How many Christians? Soon after the March 27 bombing in Lahore, that seemed to be the most important question. Families were out celebrating, some Easter, some a holiday. A suicide bomber stood near the rides, watching the little children swing high, screech with delight, their parents hovering nearby. He had a plan. He blew himself up and them. 72 dead, more than 300 injured.
For those interested in a head count, 14 were Christian. Does it matter? The Jamaat-ul-Ahrar, a Taliban breakaway group, claiming responsibility for the attack stated that their target was Christians.
A manhunt is on. While it is only natural to blame the Taliban, why is there not a loud enough noise against the blasphemy law in Pakistan that validates such brutalities against the minorities?
Indeed, many more Muslims are killed in terror attacks, either by terrorists or governments. That does not make the targeted hate against minorities any less important.
People of the Book
The day those children were killed in Lahore, over a thousand protestors in Islamabad were demanding the immediate execution of Asiya Masih, a Christian woman on death row charged with blasphemy. “Long live Ghazi!” was their chant. Ghazi for them is Mumtaz Qadri, sentenced to death for killing the Punjab Governor Salman Taseer for his support for Asiya bibi. Following Qadri’s execution, they want him to be officially named a shaheed (martyr) and his jail cell to be declared a heritage site.
They can afford such gumption because there is a law which states that the crime of criticising Allah, the Prophet or his teachings would be punishable by death. Conversions from Islam to any other religion carry the death penalty for men and life imprisonment for women.
Not only did the government that is organising a manhunt permit them to hold the rallies, it has even agreed to two of their demands that are linked to blasphemy: no amendment in Section 295-C of the PPC (blasphemy law) and no concession to anyone convicted of blasphemy.
Is the Pakistani government giving in to such blood-thirsty men or does it subscribe to these views? Qadri was not a terrorist; he belonged to the police force and was Taseer’s bodyguard. He was an insider, and there could well be many more.
The fact that Asiya has been given the death sentence points to government complicity in such beliefs. The liberal stance too did not speak about abusing the law, but pardoning the convicted. Taseer’s boss at the time, Asif Ali Zardari, was to act as god’s emissary and grant pardon to Asiya. The ruling elite and their echo chambers in society would have been spared the post-mortem.
The blasphemy law helps the political establishment to target anyone. More than half of those prosecuted have been Muslims so it is a clear indication that this is more an extreme form of censorship and dicatorship.
The Taliban's Jundullah wing had said after the twin blasts at the All Saints Church in Peshawar in 2012: “All non-Muslims in Pakistan are our target, and they will remain our target as long as America fails to stop drone strikes in our country.”
The Christians targeted then and now are Pakistani in thought, language, dress, and there is little to tell them apart from the rest. They have nothing to do with American drones or the United Sates. If anything, it is the rich Muslims who are more Americanised.
In the winter of 2014 Shama and Shehzad, a Christian couple, were bludgeoned, then set on fire in the brick kilns where they worked, and left to die. They had reportedly desecrated the Quran. The cops who tried to intervene were overwhelmed by the crowd, probably illiterate, who had probably memorised bits and pieces of the holy book. Later, some posed for photographs at the site of the murders. Seeing victims as trophy is one thing. Far worse is the lesson they learned as spectators: That there is a law that states such acts as desecration are a crime and killing for it might be the duty of a law-abiding citizen, rather than of a religion’s devotee.
As Tariq Ali rightly pointed out after the Lahore blast:
“…purely on the theological front, it is utterly grotesque of any group claiming to be Muslim to suggest that there is Qur’anic or institutional hostility to Christianity within Islamic writings. Jesus is one of the most revered of prophets in the Muslim pantheon. The only woman mentioned and praised and regarded as honorable in the Qur’an is Maryam, Mary, Jesus’s mother. There are more references to her in the Qur’an than in the New Testament, to show that these religions are linked to each other; they grew out of each other; they believe in the same book, the Old Testament; and they are all monotheistic. So, theologically, there is absolutely nothing to justify this.”
Christians are also considered ‘ahl-e-kitaab’ (people of the book) and therefore completely outside the range of whatever Islamists would deem to be authentic ‘kafir’.
The Idol Worshippers
Hindus seem to fit into the non-believer mould for fundamentalists. Yet, unlike Christians, they get more social support. This has a lot to do with status. While Hindus run small establishments and are professionally visible, from a chief justice to a cricketer, Christians, often employed in menial jobs, are to Pakistan what Dalits are to India – outcasts.
On the recent Holi festival, a group of students formed a chain outside a temple as the Hindus enjoyed the celebrations. There had been no threat and they did it only to show solidarity. These gestures, however, do not translate into a concerted agenda to bring about change.
In 2012 during the protests across Pakistan against the film ‘Innocence of Muslims’, mobs decided to show their love for the Prophet on Ishq-e-Rasool Day by vandalising a Hindu temple in Karachi. They looted the ornaments on the deities, broke idols, tore pages of the Gita. The police registered a case against them for “deliberate and malicious acts intended to outrage religious feelings of any class by insulting its religion or religious beliefs”. As reported: “In an extraordinary turn of events, Section 295-A was used to register a blasphemy case against Muslim men for damaging a Hindu temple during riots on. Section 295-A is the lesser known, non Islam-specific clause of the country’s notorious blasphemy law.”
This was hailed as a positive move, but it reeked of a politically-motivated whitewash job that only consolidated the blasphemy law.
Heretics and Apostates
“Kill them all,” shouted the gunman. They were 60 Ismailis in the bus. The shooters aimed at the head and killed 43; the rest were injured. Later, the Jundullah group celebrated by posting this on Twitter: “Thanks to God 43 apostates were killed and close to 30 others were wounded in an attack by the soldiers of Islamic State on a bus carrying people of the Shi'ite Ismaili sect ... in Karachi.”
As one born in an Ismaili family, the ‘good Muslim’ tag we got by default acted as a buffer. So, this came as a bit of a shock. However, it appeared to be a part of the larger assault on all Shia Muslims, many of them mohajir, the refugees from India.
Yet, the Aga Khans, past and present, have found favour with the Pakistani establishment. Despite having a distinct place of worship and prayers, Ismailis have been accepted. Unlike Ahmedis. Such is the resistance to the latter that when I compared the two sects, my column was spiked because the Pakistani newspaper found the subject “too sensitive”.
In their list of demands, Qadri’s supporters stated that the Ahmedi community should be expelled from the country and the services of all Ahmedis working in government departments should be terminated. They have the country’s Second Amendment to back them. It was introduced 27 years after independence to declare Ahmedis non-Muslim for they believe in a new messiah.
Pakistan’s only Nobel laureate, physicist Dr. Abdus Salam, has been disowned. Ironically, Pakistan owes its nuclear programme to him but at home the concerns are more basic. The epitaph on his grave reads, “First ------ Nobel Laureate”. That blank space is where the word Muslim was. Terrorists did not do it. This was done on the instructions of a court order.
If Ahmedis wish to perform the Haj they have to provide a written declaration stating that Mirza Ghulam Ahmed, the founder of the sect, is a “cunning person and an imposter”. They are not permitted to call their place of worship a mosque and the architecture cannot have anything that looks like a minaret. The police once even scratched out Quranic verses from an Ahmedi mosque.
This was no Taliban. It was an arm of the government messing around in a religious place. It emboldens the Islamists. Why would they need to refer to any holy book when they have the blessings of the courts, politicians and the Constitution?
Published in CounterPunch