LONDON — Asia Bibi is a defenseless Pakistani Christian woman who was maliciously accused of “blasphemy” by her Muslim neighbors. They did this to settle a score after she committed the other “crime,” as a non-Muslim, of drinking water from the same cup as them. Asia was sentenced by Pakistan’s courts to death by hanging in 2010. She languishes in jail awaiting execution until this day. So far, so obscene.
Five years ago, Asia must have thought she had been given a lifeline. Imagine the delight felt by this powerless woman—for Christians are a tiny and discriminated against minority in Pakistan—when the governor of Pakistan’s largest province, the flamboyant secular Muslim, Salmaan Taseer, publicly took up her case. With such a high-profile champion, Asia would have been forgiven for thinking that her savior had arrived and that she would soon be freed.
The world reeled in shock at what happened next.
Pakistan’s mullah mafia proved stronger than the governor of Punjab.
In 2011 Salmaan Taseer was gunned down by his own bodyguard, Mumtaz Qadri, who brutally pumped nine bullets into the body of the man he mercilessly betrayed.
Salmaan’s “crime” was to campaign publicly in defense of Asia, and for a change to Pakistan’s archaic blasphemy laws.
Qadri came to be regarded as a hero by many Barelwi Pakistani Sufi Muslims for “defending” the “honor” of the Prophet Muhammad. And as if to rub acid into the wounds, the assassin was showered with rose petals as he walked to his trial through spontaneous rallies held in his support.
But last week, Qadri finally was executed by the state of Pakistan for his crime. Placing my personal rejection of the death sentence for criminals such as Qadri to one side, the case of Salmaan Taseer should now have been considered closed.
Far from it.
Tens of thousands of Pakistani Muslims joined Qadri’s funeral procession to mourn his death, and to hail him as a martyr.
Aside from how much harder this makes it to imagine the liberation of Asia Bibi from her imprisonment for the thought-crime of “blasphemy,” what this says about the psychological state of the Pakistani nation—and my own Pakistani Muslim heritage—is deeply depressing.
Blasphemy is in the eye of the beholder. One person’s blasphemer is another person’s liberator. Arbitrary pronouncements of blasphemy are about as valuable as arbitrary pronouncements of beauty. Killing anyone over such an assumption-laden charge is as absurd as killing someone because they’re “ugly.” It simply makes no sense.
Yet millions of people across the world, many of them Muslim, are still prepared to justify this obscene and simplistic mindset by sympathizing with murderers who kill in the name of heresy.
Even in the U.K., the reaction has been difficult to comprehend.
Previously, a quarter of my fellow British Muslims have expressed sympathy with the terrorists who attacked the Charlie Hebdo offices in Paris. And now, certain Muslim religious and community “leaders,” who position themselves as anti-ISIS and “mainstream,” have come out publicly praising Qadri as a hero.
One of Europe’s largest mosques, the Barelwi Sufi-managed Ghamkol Sharif in Birmingham, U.K., held a wake “in honor of the lover of the Prophet, Warrior Mumtaz Qadri, the martyr.”
Another Barelwi Imam, Muhammed Asim Hussain, whose verified Facebook page has been liked nearly 137,000 times, posted his position openly:
“A dark day in the history of Pakistan; the day Ghazi [warrior] Mumtaz was wrongfully executed and martyred in the way of Allah, when he did what he did in honor of the Prophet.”
“This does not make me a terrorist sympathizer as I, along with millions of fellow Muslims, do not accept that Gazi Mumtaz Qadri was a terrorist in the least. I have always been the first to condemn terrorism wherever in the world it takes place. I am also an Islamic religious minister. I therefore have a duty to express an opinion on fundamental matters concerning Islam and on this occasion, the crime of blasphemy.… As for having travelled to the funeral of Gazi Mumtaz Qadri, along with hundreds of thousands of others who also attended, I am not at all ashamed of this.”
Mohammed Shafiq, who runs the Ramadan Foundation website, a regular pundit on the “community leader” circuit, posted a prayer eulogizing Qadri and criticized Pakistani media for not condemning Qadri’s execution.
What makes the positions of all of these “community leaders” so hurtful is that they hail from the relatively moderate, Barelwi strand of Sufi Pakistani Islam. This is the strand of Islam that I was raised in, and taught to respect by my family. Hence why these statements cut me so deep. It is why I cannot remain silent. My very sense of self is being hijacked by the tribalism and ruthlessness of modern identity politics.
Away from this intractable issue of “blasphemy,” the Barelwis had been an ally in the global fight against Islamism and puritanical Wahhabism. Barelwi scholar Dr Tahir-ul-Qadri’s fatwa against terrorism is a case in point. Yet frustratingly, even he has so far refused to budge on Pakistan’s blasphemy law.
In the positions of these figures, I do not recognize the love, mercy, and forgiveness of the Prophet that Barelwis are known for teaching. All I see is hate—hate, and strange reverence for a blasphemy law that has no place in the modern world, anywhere.
I ask my Barelwi religious clerics, what happened to your emphasis on the renowned passage in the Quran, “And the servants of the Most Merciful are those who walk upon the earth gently, and when the ignorant address them, they say ‘peace.’”
You know more so than others that there is absolutely no worldly punishment sanctioned in the Quran for blasphemy. Unlike most, you do not even have to look that up.
In this intolerant stance, you stand side by side with Iran and Saudi Arabia. Even the few stray narrations of the Prophet that are often cited to advocate death for apostates don’t stand up (PDF) to scrutiny, which is why almost all modern academic Muslim theologians have abandoned medieval Islam’s near consensus on the issue, and rejected this absurd conclusion, apart from you.
I ask again, for the love of the very Prophet you seem so insecure about, how do you think this advances the beauty of Islam that you preach? Surely, when you teach that the Prophet even forgave those who pelted him with stones outside of Taif, and forgave the many who threw waste in his path in Mecca, these lessons apply to you first and foremost?
And regardless of all of the above, even putting aside my admittedly modern view (PDF) on freedom of speech and blasphemy, since when did Salmaan Taseer’s mere calling for the reform of the blasphemy law, in itself become blasphemy? And how did Qadri’s taking the law into his own hands—subverting due process in Pakistan—ever become acceptable to you? This path is nothing but a recipe for chaos.
I beseech you to come and talk to our senior theologians at my organisation Quilliam, one of whom was the imam of Britain’s central mosque in Regent’s Park, Shaikh Salah al-Ansari—a scholar from Sunni Islam’s foremost school of learning al-Azhar—who may be able to sway you on this critical matter.
The most frustrating part of this madness is that you claim to be defending the “honor” of our Prophet. But I assure you he needs no defense. This specific blasphemy law was not instituted by your Prophet 1400 years ago. Rather, in an attempt to keep occupied communities separate and docile, it was introduced by none other than your British colonial masters, in 1860. The dark joke here is that you’re hailing as a martyr, a man who died defending a British colonial law.