By J.B. and Erasmus
Mar 2nd 2016
THESE are dark times for anybody who cares about religious freedom, and the fate of minority faiths, in Pakistan. It is exactly five years since Shahbaz Bhatti, the minorities minister who was the only Christian in the government and an opponent of the country’s blasphemy law, was assassinated by the Pakistani Taliban. The United States Commission on International Religious Freedom marked the anniversary by urging the abolition of that law. But far from honouring the slain minister’s memory, there seem to be ever more Pakistanis who agree that death is an appropriate fate not only for blasphemers but for those who dare to question the rightness of such a penalty.
One such questioner was Salman Taseer, a liberal-minded governor of Punjab province; in January 2011 he was gunned down by a self-appointed scourge of liberalism: his own bodyguard. That assassin, Mumtaz Qadri, was hanged this week in a Rawalpindi prison, and up to 100,000 people attended his funeral or staged protests elsewhere in Pakistan. They saw Qadri as a lone, heroic practitioner of divine justice, not a murderer.
Taseer’s crime in the eyes of Qadri and his supporters was his support for Asia Bibi, a poor Christian woman who is on death row after being accused of blasphemy by neighbours in a petty quarrel. Taseer had also described the blasphemy ban as a “black law”. So powerful was this week’s groundswell of support for Qadri that the government stopped broadcasters carrying news of the funeral and no front-rank politician dared to comment publicly. In an atmosphere rife with conspiracy theory, Qadri’s supporters claimed he was hanged on February 29th, a date which comes round every four years, in order to deny him an anniversary.
What is the origin of Pakistan’s fury against religious offence, real or imagined? Liberal Pakistanis like to stress that the country was not always so prickly about faith. Some blame the change of mood on Zia ul Haq, the Islamist dictator and cold-war ally of the West who seized power in 1977 and was killed in 1988. Others recall that laws banning blasphemy go right back to the British Raj.
It is certainly true that General Zia built a network of religious schools that prepared people to fight the Soviet forces in Afghanistan, and generally fanned the flames of religious zeal. The old British bans on blasphemy, later inherited by independent Pakistan, were also introduced in a pragmatic spirit, designed to keep order. Under General Zia, things got much harsher; disrespecting the Koran or Islam’s prophet could incur life imprisonment or, in the latter case, death. Then in 1991 a federal religious court ruled that death was the only appropriate punishment for blasphemy.
The number of blasphemy cases began soaring in the 1980s; between 1929 and 1982 there had been only nine, according to the Jinnah Institute, a think-tank.
But the idea of honouring individuals who take it upon themselves to liquidate blasphemers, or those who are soft on blasphemy, is nothing new. In 1929, a young carpenter’s apprentice was executed for killing a publisher in Lahore who had circulated a controversial work on Muhammad. Huge crowds attended the funeral; the atmosphere must have been very similar to this week’s outpouring of grief, anger and vindictiveness.
Here’s another confusing part of the story. The two best known streams of South Asian Islam, whether in Pakistan or Britain, are the puritanical Deobandis and the Barelvis, whose more elaborate forms of worship, involving saints and shrines, are sometimes called popular Sufism. The madrasas founded by General Zia follow the Deobandi path. In Britain, it is the Deobandis who are often perceived as hard-liners and advocates of self-segregation, while the Barelvis are seen as more moderate and amenable. The Taliban and several terrorist groups are offshoots of the Deobandi movement, although there are other ultra-pious Deobandis who are peaceful.
But the adulation of the two killers (Ilm-Deen in 1929 and Qadri in 2016) is a Barelvi phenomenon. Barelvis have never ceased to honour the grave of Ilm-Deen and they attended this week’s funeral in huge numbers. By contrast one of Pakistan’s most senior Deobandi clerics defended the execution, saying nobody was above the law.
Unfortunately, the roots of religious rage in Pakistan can’t be reduced to one particular school of Islam, one political leader, or one period of history. If only things were that simple.