LONDON — Asad Shah was a much-loved Muslim shopkeeper in Scotland’s first city of Glasgow. Embodying the slogan of his mosque: Love for All and Hatred for None, he would post inclusive social media messages such as “a very Happy Easter, especially to my beloved Christian nation,” and the locals loved him for it.
Yet, on the eve of Good Friday this year, Tanveer Ahmed, a fellow Muslim, appears to have driven 200 miles from Bradford to Glasgow in his licensed Uber car in order to stab Asad 30 times all over his body, stamp on his head and then sit laughing on his chest. Asad, tragically, died from his wounds later that night. With her nation in shock, Scotland’s First Minister Nicola Sturgeon attended a vigil in Asad’s memory, and he was buried just over a week later.
The truth behind why Asad was killed makes for uncomfortable and ugly reading.
Mohammad Faisal, a friend of the Shah family, described the murderer as “bearded,” wearing a long Muslim “religious robe” and addressing Asad in his native language before killing him.
Police have in fact charged the suspect Tanveer Ahmed with “religiously prejudiced” murder. For Asad was an Ahmedi Muslim, a minority sect persecuted as “heretical” by much of Pakistan’s Sunni Muslim majority. With these facts in mind, Asad Shah has probably become Britain’s first spillover case of Pakistan’s ongoing and vicious blasphemy inquisition being waged by that country’s increasingly belligerent mullah mafia.
The Ahmedis emerged in North India under the British Raj in the 1800s, and their founder Mirza Ghulam Ahmed from Qadian claimed to be the embodiment of Jesus the Messiah, returned. Such a claim has certainly caused controversy among the Sunni Muslim majority within the Indian Subcontinent.
Regardless, only the stone-cold and heartless could ignore the campaign of persecution that has been unleashed since upon Ahmadis by my fellow Sunni Muslims, especially those of the Barelwi denomination. Many would expect extremists, such as the Khatme Nubuwwat group that enforces the Finality of the Prophet, to celebrate Asad’s murder online. Beyond that, we would prefer to assume the best in Muslims, and insist that the extremists are but a “tiny minority.” A closer look reveals a dispiriting and disturbing truth.
Just how widespread and institutionalized this persecution is, are questions that few want to ask.
This is because, as the previous case of Salmaan Taseer highlighted, to defend “blasphemers” in Pakistan is likely to get you killed even if you’re the powerful governor of Punjab, Pakistan’s richest province. Taseer’s killer, Mumtaz Qadri, was recently executed by the Pakistani state, but nevertheless glorified and anointed by the inquisitor mullahs as a “ghazi” (warrior), who died a “shaheed” (a holy martyr), while defending namoos-e-Rasool (the honour of the Prophet).
After Qadri’s execution, the Barelwi Muslim leadership held widespread street protests in Pakistan’s capital Islamabad, demanding that the government accept a list of their demands. These included imposing their version of Sharia as law, to immediately execute all blasphemers including Aasia Bibi (the allegedly “blasphemous” Christian woman Salmaan Taseer died defending), the immediate release of all those convicted for killing to defend the “honor of the Prophet,” for the state to officially declare Mumtaz Qadri a “shaheed” on national media, to expel all members of the Ahmedi community from Pakistan (that’s 2 percent of the population), and to terminate immediately the positions of Ahmedis working in government departments.
Most devout Barelwi Sunni Muslims in the West take their religious instruction directly from Pakistan, and there remains a powerful flow of ideas coming from their leaders in the Punjab.
Nearly a week before Asad’s murder the imam of Scotland’s largest mosque, also in Glasgow, Maulana Habib Ur Rehman, used the messaging platform WhatsApp to show his support for the now-executed Mumtaz Qadri. In messages seen by the BBC, the Imam said that he was “disturbed” and “upset” at Qadri’s execution. He then added the epithet “rahmatullahi alaih” after mentioning Qadri’s name. This is a religious blessing usually given to devout Muslims and meaning “may God’s mercy be upon him.”
In another message, he says: “I cannot hide my pain today. A true Muslim was punished for doing which [sic] the collective will of the nation failed to carry out.” This, from the most senior imam at Glasgow Central Mosque, a role which involves leading prayers and giving religious guidance to an entire community.
Police are also investigating links between Sabir Ali, head of religious events at Glasgow Central Mosque, with Sipah-e-Sahabah, a banned Pakistani terror group from the Deobandi sect that persecutes Shia Muslims, also for alleged “blasphemy.” And yet, just as Scotland’s First Minister Nicola Sturgeon had attended the vigil in memory of Asad Shah, she also chose the Glasgow mosque to hold a minute of silence after the recent Brussels attacks.
Few in wider society are prepared to acknowledge just how deep Sunni prejudice against alleged blasphemers can run.
This thirst for an inquisition is not found only among extremist groups, nor limited to these key figures in the U.K.’s largest mosques. It is also present to worrying levels in the wider community.
Recently, Luton on Sunday, a local newspaper, carried a double-spread advertisement celebrating 125 years since the Ahmadiyya movement was founded. That paid advert prompted such a level of complaints from the wider Sunni Muslim community in Luton that it led to this groveling response by the newspaper:
“Last week the Luton on Sunday carried an advertisement from the Ahmediyyah…We would like to make it clear that we completely disassociate ourselves from the content of the advertisement… On Friday we met with representatives from the Muslim community to discuss the advertisement which we had accepted in good faith but now understand has caused offence to members of the Muslim Community in Luton.”
Included is a quotation from one of the “community leaders” the newspaper met with which thanks them for their sensitivity over a matter relating to the “fundamental beliefs of all Muslims.”
But as with all things, the mosque imams and “community leaders” find succor in the stance taken by those in authority among them. Look no further than the Pakistani High Commission in London to behold the truly institutionalized nature of this “Blasphemy Inquisition.”
Any British dual-national seeking to apply for a passport, or even an identity card, to travel to Pakistan visa-free is asked to partake in the persecution. Upon applying for our papers we are expected to sign a declaration (PDF) attesting— among other religious interferences by the state—that “I consider Mirza Ghulam Ahmed Quadiani to be an imposter nabi (prophet) and also consider his followers whether of the Lahori or Qadiani group to be non-Muslim.” Hundreds of thousands of British-Pakistani Muslims have had little choice but to participate in this ritual that normalizes the Blasphemy Inquisition, in order to gain their identity cards.
If we contextualize Asad Shah’s murder by placing it in this hostile climate, as we must, then we begin to realize the horrifying level of persecution facing those deemed heretical, such as Ahmedis or other “blasphemers.”
Over the years, in survey after survey, British Muslim attitudes have reflected dangerously high levels of support for enforcing “blasphemy” taboos. A 2007 poll found that 36 percent of young British Muslims thought that apostates should be killed. A 2008 YouGov poll found that a third of Muslim students claimed that killing for religion can be justified, while 33 percent expressed a desire to see the return of a worldwide theocratic Caliphate. A ComRes poll commissioned by the BBC in 2015 found that a quarter of British Muslims sympathized with the Charlie Hebdo “blasphemy” attacks.
By any reasonable assessment, something has gone badly wrong in Britain, and a solution must start on the ground, within the communities where the problem has festered for so long. It starts from a recognition that religious extremism has gained significant enough traction for it to pose a danger.
For Asad Shah’s sake, for all those persecuted for their religious choices, or lack of, we must speak up. Just as all of us, black or white, are responsible for challenging racism, and just as all of us, gay or straight, are responsible for challenging homophobia, all of us, Muslim or not, are responsible for challenging this religious extremism. Denial that a generational struggle, no less than the civil struggle to challenge racism, lies ahead of us is no longer a viable option.