a matter of waning political power – the realisation that Deobandis have institutional presence in a way that Barelvis do not. Through political parties such as Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam Fazl (JUIF) and, to a certain extent, Jamaat-e-Islami, which, by its own claim, is non-sectarian but most of its individual members are either Deobandi or Ahle Hadith, through government institutions such as the Council of Islamic Ideology, Federal Shariat Court, moon sighting committees, and through the possession of state-built mosques and madrasas, Deobandis far outweigh Barelvis in the organised social sphere, even though the latter claim to be as numerous as the former, if not more. This then explains why Qadri and his death sentence became such a major flashpoint – it provided Barelvis an opportunity to demonstrate that they have street power like any other religious group in Pakistan.

Having seeped into almost all aspects of national life, the spillover of the blasphemy issue has now, understandably, entered the political sphere as well; when Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM) and Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) had a political spat year before the last, the former lodged a blasphemy case against the latter’s prominent leader, Syed Khursheed Shah, claiming the remarks he had reportedly made about the muhajirs, the migrants from India that MQM represents, constituted blasphemy because Prophet Muhammad (may peace be upon him) was himself a muhajir.

Rimsha, a Christian girl accused of blasphemy, being escorted to safety in Islamabad in 2012 |M Arif, White Star

Rimsha, a Christian girl accused of blasphemy, being escorted to safety in Islamabad in 2012. Credit: M Arif, White Star/Herald

Wednesday is meeting day at Shadman jail in Lahore. Irfan Prince hands over his identity card and his cell phone to the guards at the entrance hall to the prison and receives a parcha (note) in return. He then peers at the clock at the opposite end of the room. It is load shedding time, which means that only the central column of ceiling fans, directly above the cubicles of jail officials, is functioning. A woman in the ladies section fans herself with her white chador and keeps looking up at the ceiling and then glaring at the police wallas (policemen). The walls have Quranic verses displayed on them – sponsored by Shezan, a soft drink maker.

As soon as the clock strikes 2 pm, the time when the meeting starts, Prince rushes to the security counter, gets his food checked, and then rushes to the tuck shop and gets a cold bottle of mango juice. In his hurry, he looks younger than he is. He then dashes towards what is titled mulaqaat shed, or the shed for the meeting. He hangs his backpack on a nail at the entrance, turns around the corner and disappears into a narrow pathway that ends at a gate with iron bars. Behind the bars are inmates. Most of them have been jailed for blasphemy. Among them is Prince’s brother Adnan, a former pastor.

Those who say the blasphemy laws do not target non-Muslims are right in that more Muslims have been accused of blasphemy than non-Muslims – but the counter-argument that non-Muslims are disproportionally targeted is also correct. And this vulnerability extends beyond mere accusation. Consider, for instance, what the trial court wrote in its judgment in the case of Aasia Bibi, who became internationally known when Governor Taseer took up her cause and was later killed because of his stance. “[Aasia] admitted that she exchanged ‘hot words’ with those two Muslim sisters [who are the accusers in the case]. When a Muslim and Christian exchange ‘hot words’ the blasphemy was a natural outcome. And, thus, she committed blasphemy.”

Adnan was accused of writing blasphemous words on a book, about a month and a half after the twin bombing of the All Saints Church in Peshawar in 2013 had killed 80 Christians (rights groups say there was a rash of blasphemy accusations immediately after that attack – they are not entirely sure why). He said the book did not belong to him and that it was found in a shop in Lahore where he was covering a shift for his brother, Prince.

He was accused of blasphemy the very next day after the offending words were found written on the book. He fled. He, his mother and his brother went to their family in Youhanabad, a Christian slum on the southern edge of Lahore. But the community there, worried by what had happened in Joseph Colony, another Christian neighbourhood in Lahore set on fire just a few months ago, told them to leave. Adnan went into hiding. Prince and his uncles – his father having passed away a long time ago – were arrested and told they would not be allowed to leave until Adnan surrendered himself. And so he did.

A young boy in Islamabad in 2012 protests against an anti-Islam film and the publication of blasphemous caricatures | Tanveer Shahzad, White Star

A young boy in Islamabad in 2012 protests against an anti-Islam film and the publication of blasphemous caricatures. Credit: Tanveer Shahzad, White Star/Herald

Adnan sips the mango juice, the bottle steadily perspiring in the heat, with the straw that his brother has carefully angled through the bars. His own face glistens with sweat. “We’ll see you next week,” Prince tells him. But the judge hearing his case goes away on holiday. Next week stretches into next month. Even as freedom becomes increasingly elusive for Adnan, the spectre of a death sentence looms large – or, worse still, death at the hands of an inmate or a police guard incensed by his alleged act of blasphemy.

John Joseph, a Roman Catholic bishop in Faisalabad, was highly wary of the treatment of Christians facing blasphemy trials. In May 1998, he shot himself with a pistol in front of a court in Sahiwal in protest against a death sentence handed down to one Ayub Masih. Yet, not every Christian in Pakistan opposes the blasphemy laws. Many activists – both Muslim and Christian – and many church leaders have argued that the Islam-specific provisions of the blasphemy laws, indeed, should cover the holy personages and religious texts of all religions. It was precisely this position that the former Chief Justice of Pakistan Justice Tassadduq Hussain Jillani took when, according to Dawn, he remarked during the hearing of a case in May 2014 that “offence against any religion comes under the blasphemy law”.

Nobody no longer says openly that the blasphemy laws need to be repealed on the ground that they violate human rights.

The first trial that Ghulam Mustafa Chaudhry – the Lahore-based head of the Khatm-e-Nabuwwat Lawyers’ Forum – formally worked on was that of Muhammad Yusuf Ali, who was accused of posing as a prophet in 1997. This is not the name by which Chaudhry refers to him, however. He calls him Yusuf Kazzab –kazzab meaning ‘liar’ in Arabic, an epithet given throughout Muslim history to people claiming prophethood or betraying Islam in some way. An epithet popularised in this case by daily Khabrain, which was then a relatively new Urdu newspaper and was trying to establish its readership. Yusuf Ali is said to be a shareholder in the office building on Lahore’s Lawrence Road that houses daily Khabrain’s headquarters. It is not clear whether or not this point came up during his trial.

Yusuf Ali was convicted and sentenced to death in 2000, three years before the parliament would make the last real – but eventually aborted – effort to amend the laws. As it were, he was murdered while in prison by another inmate, Tariq, who was on death row (the gun with which Yusuf Ali was fired at was taken into the prison reportedly by an employee of daily Khabrain). The murder inspired the movie Aik Aur Ghazi, directed by Syed Noor and released years later in 2011 – curiously just months after yet another ghazi had entered the public consciousness: Mumtaz Qadri. Noor insisted that he was not trying to cash in on the prevailing sentiments on the subject. In any case, the film flopped.

Chaudhry, who was a part of the legal team for Qadri’s defence, says he has full faith in the legal system. If the courts do justice, there will never be any problem, he says on a hot summer day in 2015. At that point Qadri’s case was in its final appeal. Chaudhry proclaims that Qadri was justified in doing what he did because there was no way that Taseer, the sitting provincial governor, could have been taken to a court for making remarks about the blasphemy laws.

Chaudhry does not think that his association takes up blasphemy cases disregarding whether they are fake or genuine. All cases are investigated before the lawyers take them up, he says. As of last summer, they were handling from 500 to 600 cases. He says he did not take up the case that led to arson at Joseph Colony because the complainant was said to have been drinking with the accused. The imbibing of alcohol, turned Chaudhry off. But even in a state of inebriation, he insists, a Muslim will not tolerate an insult to Islam.

The owner of a house publicises his identity to avert assault by an angry mob in Joseph Colony in Lahore. Credit: Azhar Jafri/White Star/Herald

The owner of a house publicises his identity to avert assault by an angry mob in Joseph Colony in Lahore. Credit: Azhar Jafri/White Star/Herald

Part Three: Forgiveness 

The wings of the ceiling fans in the hall of the Presbyterian church had drooped in the heat, like wilted petals, and this, people later said, was proof that it had been no ordinary fire. It must have involved special chemicals, the sort that were not readily available in Sangla Hill, wedged between Lahore, Sheikhupura and Faisalabad – and, they further reasoned, this meant that the fire must have been planned by outsiders, carefully orchestrated, rather than resulting from a spontaneous outburst of passion. Perhaps this was easier to stomach than wondering which of your neighbours had tried to attack you. In any case, there was no way of knowing whether the 88 arrested from the town were actually the ones who had set fire to the three churches, a convent, a girls’ hostel and a pastor’s house. So Reverend Tajammal Parvez and his Catholic counterpart decided to forgive them.

In return, a local Muslim, Kalu Suniara, withdrew the case against Yusuf Masih whom he had accused of setting fire to a shed that stored fragments of old Qurans. The two communities – Christian and Muslim – approached the courts and assured the judges that the matter had been resolved. It helped that no lives had been lost in the mob attack. It also helped that the small town of Sangla Hill was fairly integrated and that the elders of its various religious communities –Barelvi, Ahle Hadith, Shia, Catholic, Protestant – were well acquainted with each other.

In an influential study, political scientist Ashutosh Varshney investigated why some cities in India experienced more Hindu-Muslim violence than others, and concluded that this variance depended on how strong ‘cross-communal’ civic associations were. In Sangla Hill, old relationships did not prevent violence but they did help the healing process afterwards. Still, Yusuf Masih had to leave town so that the other Christian families, who had fled when their homes were attacked, could return – though local leaders insist he was not forced to leave, but chose to do so himself. When he died a few years later, in 2008, his wife is reported to have blamed his death on injuries sustained during his time in government custody under the blasphemy charge.

In the renovated Presbyterian church, immediately after delivering a Sunday sermon, Reverend Pervez says the incident is firmly in the past. “The only change here is that no one takes out a procession in protest anymore – we are all too scared of what it might lead to. Last month, there were load-shedding protests all over the province, but no one came out on to the streets here. Ten years have passed. It is behind us now.”

In another part of the province, healing has never happened. Hafiz Farooq Sajjad’s wife in Gujranwala has not forgotten the murder of her husband 22 years ago, although she has also pardoned the killers. For years, she pursued the case, ensuring that at least four of the murderers remained behind bars. Then her own father died and her spirits flagged. Her father was the one who dealt with the lawyers and sat in on the hearings. She had six children to care for, and little time or money, or emotional energy. When she reached a settlement, she received 200,000 rupees from each of the four perpetrators, she says. The money did not last her very long. For a while, the local chapter of Jamaat-e-Islami provided a monthly stipend of 3,000 rupees to her but that too stopped eventually. “Now if I ask anyone for money, they think it’s just my habit,” she says bitterly.

Her youngest son, traumatised from watching the mob haul away his father, refused to speak for months afterwards and compulsively picked at his own skin. At the local police station, where police briefly sheltered Sajjad after he was dragged out of his house and into the city streets, he begged for a bullet to the head instead of being handed over to the crowds outside. Beaten, bludgeoned and burnt to death, he was buried in Lahore because authorities feared his grave in Gujranwala would be frequently desecrated. These are the details his wife remembers. She cried continuously for months, bewildered: how could this happen to a religious man – a hafiz-e-Quran? “My father didn’t let me bury my own husband. He said I wouldn’t be able to bear the sight of his mutilated corpse. I’ve had no closure … sometimes I still think he’ll come back. I can’t believe it; I can’t forget it.”

Others around her seem to have forgotten. The lane where Sajjad’s family lives has changed over the years; old neighbours have moved away, new ones have moved in; the woman who accused him of blasphemy has died. Two doors down from his house, a group of women sitting in the outer veranda of their house struggle to recall the incident. “Oh yes,” says a young woman finally, “God only knows, of course, but I heard [Sajjad’s wife] had her own husband killed …”

Young anti-blasphemy protesters in Islamabad in 2012 |Tanveer Shahzad, White Star

Young anti-blasphemy protesters in Islamabad in 2012. Credit:Tanveer Shahzad/ White Star/Herald

Maulana Zahidur Rashidi believes there is room for tobah, for seeking divine forgiveness.

Rashidi, a religious scholar based in Gujranwala, is the founding editor of Al-Sharia, a journal that examines matters pertaining to Islamic legal thought. Sometimes, the opinions espoused in Al-Sharia can swerve dramatically away from mainstream religious opinion: the notion, for instance, that it is not permissible on religious grounds for non-Afghan Muslims to fight against international forces in Afghanistan. On other occasions, they are less innovative, such as on the status of Ahmadis. Still, Rashidi appears to be one of the few clerics in Pakistan willing to show flexibility on the blasphemy issue. “We talk about this in our circles,” he says. “The majority believes that blasphemy cannot be pardoned, but I firmly belong to the camp that thinks pardon is permissible in certain conditions. At the end of the day, naturally, the voice of the majority is the one that is heard.”

Our circles. Rashidi belongs to Deobandi sect for which the issue of blasphemy, in particular against Prophet Muhammad (may peace be upon him), is a little less emotive than it is for Barelvis. But when it comes to the issue of the blasphemy laws, particularly with regard to their repeal, Deobandis and Barelvis band together as one – it is almost as if religion becomes a monolith only in the face of an external threat.

Still, Rashidi admits, without caveat, that the laws are extensively misused. After a young Christian girl, Rimsha Masih, was falsely accused of blasphemy, Rashidi’s son, Ammar Nasir, who now edits Al-Sharia and teaches Islamic studies at a private university in Gujranwala, noted: “The practice of charging individuals with blasphemy is thriving in Pakistan. As a consequence, it is not totally unforeseeable that in time even committed religious people and those dedicated to faith might be forced to consider the repeal or suspension of the blasphemy laws as a better option than enduring the deteriorating situation where the law is abused against innocents. And if the situation comes to this, I will proclaim without any fear of contradiction that the blame falls squarely on those persons of faith who aided and abetted the unbalanced public conduct in this matter. I will say this even if they ostensibly defend their innocence in claiming that such moves to repeal the blasphemy laws were a conspiracy conducted by the enemies of Islam.”

It matters who is talking, says Arafat Mazhar, a young researcher committed to reforming the blasphemy laws through Islamic jurisprudence. Others, of course, have also tried taking the same route, Javed Ahmed Ghamidi being the most famous among them. Ghamidi has argued that prosecuting blasphemy is not, for the most part, the business of the state. He was hunted out by hardliners and now lives in Malaysia after he received serious and frequent threats to his life.

Anti-blasphemy protesters in Islamabad|Tanveer Shahzad, White Star

Anti-blasphemy protesters in Islamabad. Credit: Tanveer Shahzad, White Star/Herald

Days before Mumtaz Qadri was executed in February 2016, a handful of students stood before the gates of Rawalpindi’s Adiala Jail on Valentine’s Day, bearing gifts for him. It made no sense, and was a source of amused horror for many. “We admit it is not our tradition and it is wrong to celebrate Valentine’s day, but it is now widely celebrated and the media is full with Valentine’s day activities,” the students are reported to have said. They knew that this was how to catch the attention of the media. Perhaps it was for the same reason that two weeks later when Qadri was hanged, in a move that caught many off guard for its suddenness, young men attended his funeral wearing placards that read I am Qadri – an apparent appropriation of I am Charlie placards that cropped up all over Europe during protests against the attack on Charlie Habdo, the French magazine that had published the offensive caricatures of Prophet Muhammad, may peace be upon him. Irony aside, it appeared to be an attempt to connect to a global protest, to speak the same language as the ‘other’.

A false binary has been created, argues Arafat Mazhar: human rights abuses versus respect for religion; the victim complex of the majority versus the persecution of minorities;repeal of the law versus making it even more stringent. Perhaps it is time to start speaking each other’s language.

In a dusty office in Nankana Sahib, a district town near Lahore, three lawyers and a cleric were huddled together last summer. They were conversing heatedly about Aasia Bibi, whose death sentence by a trial court was upheld by the Lahore High Court in 2014 though the Supreme Court suspended the sentence in 2015 until her appeals were decided. One of the lawyers had successfully prosecuted the case at the district level: the cleric, a neighbourhood moulvi, was the one who had first reported the case to the police. He had heard Aasia Bibi confess, heard it with his own two ears, though he could not repeat her words now for that too would be a sin. He failed to understand how any true believer could feel sympathy for her: she had ridiculed the Prophet, nauzubillah, and the only punishment for ridicule was death. The other men in the room nodded vigorously.

“But what about that story we’re all told as children,” I ventured, “the one about the old lady who would throw trash on the Prophet (may peace be upon him) whenever he went to the mosque? He never said a harsh word to her.”

“A story?” the older lawyer repeated in alarm, eyebrows raised, tone admonitory. “You cannot call it a story.”

At another time, in another place, many conversations could have been had: whether ordinary men and women can forgive an offence against the Prophet (may peace be upon him); whether to follow his practices of Makkah or only of Medina after an Islamic state had been established there; whether the word story, kahani, is indeed offensive, implying something that is not true; and why violence has become the predominant proof of love. Perhaps someone more articulate, more knowledgeable and less paranoid would have brushed off this policing of speech, and pressed on. But fear is a great conversation-stopper: unnerved, I fell silent and let them talk, about love and honour and the irrefutable glory of Islam.

  • Srikalyani

    Very nicely written. It shows another perspective. How the British had ruled by dividing people and making one fight the other? If only people of South Asia can realize this and live peacefully in a coexistent way, it would be great for world peace.