Posts Tagged ‘ blasphemy laws ’

Judge Grants Bail to Young Christian Girl Accused of Blasphemy in Pakistan

As Reported by The Associated Press

A Pakistani judge granted bail Friday to a young, mentally challenged Christian girl accused of insulting Islam for burning pages of the religion’s holy book. Rights activists welcomed the decision after calling for her release since she was arrested three weeks ago.

The case has focused attention on Pakistan’s harsh blasphemy laws, which activists claim are used to persecute minorities and settle personal vendettas.

Judge Mohammed Azam Khan set bail at 1 million Pakistani rupees, or about $10,500, a significant sum in a country where many families live on only a few dollars a day. The girl’s impoverished family may need outside financial support to free her.

The young girl, who is reported to be 14 years old and suffering from some form of mental impairment, was arrested after an angry mob showed up at a police station in her neighborhood in Islamabad and accused her of burning pages from the Quran, an act punishable by life in prison under the country’s harsh blasphemy laws. Her lawyer has denied the allegation.

In an unusual twist, police arrested a Muslim cleric from her neighborhood a week ago after a follower from his mosque accused him of stashing pages of a Quran in her bag to make it seem as if she burned them. He allegedly planted the evidence to push Christians out of the neighborhood and is now being investigated for blasphemy himself. He has denied the allegation.

The head of Human Rights Watch in Pakistan, Ali Dayan Hasan, praised the judge’s decision to grant the young girl bail.

“The fact is that this child should not have been behind bars at all,” Hasan said. “All charges against her should be dropped, and Pakistan’s criminal justice system should instead concentrate on holding her accuser accountable for inciting violence against the child and members of the local Christian community.”

Hasan added, “Human Rights Watch hopes that the blatant abuse that has come to light in this case will lead to a considered re-examination of the law, and all stake-holders in Pakistan will actively seek to end frequent abuses perpetrated under cover of blasphemy allegations.”

Is Pakistan’s Hard Line on Blasphemy Softening?

By William Dalrymple for The Guardian

It is rare these days to read any good news coming out of Pakistan. It is rarer still to read good news concerning matters of religion. However, in one week two stories seem to show that Pakistan is for once bringing the force of law to bear on those who abuse religion to provoke violence against minorities.

Last Sunday Mohammed Khalid Chisti, the mullah who had accused a 14-year-old Christian girl, Rimsha Masih, of blasphemy, was himself arrested and charged with the same law. The turnaround took place after the muezzin of his mosque gave evidence that he had framed the girl and falsified evidence. More remarkable still, the far-from- moderate All Pakistan Ulema Council came to Rimsha’s defence, calling her “a daughter of the nation” and denouncing Chisthi: “Our heads are bowed with shame for what he did.”

On Tuesday an even more unexpected event took place. Malik Ishaq, the leader of the banned Sunni terrorist group Lashkar–e-Jhangvi, which is accused of killing hundreds of Shias, was arrested on his return from a fund-raising trip to Saudi Arabia. Lashkar operates quite openly in Lahore despite being officially banned; yet on this occasion Ishaq was immediately brought to court. There he was accused of involvement in more than 40 cases in which 70 people have been killed. He now resides in Kot Lakhpat jail on 14-day judicial remand.

When Pakistan was created in 1947 as a homeland for Indian Muslims, its clean-shaven, tweed-jacketed, spats-wearing and pork-eating founder, Muhammad Ali Jinnah, made sure the constitution of his new country provided the right for all its citizens to profess, practise and propagate their religion: “You may belong to any religion, caste or creed,” he said in his first address to the constituent assembly of Pakistan on August 11 1947. “That has nothing to do with the business of the state. In due course of time Hindus will cease to be Hindus and Muslims will cease to be Muslims – not in a religious sense, for that is the personal faith of an individual – but in the political sense as citizens of one state.”

It was Zulfikar Ali Bhutto who started the rot. In 1974 he bowed to pressure from the religious right and had the country’s small Ahmedi minority declared non-Muslim. The situation became worse still in the 1980s with the military coup of General Zia. Zia was responsible for initiating the fatal alliance between the conservative military and the equally reactionary mullahs that led to the use of Islamic radicals as part of state policy. At the same time Zia started tinkering with the law. He introduced the Islamic punishment of amputation for theft, and established the Hudood ordinances of sharia law, which asserted that the evidence of one man was equal to that of two women, and made any sex outside marriage a punishable offence for women. Rape was to be punished with the public flogging of the female victim as well as the perpetrator.

Between 1982 and 1986 Zia introduced radical changes to Pakistan’s blasphemy laws – the notorious sections 295 B and C of the penal code – prescribing life imprisonment for anyone who defiles a copy of the Qur’an and death for insulting or criticising the prophet Muhammad. Because there is no strict definition of blasphemy, and virtually no evidence above the word of the accuser is needed to bring a guilty verdict, the laws have often been exploited by individuals with grudges against innocent non-Muslims. In 1988 Bishop John Joseph of Faisalabad publicly committed suicide to protest against the laws; and although no one has yet been executed under the statutes, an estimated 1,200 to 4,000 blasphemy cases have been filed. The number of cases has multiplied in recent years, and the result is often prison sentences of three years or more.

Christians are widely derided in Pakistan; most are descended from “untouchable” converts who still perform the most menial tasks: cleaning the sewers and sweeping the streets. There has been a steady stream of attacks on the community, most bloodily in the murder of 16 Christians at a church in Bahawalpur in 2001. But it is not just Christians who have suffered. Hysteria about blasphemy has also been used to target Hindus, Sikhs, Ahmadis and Shias. In addition to formal convictions, there were at least 34 extrajudicial killings of people accused of blasphemy between 1990 and 2010. Of those, 15 were Muslim, 16 Christians, two Ahmadis and a Hindu. Indeed it is the Shias, not the Christians, who have suffered the brunt of the violence meted out by Lashkar–e-Jhangvi.

The high-water mark for religious intolerance in Pakistan was reached last year when the former governor of the Punjab, Salman Taseer, and the only Christian minister in the government, Shahbaz Bhatti, were both shot dead for suggesting that the blasphemy laws should be reviewed. Last week’s turnaround seems to represent a dawning realisation that things had gone too far – that a descent into mob violence was imminent. “There has been some genuine remorse on the right,” Pakistan’s leading human rights lawyer Asma Jahangir told me. “They realised a line had been crossed.”

This is certainly good news, but it is only a beginning. Rishma remains in custody and Malik Ishaq has yet to be convicted. “I am not optimistic that the laws will be repealed,” says Jahangir. “In fact, you cannot even discuss it.” While politicians such as Imran Khan have bravely called Rishma’s arrest “shameful … against the very spirit of Islam”, neither he nor any other major political figure has called for an outright repeal of the blasphemy laws. Nor, given the fate of Salman Taseer, are they likely to any time soon.

And as long as the laws remain on the statute books, cases like these will continue to occur, and major injustices will continue to be perpetrated on all of Pakistan’s religious minorities.

Free Rimsha Masih Now and End The Blasphemy Law Witch Hunts in Pakistan

The latest victim of Pakistan’s blasphemy laws, is an 11 year old girl suffering from Downs Syndrome. Rimshah Masih screamed pitifully as she was brutally snatched from her mother by an angry mob intent on killing her. Burnt religious texts had been mischievously planted in a bag she was carrying. We call on the Pakistani Government to take action to stop the ongoing discrimination, persecution and hatred towards minorities living there. We call on the Britisha Government the EU and the Un to intervene on behalf of this poor child and to bring about her freedom.

To bring an end to hatred towards minority faiths in conservative Pakistan and to defend otherwise helpless victims like Rimsha please sign the petition below: http://www.petitionbuzz.com/petitions/freerimshamasih

This petition will be sent to the Pakistan Government at the highest levels.

“Whilst the Burmese’s treatment of the Rohingya is indeed appalling and deserves condemnation, our minorities are living in their very own Burma right here in Pakistan.

“As the rest of the country goes about its way, having just celebrated another joyous Eid, spare a thought for a little girl with special needs, languishing in a juvenile jail.

“She is probably all alone, and scared. With her condition, she very well might not even know the reason she is in there.

“But ask her neighbours, some who are frothing at the teeth to have a go at her, and they will tell you that she deserves to die.

“Rimsha Masih, an 11-year-old Pakistani girl of the Christian faith, who reportedly suffers from Down Syndrome, was arrested on allegations that she had desecrated the Holy Quran.

“The girl and her mother were severely beaten by an enraged mob that had converged outside their house, while the rest of her family managed to flee. If the police had not intervened, there is no telling what else could have happened….”

Please sign the petition and help free Rimsha and Aasia Bibi and put an end to Pakistan’s Blasphemy Laws.

Pakistan Police Arrest Christian Girl After Angry Neighbors Accuse Her of Burning the Quran

By Munir Ahmed, Zarar Khan and Matthew Lee for The Associated Press

A Christian girl was sent to a Pakistani prison after being accused by her furious Muslim neighbors of burning pages of the Islamic holy book, the Quran, in violation of the country’s strict blasphemy laws.

A police official said Monday there was little evidence that pages of the book had been burned and that the case would likely be dropped. But hundreds of angry neighbors gathered outside the girl’s home last week demanding action in a case raising new concerns about religious extremism in this conservative Muslim country.

Some human rights officials and media reports said the girl was mentally handicapped. Police gave conflicting reports of her age as 11 and 16.

Under Pakistan’s blasphemy laws, anyone found guilty of insulting Islam’s Prophet Muhammad or defiling the holy book, or Quran, can face life in prison or even execution. Critics say the laws are often misused to harass non-Muslims or target individuals.

Police put the girl in jail for 14 days on Thursday after neighbors said they believed a Christian girl had burned pages of a Quran, gathering outside her house in a poor outlying district of Islamabad, said police officer Zabi Ullah. He suggested she was being held for her protection.

“About 500 to 600 people had gathered outside her house in Islamabad and they were very emotional, angry and they might have harmed her if we had not quickly reacted,” Ullah said.

Almost everyone in the girl’s neighborhood insisted she had burned the Quran’s pages, even though police said they had found no evidence of it. One police official, Qasim Niazi, said when the girl was brought to the police station, she had a shopping bag that contained various religious and Arabic-language papers that had been partly burned, but there was no Quran.

Some residents claimed they actually saw burnt pages of Quran — either at the local mosque or at the girl’s house. Few people in Pakistan actually speak or read Arabic, so often assume that anything they see with Arabic script is believed to be from the Quran, sometimes the only Arabic-language book people have seen.

But one police officer familiar with the girl’s case said the matter would likely be dropped once the investigation is completed and the atmosphere is defused, saying there was “nothing much to the case.” He did not want to be identified due to the sensitivity of the case.

A spokesperson for Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari, Farhatullah Babar, said the president has taken “serious note” of reports of the girl’s arrest and has asked the Interior Ministry to look into the case.

In Washington, State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland called the case “deeply disturbing”.

“We urge the government of Pakistan to protect not just its religious minority citizens but also women and girls,” she said.

The Associated Press is withholding the girl’s name; the AP does not generally identify juveniles under 18 who are accused of crimes.

The case demonstrates the deep emotion that suspected blasphemy cases can evoke in a country where religion Many critics say the blasphemy laws are often abused.

“It has been exploited by individuals to settle personal scores, to grab land, to violate the rights of non-Muslims, to basically harass them,” said the head of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, Zora Yusuf.

Those convicted of blasphemy can spend years in prison and often face mob justice by extremists when they finally do get out. In July, thousands of people dragged a man accused of desecrating the Quran from a police station in the central city of Bahawalpur, beat him to death and then set his body on fire.

Attempts to revoke or alter the blasphemy laws have been met with violent opposition. Last year, two prominent political figures who spoke out against the laws were killed in attacks that basically ended any attempts at reform.

The girl’s jailing terrified her Christian neighbors, many of whom left their homes in fear after the incident. One resident said Muslims used to object to the noise when Christians sang songs during their services. After the girl was accused he said senior members of the Muslim community pressured landlords to evict Christian tenants.

But Muslim residents insisted they treated their neighbors with respect, and said Christians needed to respect Islamic traditions and culture.

“Their priest should tell them that they should respect the call for prayer. They should respect the mosque and the Quran,” said Haji Pervez, one of several Muslims gathered at the local mosque less than 100 yards (meters) from the grey concrete house where the Christian girl lived.

“This is what should have happened. We are standing in the house of God. This incident has happened and it is true. It was not good.”

“Even a 3-year-old, 4-year-old child knows: “This is Muslim. This is Christian. This is our religion,” said shopkeeper Mohammed Ilyas.

Pakistanis for Peace Editor’s Note– The case of this young Christian girl is reminiscent of the case of Aasia Bibi and many other lesser known unfortunate people who have been arrested under Pakistan’s ridiculous blasphemy laws. These laws are draconian and have no place in the country’s judicial system serving only to intimidate Pakistan’s religious minorities and giving the zealots an official tool to harass the country’s Christians, Hindus and other minorities. As we have done before, we call on the government of Pakistan to do the right thing and strike these absurd laws from the books and free the individuals who have been imprisoned under these laws.

This is not Prophet Muhammad’s Islam

By Manzer Munir for Pakistanis for Peace

The steady stream of negative news about the twisted way Islam is being practiced around the world seems to never end. In my view, it is not how the Prophet would have wanted his followers to behave.

Just when I thought I was beginning to get used to the ridiculousness of the news coming out of Saudi Arabia, where a religious edict is trying to force women there with beautiful eyes to  completely cover up their face in order to stop the temptation of the men, along comes the grim news of Gulnaz  from Afghanistan. If you are not familiar with Gulnaz’s story, let me give you the facts.

Two years ago, in 2009, Gulnaz, a 19 year old single girl who lived with her elderly mother in Afghanistan, was brutally raped by her cousin’s husband. To describe the events, she recalls that on this day, the rapist came into her house when her mother left for a brief visit to the hospital. “He had filthy clothes on as he does metal and construction work. When my mother went out, he came into my house and he closed doors and windows. I started screaming, but he shut me up by putting his hands on my mouth,” she said.

Afterwards, she hid what had happened out of shame and fear, as shockingly there is no difference seen between women who are raped and women who commit actual adultery.  In Afghanistan and in many conservative Muslim countries, any sex outside marriage, whether the guilty party is single or married is considered adultery by the society and the justice system.

A few weeks after her rape, she began to vomit and started showing signs of pregnancy with her attacker’s child. Instead of sympathy and proof of her ordeal, she was charged and found guilty of adultery by the courts and for having sex outside marriage and was sentenced to twelve years in prison. She has already served two years and even gave birth to her rapist’s child, a little girl, in Kabul’s Badam Bagh jail where sadly, her innocent daughter is being raised in captivity alongside the unfortunate mother.

Rather than being freed from jail and given justice for her painful ordeal, the only way out of the dishonor of rape or adultery for her is incredibly only by marrying her attacker. In Afghan culture, and indeed in most Muslim communities, this is believed to be the only way to restore a woman’s honor, by marrying the man who she had sex with, damned be the fact whether it was willingly or unwillingly!

Sadly in many Muslim countries, rape remains a common form of violence against women. In addition, women are often blamed for being the victim of rape. Islam however, views rape as a violent crime against the victim, against society, and against God. The perpetrator who commits a crime is morally and legally responsible for that crime and should be held accountable. The victim, who is an unwilling partner in the sex act and so should bear neither blame nor stigma associated with the unfortunate act. To either ostracize or condemn the victim because she was compelled to engage in sexual intercourse is against the laws of Islam since the victim was an unwilling, and therefore a blameless, participant.

As common as her story and circumstances are for a woman in Afghanistan, the world has only learned of it due to a chance foreign documentary.  Gulnaz’s ordeal came to light because of a dispute between filmmakers and the European Union who hired the crew to film a documentary on the improving situation of women’s rights in Afghanistan and the assistance that the EU has been providing in the better treatment of women in the country. It was only when the documentarians came across her story and the grave injustice being done to Gulnaz and indeed by some accounts, hundreds of women across Afghanistan in similar circumstances, that the EU decided to cancel the project out of fear of harming their relations with Afghan government and institutions. Officially the EU states that it fears for the safety of the women in the film as they could be identified and face reprisals but many human rights organizations believe it is due to the fact that the film shows Afghan justice system in a poor light and the EU is concerned about the Afghan government’s sensitivities to the situation. It is despicable that the EU is more concerned with the sensitivities of the Afghan government rather than fighting for justice for Gulnaz.

Customs such as these in Afghanistan or the recent religious ruling in Saudi Arabia warning women to cover their attractive eyes, or the continued religious persecution of Christians and other minorities in Pakistan through the egregious blasphemy laws as seen in the case of Aasia Bibi, only serve to illustrate to many within and outside Islam the tremendous challenges that exist in what is right and what is logically very wrong and goes against all sense of justice and common sense, not to mention the very essence of Islam.

I am certainly not arguing for making any changes in the Quran or interpretations of religious text or any wholesale revisions whatsoever. That would not only be blasphemous but also counterproductive and unnecessary. Furthermore,  a big part of the beauty of our religion stems from the fact that it has remained unchanged as we Muslims believe that mutations and changes in both the Bible and the Torah necessitated the need for a third Abrahamic religion, Islam,  to arrive some 1400+ years ago to “set the record straight” after all the changes over the years in the two earlier Holy Books. Instead, I believe the only thing that needs to occur is the realization amongst the leaders and countries of the Organization of Islamic Conference (OIC) that in this day and age, there are certain rights and freedoms that should be guaranteed to citizens of all countries of the world and this does not require any changes in the great religion but rather some simple changes in the current laws.

Aristotle once said that “You can judge a nation by the way it treats its most vulnerable citizens”. You could be a Hindu or a Christian in Pakistan, a woman in Afghanistan or Saudi Arabia or a homosexual or transgendered person in Iran, you do not deserve to lose your life or liberty under the guise of religious laws. Allah almighty is a just and fair God in Islam, just as he is in the Christian and Jewish faiths. He most certainly would never condone the treatment of Gulnaz, Aasia Bibi and countless other poor souls who are being mistreated under the banner of Islam.

I am not a religious scholar and nor do I profess to know everything I need to know about Islam, Christianity and many other religions. Some may even question my faith and belief in calling myself Muslim simply because I am asking these tough questions, and in their version of Islam, you never question, you simply obey. Lest they forget, Islam also clearly states to seek knowledge and to be just and fair and respectful of other religions.  “Surely those who believe and those who are Jews and the Sabians and the Christians whoever believes in Allah and the last day and does good — they shall have no fear nor shall they grieve.” (Quran 5:69)

I am however certain that the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) would indeed be very upset with the current state of affairs of most Muslim countries when it comes to morality, religious freedoms,  respect for other religions and the treatment of women. Sadly, I do not see the changes necessary coming into being voluntarily by these nations, I believe it is incumbent of the benefactors of these nations, such as the United Nations, United States, the European Union, China and other trading partners, to push for better treatment of women and religious minorities in many Muslim countries of the world.  It is high time that they pressure these nations into enacting basic rights and freedoms for all people, regardless of their race, religion, gender, and sexual orientation. It must become a precursor to being a part of the civilized nations of the world and in being a member of the world community of nations. Freedom after all is what the Arab Spring is all about!

-Manzer Munir, a proud American of Pakistani descent, is a practicing Sufi Muslim and member of Muslims for Progressive Values, he is also the founder of Pakistanis for Peace and blogs at www.PakistanisforPeace.com as well at other websites as a freelance journalist and writer.

Pak Bans Dirty Texting: Just Say No To Monkey Crotch

By Shivam Vij for FirstPost

You cannot SMS ullu chod in Pakistan anymore. Nor can you SMS monkey crotch if you had any reason to do so.

The Pakistan Telecommunication Authority (PTA) has banned 1,795 expletives on SMS, ordering telecom companies to filter out SMS-es containing these offending words with effect from 21 November 2011. The letter includes a list of 1,109 English words, more pornographic terms than expletives, and another 586 Urdu words which are more colourful sexual expletives of the standard South Asian kind rather than the plain garden variety pornography.

A letter from the PTA, dated 14 November and signed by its Director General (Services), Muhammed Talib Doger invokes the “Protection from Spam, Unsolicited, Fraudulent and Obnoxious Communication Regulations, 2009″ to pass the order.

The Pakistan Telecommunication Authority (PTA) has banned 1,795 expletives on SMS, ordering telecom companies to filter out SMS-es containing these offending words with effect from 21 November 2011. Vivek Prakash/Reuters
The Pakistani Twitterverse was on fire last night as the two lists make for hilarious reading. The English list begins with A.S.S. and ends with yellowman. Some words sound harmless (crap and crappy), others bizarre (Jesus Christ, flatulence, murder, monkey crotch). Many are commonly used obscene words (“FUCK YOU”) and care has been taken to account for alternative spellings (biatch, muthafucka). While many spelling variations of ‘masturbation’ are on it, the correct spelling is not. Most words seem to be designed to prevent ‘sexting’ or sending sexually explicit texts (sexy, lick me, do me, S&M, lotion and porn). The list comes down on anal sex as much as vaginal sex. But it isn’t just sex. By banning drunken they perhaps hope to reduce alcoholism.

The Express Tribune points out, “While much of the list contains expletives, a number of words to be banned include medical terms, terms used by particular minority groups, common words from the English language and rap group, Wu Tang Clan.” The ‘medical terms’ include athelete’s foot, breast, intercourse, condom and period. The ‘daily use’ terms include hole, hostage and harder. Words like gay and homosexual don’t surprise but it’s curious why wuutang raised the censor’s hackles.

In fact, thanks to this helpful compendium many Pakistanis are finding their expletive vocabulary enhanced. @UroojZia asked what bumblefuck and ladyboog meant.

@Zakoota said the lists should be required reading in schools to give children the vocabulary to describe politicians and cricketers. With the amount of phrases that include the word “BUTT”, @KhaLeak wondered if Aijaz Butt was banned as well.

The Urdu list has standard gaalis also popular in north India, but many of them may not be familiar to Indians (such as “dani mani fudi chus“). Some are unfamiliar even to Pakistanis. @FurhanHussain said the presence of Punjabi gaalis in the Urdu list amounted to cheating, but others noted that there is no list of Sindhi and Punjabi language expletives, a grievous omission given that the Punjabi language is particularly full of colourful expletives.

“Padosi ki aulaad” doesn’t sound very obscene. There are some 15 spelling and gender variations of ‘kanjar’, a popular Pakistani expletive meaning dancing girls, often also used to describe cross-dressing or men dancing like women. Some of the Urdu ones are quite creative. There are four variations of “Chipkali ke gaand ke pasine” and some are inexplicable (“Nimbu sharbat“, “carrom board”) and some are zoologically bizarre (“ullu chod” or owl fucker). Some are rather vanilla everyday terms like “Buckwaas” (nonsense) and “Bewakoof” (foolish).

There were so many oddball terms in there at first people though it was a spoof. However, Shahzad Ahmad, an internet rights activist who tweets as @bytesforall, said he confirmed with a source at the PTA that the list was real. The Express Tribune story referred to above has been updated to quote a PTA spokesperson who denied knowledge of any letter and said that the PTA “does not take such decisions and only passes on the instructions to licensees once a decision is taken by a ministerial committee.” The PTA, which is also in the news for directing ISPs to block access to 1,71,261 pornographic sites, is said to have convened a meeting this morning to discuss the uproar.

It’s unclear how telecom companies who cannot even filter out commercial spam will be able to handle this new morality burden. But Pakistanis, used to growing online censorship administered by the PTA, took little time to come up with the obvious workaround to the SMS censorship. The offending words are numbered on the blacklist. Many including @SamadK came up with the idea, “Now instead of typing the whole gaali you just need to send the number. Thank you PTA for making is even lazier.”

Many have already started testing it: @KhanDanish tweeted “I hope Imran Farhat 143 doesn’t do 471 in Friday’s match. #Urdu.”

The Urdu list is here and the English list here.

Pakistan: More To Offer Than Bombs And Beards

By Asim Haneef for Al Jazeera

If you did not know anything about Pakistan and happened to pick up a newspaper or turn on the evening news, you might be forgiven for assuming that it is possibly the most broken, troubled and violent country on the face of the earth – a basket case just moments from imploding.

In the all-important arena of international public perception, Pakistan has taken an unprecedented battering in recent years, accumulating more bad headlines than nearly any other country and making places like Afghanistan and Iraq look relatively stable by comparison.

The list of challenges it faces is seemingly unending: terrorism, corruption, drone attacks, natural disasters, poverty, a deficit in leadership, discrimination against minorities, mistreatment of women, attacks on freedom of speech, mass tax evasion, match fixing, the murder of judges, politicians, union organisers and journalists – and that is just the tip of the iceberg.

So pervasive are the headlines pointing to a crisis in Pakistan that after a while they seem to blur into one another. Whether it is “hostages held in Karachi”, “al-Qaeda hideout discovered in Swat”, “floods bring pain to millions”, “suicide bomber explodes in market square”, “senior judge in blasphemy case shot dead” or “Pakistan’s ISI actively supporting Taliban in Afghan war” the message is uniformly bad news. The result is that for many the image of Pakistan is one of bombers, beards, shaking fists, distressed women and utter hopelessness. It makes for a pretty depressing picture.

I guess that is why the work of Syed Ali Abbas and his Pakistan Youth Alliance (PYA) featured in this week’s Activate, Pakistan: The New Radicals, is so refreshing. A courageous young social activist, Ali founded the PYA together with Maryam Kanwer when he was just 21 years old. It was born in the midst of severe political turmoil, as then-President Pervez Musharraf imposed emergency rule and fired the chief justice on national television, while the security forces brutally cracked down on dissenting lawyers.

Fed up with watching their country’s problems on the television, the PYA initially organised protests and rallies but quickly became more active. Its core premise and mission statement is to take a stand, to get as practically involved on the ground as possible and to exemplify the change they seek through their actions rather than merely proposing it on paper.

Their main goal is to create political and social awareness among the youth of Pakistan and to unite them irrespective of their religion, ethnicity, caste, race or language on an unbiased platform through which they can engage with one another and contribute practically to building a more progressive society in Pakistan – whether through protest, social and relief work or the arts.

Earlier this year, Ali was among a small group instrumental in organising counter protests to the hate filled ones celebrating and glorifying Mumtaz Qadri, the killer of Salman Taseer, the governor of Punjab who was murdered in January over his stance on Pakistan’s blasphemy laws and his ardent defence of religious minorities like Christians and Ahmadis. Ali says he did this because: “This is not what the founder of Pakistan and ‘Father of the Nation’ Quaid-i-Azam Muhammad Ali Jinnah would have wanted for this country today, especially as he repeatedly stressed the importance of inter-faith unity and religious harmony.”

Stories like these and others bring about something much needed in international news these days – a positive, hopeful narrative against the odds, showcasing some of the good news stories coming out of places like Pakistan, which often go unreported and deserve a spotlight too. So although we appear to have an extraordinary capacity to become fixated on negative headlines, there are also good things happening too and though progress and development is not as ‘sexy’ as a suicide bomber or a train-wreck, perhaps a little balance is in order, so that we do not become as, Ali says at the close of the film, “filled with dread, being hopeless about the future”.

So do good stories actually emanate from Pakistan? And, if so, where are they? Well an initiative by brothers and social entrepreneurs Majid and Mahmood Mirza aims to answer this. They set up a website simply titled Good News (www.goodnews.pk) , which focuses solely on positive developments coming out of the country. They describe the idea behind the website via Skype as being “to highlight amazing, awesome and inspirational news stories coming from Pakistan, as opposed to the usual negativities that steal the headlines”.

And they have plenty of examples ready. For instance, did you know that Pakistan has become only the sixth country in the world to map the human genome, joining the ranks of the US, the UK, China, Japan and India, which have all successfully sequenced it. Or, how about the fact that Pakistan has the largest volunteer ambulance organisation in the world started by “living saint” Abdul Sattar Edhi in 1948. Today, the radio-linked network includes 600 ambulances that work in every corner of the country. Or how about the recent news that Dr Umar Saif, an associate professor at the School of Science and Engineering in Lahore, has been recognised by MIT Technology Review as one of the top 35 innovators in the world – joining an elite group of researchers and entrepreneurs selected over the last decade, which includes Larry Page and Sergey Brin, the co-founders of Google, Mark Zuckerberg, the founder of Facebook, and Jonathan Ive, the chief designer at Apple. Now who has heard of those stories?

Then there are serial entrepreneurs like Monis Rahman, who just four years ago set-up Rozee.pk, which is now Pakistan’s largest jobs website, with 500,000 unique visitors a month; or Karachi-born freelance designer Vakas Siddiqui laying to rest the myth that Pakistani students are limited to excellence in science and the humanities by being selected as one of the top 28 designers in the world; or filmmaker Sharmeen Obaid Chinoy who has just been shortlisted for an Oscar in the ‘best documentary short’ category for her film Saving Face. Whether it be in music, fashion, academia, activism, technology, sports or science these are stories that people do not usually associate with Pakistan and which might just show that there is more to the country than just bombs and beards.

Some of these unreported positive stories, along with the courage and creativity shown by people like Syed Ali Abbas and the Pakistan Youth Alliance in challenging these problems, reflect a surprising shift in the country’s growing and increasingly switched-on, globally-minded youth. They are using outlets like social media platforms and blogs to become more aware, educated and informed about their rights and more savvy to the different methods they must perfect in order to stop their country peddling even further backwards than it already has and to lead it to a brighter day, free from the same old headlines we’re all universally tired of reading and hearing about.

Asim Haneef worked extensively on Activate, a new eight part series featuring grass-roots activists from across the globe who are challenging the status quo and bringing about a change in their society. You can follow him on Twitter @asimhaneef

Pakistan, Islam & Radicalism

By Syed Ali Abbas Zaidi for The Huffington Post

I was in Kasur, a small town near Lahore, Pakistan, where the celebrated mystic poet Bulleh Shah is buried. Thousands gathered for the 254th anniversary of his death. Slogans chanted on that occasion would be branded ‘blasphemous’ by extremist organisations in Pakistan.

Neither Hindu nor Muslim,
Sacrificing pride, let us sit together.
Neither Sunni nor Shia,
Let us walk the road of peace.

Bulleh Shah penned these verses challenging religious extremism and orthodoxy that plagued Muslim society hundreds of years ago. He was exiled from his home town and, history has it, he was denied a burial in Muslim cemetery. His advice has clearly gone unheeded as my country is still yet to find peace. Not even the founder of Pakistan, Muhammad Ali Jinnah has been spared being labelled ‘the great infidel’.

Incidentally, the same ilk of religio-political parties who now manipulate public discourse were at the forefront of using religious narrative for political point scoring before Pakistan came into being.

4 January 2011 is a day I cannot forget. Salmaan Taseer, the Governor of Pakistan’s biggest province Punjab, was gunned down by his bodyguard. He was killed for supporting a Christian woman accused of insulting the Prophet Muhammad. He was shot twenty six times.

For the entire week after the killing, I was scared. I don’t remember being in that state of mind since Benazir Bhutto was assassinated. It’s not a very heartening sight to see fellow ‘educated’ countrymen glorifying a murderer and justifying his actions based on ignorant rhetoric. Scores of fan pages popped up on Facebook, many of my friends changed their profile pictures to one of the killer, Mumtaz Qadri, exalting a murderer as hero.

Very few turned out to pay homage to the slain governor in days to come, as ‘liberals’ arranged vigils in his remembrance. Yet thousands poured on to the streets to defend Mumtaz Qadri, his assassin. The media, which has been a primary tool in fanning conspiracy theories in public, had again played a pivotal role in enticing ‘religious’ emotions on this issue.

The killer of Salman Taseer had confessed proudly. The brave judge who sentenced him to death has gone into hiding and will not be re-appearing anytime soon.

7 March 2011. The start of another week of gloom and, if I’m honest, I was ashamed to be a Pakistani. We had arranged a protest to condemn the killing of Shahbaz Bhatti, the Federal Minister for Minorities who was brutally assassinated on 2 March. He was an outspoken critic of Pakistan’s blasphemy laws and the only Christian in the cabinet. Only a few youngsters turned up.

When it comes to numbers, we can gather thousands but the ’cause’ has to be against India, Israel or America. Not many will show up if the demonstration is against radical organisations, or asking for introspection within.

Many who rallied for Gaza in early 2009 were not seen in protests condemning Taliban atrocities in Swat at the same time. Many who burnt down shops in anger at the Danish cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad never stood up for Parachinar, a small town near the border of Afghanistan where thousands have been killed in sectarian violence between Sunni’s and Shia’s.

9 October 2011. I was stuck on the Islamabad Highway, the main road that connects Islamabad with Rawalpindi as it was blocked by flash mobs protesting for the release of Mumtaz Qadri.

Two decades and 40,000 deaths later which includes top politicians, generals and clerics – not many things have changed when it comes to checking radicalism within Islam.

Many attacks on places of worship of minority sects within Islam, recurring violent brawls between followers of different schools of thought, reaction to the murder of Salman Taseer and Shahbaz Bhatti, recent acts of violence in Baluchistan and the tale of Parachinar are chapters in recent history which expose the extent of radicalisation in Pakistani society.

Soon, we as citizens of a country founded because a minority felt discriminated against and followers of the great religion of Islam, need to face up to the challenge of the radical minded and their extremist ideology.

This is a war of ideologies and is inevitably a war that must be fought with opinions and ideas; it must encourage discourse and exchange of reason. It is a war that must form the basic pillar of a new and improved national paradigm for Pakistan

We as a society cannot ignore an emerging threat from radicalism within our ranks, because if it gets too late, there might be no ‘music’ left to face.

Pakistan Court Suspends Death Sentence of Governor’s Killer

By Shaan Khan For CNN

A Pakistani court has suspended the death sentence of Mumtaz Qadri, a security guard who killed a liberal politician over the latter’s remarks on the nation’s controversial blasphemy law.

“Qadri was provoked by the governor and should therefore be tried for murder, not an act of terror which is what he was tried for earlier” said his attorney Raja Shuja Ur Rehman in confirming the judge’s decision.

Earlier this month, a terror court in the garrison city of Rawalpindi, near Pakistan’s capital, sentenced Qadri to death. The Islamabad High Court suspended the sentence Tuesday until the appeals process is complete. The court did not say when it will meet again to consider the case.

Police said Qadri, a policeman serving as a security guard for Punjab Gov. Salman Taseer, fatally shot him in a market in Islamabad on January 4 because of Taseer’s remarks on Pakistan’s controversial blasphemy law. Police said Qadri confessed to gunning down the man he was supposed to be protecting. Qadri’s lawyer appealed the sentence imposed by the Anti-Terrorist Court, saying the court did not have the jurisdiction to make the death penalty decision.

Taseer, a successful businessman as well as politician, had said Pakistan’s controversial blasphemy law is too harsh. The law makes it a crime punishable by death to insult Islam, the Quran or the Prophet Mohammed. The legislation has been criticized by some as being used to entrap minorities.

Death Sentence in Slaying of Pakistani Governor

By Salman Masood for The New York Times

A court on Saturday sentenced to death an elite police guard who assassinated a leading secular politician he had been charged with protecting, a slaying that sent shockwaves throughout Pakistan and was seen as a clear marker of the growing religious intolerance and extremism in the country.

The news made international headlines not just because of the prominence of the politician killed, Salman Taseer, but because the killer was celebrated by many in Pakistan, including lawyers who showered him with rose petals and garlands at a court appearance.

Judge Syed Pervez Ali Shah announced the sentence for the guard, Malik Mumtaz Qadri, in an antiterrorism court at Adiala Jail in Rawalpindi. “Nobody can be given a license to kill on any pretext,” the judge was quoted as saying after the conclusion of the trial, which was held under tight security.

The ruling was unusual in Pakistan; frightened justices in recent years have been cowed into releasing Islamic militants or letting them off with light sentences. The judgment was especially noteworthy in such a high-profile case against a man whose popularity only grew with his confession and defense of the killing on religious grounds.

Mr. Taseer was the governor of Punjab Province and one of the country’s most outspoken opponents of the country’s controversial blasphemy laws, which mandate a death sentence for anyone convicted of insulting Islam.

Liberals and rights activists were encouraged by the verdict, but noted that it could be overturned in appeals that can drag on for years.

“Today’s judgment is a positive development whereby norms of justice have prevailed,” said Raza Rumi, a political analyst and columnist in the eastern city of Lahore. “Pakistan cannot be allowed to become a vigilante society, and the state — its judges and prosecutors — need to uphold the law.”

No matter what happens with the case, however, Mr. Taseer’s death cast a pall over discussions of the blasphemy laws — which had become something of a test case for broader debate of how religion and politics mix in Pakistan. That trend continued Saturday. The usually voluble Pakistani press dutifully covered the story, but news broadcasts were mainly devoid of the normal commentary or debate.

“Local media’s muted coverage of the sentence is reflective of the fear factor and the polarization within the society which includes media personnel,” Mr. Rumi said.

Mr. Qadri, 26, was convicted of murder and committing an act of terrorism, and was handed two life sentences.

No date for the execution has been announced, and Mr. Qadri has a right to appeal within seven days. Raja Shuja-ur-Rahman, a lawyer for Mr. Qadri, told the DAWN television channel that an appeal would be filed.

Mr. Qadri killed Mr. Taseer in a hail of bullets on Jan. 4, shooting at close range as Mr. Taseer was getting into his car.

Mr. Taseer, a businessman and a liberal politician, had emerged as a leader in a fight against the blasphemy law, which rights groups say has been used to persecute minorities, especially Christians.

The law was introduced in the 1980s under the military dictatorship of Gen. Mohammad Zia ul-Haq as part of a policy of promoting Islam to unite Pakistan’s deeply fractious society.

Mr. Qadri was hailed as a hero by Islamist lawyers, several mainstream politicians and religious leaders.

On Saturday, dozens of supporters of Mr. Qadri gathered outside the jail and chanted slogans against the sentence, while the judge slipped out a back door.

“We will free you! We will die for you!” 20-year-old Mohamemd Aslam was quoted as saying by The Associated Press. Others yelled: “Long live Qadri, long live Qadri!”

“By punishing one Mumtaz Qadri, you will produce a thousand Mumtaz Qadris!” shouted another man.

The ruling Pakistan Peoples Party, to which Mr. Taseer belonged, has been accused of distancing itself from the cause of repealing the blasphemy law since the assassination.

Low-key Easter Preparations for Pakistan’s Christians

By Kamran Haider for Reuters

Christians in the small Pakistani town of Gojra are making low-key preparations for Easter this year.

Residents of the neighbourhood, known as Christian Colony, in the town in Punjab province, are haunted by memories of a 2009 attack by a Muslim mob in which seven members of a family were killed and dozens of houses torched.

A few days before Easter, which Christians believe marks the resurrection of Jesus Christ three days after his crucifixion, bare-foot children played cricket in the town’s dusty alleys while some men chatted on a bench under a tree.

“If we celebrate it with a fanfare, we fear somebody might get annoyed and attack us,” said Khalid Anjum, 45, the owner of a small snooker hall. The only sign of the approach of Easter was a few young men rehearsing hymns in St. Mary’s Catholic Church.

“Fear is there but we cannot give up our religion,” said Wilson Rafiq, the leader of the group of singers, who plays a traditional drum set known as a tabla.

Pakistan was founded in 1947 as a home for the Muslims of South Asia at the end of British colonial rule, with the country’s founding father, Mohammad Ali Jinnah, promising that all communities would be able to worship freely.

But today, Jinnah’s pledge of religious tolerance often seems hollow as religious violence increases. Religious minorities account for about 4 percent of Pakistan’s 170 million people, with about three quarters of members of religious minorities Christian.

The independent Human Rights Commission said at least 100 people from minority communities were killed in 2010. The bloodiest attack was on Ahmadis, a sect that mainstream Muslims consider heretical, when 86 people were killed.

This year, the liberal Muslim governor of Punjab province, Salman Taseer, and Christian Minorities Minister Shahbaz Bhatti, were killed in separate shootings for speaking out against a blasphemy law aimed at defending Islam.

Under the law, anyone who speaks ill of Islam and the Prophet Mohammad commits a crime and faces the death penalty but human rights activists say the law’s vague wording has led to its misuse, often against members of minority religions.

Compounding a climate of fear, Islamist militants, angered by Pakistan’s alliance with the United States since 2001, have carried periodic attacks on minorities as part of a campaign to destabilise the state.

“FEAR IN THEIR HEARTS”

In Gojra’s Christian Colony, the level of fear has increased since the sentencing Monday of a Muslim to death for shooting dead two Christians who had been accused of blasphemy.

Rather then welcoming what some people might see as justice, Christians fear that if the sentence is carried out, it will only mean more trouble for them. “Things will only get worse. If one is punished, someone else will stand up to take revenge for him,” said housewife Shahida Kashif.

“My kids still get scared whenever there’s a small disturbance. They says ‘mother, they’ve come. They’ll set fire to our houses again’. They still have fear in their hearts,” she said, referring to memories of the 2009 riot.

A mob of about 1,000 Muslims, incensed by rumours that a Christian had desecrated the Koran, rampaged through the neighborhood, firing guns and throwing petrol bombs.

Hameed Pannum Khan was shot dead and six members of his family, including two women and two children, were burnt to death when their hut was torched.

Authorities blamed militants linked to al Qaeda and the Taliban for the violence. Abdul Khaliq Kashmiri, a Muslim prayer leader, was locked up for 15 months on charges of inciting the attack.

He was recently released after Christians, fearing his continued detention would only make things worse for them, told authorities they had no proof of his involvement. Kashmiri denied any part in it and appealed for tolerance.

“Everybody should follow their own religion and should stop slinging mud at others,” he said. Christian Allah Rakha, a relative of the family killed in 2009 said the hatred had to stop for the sake of future generations.

“We all should get rid of this evil,” said Rakha, 70, sitting on a threadbare sofa in the drawing room of his single story home. “If we talk of revenge we’ll never have peace.”

Why Pakistan’s Taliban Target the Muslim Majority

By Omar Waraich for Time

Although Pakistan’s headlines are dominated by the violent excesses of Taliban extremists, the majority of Pakistanis subscribe to the more mystical Sufi tradition of the country’s Barelvi school of Islam. And attacks on their places of worship are becoming depressingly familiar. Last Sunday, two bombers attacked the 13th Century Sakhi Sarwar shrine, near the southern Punjabi town of Dera Ghazi Khan, slaughtering 50 people and injuring twice as many. Mercifully, two other bombers failed to detonate their devices, preventing even higher casualties. Still, it was the deadliest assault yet on a Sufi shrine in Pakistan — and the sixteenth in the last two years.

The Pakistani Taliban swiftly claimed responsibility for the attack, as they have done for each previous one. Pakistan’s Taliban claims the mantle of the hardline Deobandi tradition, with many beliefs in common with the austere Wahabism of Saudi Arabia. They regard the Barelvi, who comprise more than three quarters of Pakistan’s Sunni Muslims, as irredeemable heretics. The Barelvis favor a more tolerant approach to Islam, promoting a cult of the Prophet and incorporate folkloric traditions such as seeking intercession from rural saints. Sakhi Sarwar, a mystic who is also revered by some Hindus and Sikhs, is said to grant women a son — a local legend that rouses anger among Islam’s more literalist adherents, who ascribe such powers only to Allah.

Tensions between Deobandis and Barelvis have punctuated most of Pakistan’s history. But with the arrival of al-Qaeda in the country a decade ago, local militants forged links with the global jihadists, their sectarianism sharpened to accept al-Qaeda’s “takfiri” worldview that deems adherents of other strains of Islam as deviant apostates worthy of death.

One reason for the uptick in sectarian-based terror attacks may be that the militants’ ability to strike the high profile urban targets that once grabbed global headlines has been diminished by Pakistani military offensives in their strongholds over the past two years. “It has become harder for the militants to strike hard targets,” says security analyst Ejaz Haider. “Some lessons have been learned from the previous attacks.”

So, the militants have, over the past two years, more keenly focused on sectarian attacks. Traditional Shi’ite processions are now routinely targeted by suicide bombers. In May 2010, two mosques of the minority Ahmedi sect were targeted in Lahore, killing 93 people. And there’s been an escalation of bombings directed against the majority Barelvis. After attacks on two of their most prominent shrines, Data Darbar in Lahore’s old city and Abdullah Shah Ghazi in Karachi, Barelvis came out on to the streets, wielding weapons and vowing revenge against the Taliban. They did not extend blame to the broader spectrum of Deobandis, perhaps wisely evading the beginnings of a more gruesome sectarian conflict that Pakistan can ill-afford.

Not all Barelvis are the models of peace and tolerance that some have portrayed them to be. It was a Barelvi, Mumtaz Qadri, that assassinated Punjab Governor Salmaan Taseer in January, for his opposition to Pakistan’s prejudicial blasphemy laws. The assassination was applauded by 500 Barelvi scholars in a joint statement. And the Sunni Tehreek, a Barelvi militant outfit, rewarded Qadri’s family and threatened Taseer’s daughter. While they may favor a more permissive vision of Islam, certain Barelvis are quite capable of violence where they feel the Prophet has been dishonored.

The campaign to defend Pakistan’s blasphemy laws from reform has, in fact, united Barelvis and Deobandis since last November. Barelvi anti-Taliban rhetoric was also put on pause. “We had seen the Barelvis getting ready to organize a campaign against the Taliban,” observes analyst Nasim Zehra, “but they got sidetracked by the blasphemy issue and this was forgotten.” Until last month’s assassination of Minorities Minister Shahbaz Bhatti, the religious right was able to frequently draw tens of thousands on to the streets.

Sectarian hatred aside, rural shrines are a far easier terror target than the more heavily guarded state and economic targets in the cities. Suicide bombers, especially the teenage boys favored by militants, can often evade notice before they reach the target. A crowded space helps secure the militants’ aim of causing high casualties. In the case of the Sakhi Sarwar bombers, they only had travel to a relatively short and unimpeded distance from North Waziristan to the edge of Punjab.

The bombings may also be an attempt to relieve pressure from sporadic Army actions against militants in the northern tip of the tribal areas. “Just to remain alive there, the militants have to try and force the government’s hand into diminishing pressure,” says analyst Haider. “To counter that pressure, they mount attacks in the mainland in the hope of securing some deal back in the tribal areas.” By targeting shrines across the country, the militants are able to demonstrate their enduring geographical reach and expose the state’s vulnerabilities.

The bad news is that the state is in a poor position to respond. After the latest bombings, Barelvi leaders denounced the Punjab provincial government for failing to provide security at shrines. The Punjab government dismisses the charge. “It’s happening all over,” says Ahsan Iqbal, a leading politician from the Pakistan Muslim League-N, the ruling party in Punjab. “This is not something that is province-specific.” Iqbal casts blame on the federal government for failing to share intelligence. The federal government reverses the charge, and argues that the law and order is a provincial responsibility. What no one seems to be focusing on is the desperate need to enhance the police’s capacity, with better equipment, counterterrorism training and an intelligence gathering network that reaches deep into Pakistan’s remote areas.

A Nation Overloaded with Religion

By Tanzeel for Tanzeelism

Frequent assassinations of Pakistan People’s Party leaders have not only shaken the ideology of this country but left a clear cut message for Government to avoid any confrontation against strengthening religious lobby in Pakistan.

The Tehreek e Taliban and Al Qaeda backed groups in Pakistan especially in Punjab are after the ruling party and eradicating its moderate forces one by one. As a result the PPP systematically takes back seat, and gets blackmailed by the religious forces.
Government’s evident policy shift from the party manifesto of ensuring religious harmony among all faiths in the wake of doctrine of necessity further pushes nation in the hands of extremists.

From the assassination of Benazir Bhutto to Shehbaz Bhatti, the message is clear. Let Taleban pursuit their agenda of violent Islam and whoever comes in between will become history.

In such horrific circumstances when even the ruling party leaders are not safe how unarmed liberal forces would dare voice their opinion seems to be a big ask. As a result the clouds of insanity steadily prevailing and a common man is reluctant to counter them not because of being blithe but for his own safety resulting mass surrender of journalists, civil society, liberal political forces and minority rights groups against religious forces.

A common Pakistani despite wanting to express deep displeasure is suppressed by the bearded gun totted black sheep who are gelled up in the society to take necessary ‘religious measures’ against those who prefer humanity over religion.

Salman Taseer’s assassination by his own security guard Mumtaz Qadri and the subsequent showering of rose petals by lawyers’ community is one of the shocking examples of deep rooted religious fanaticism within our society. Be it media, armed forces, politics (not to mention the historical speech of Punjab Chief Minister Shehbaz Shareef during which he proudly endorsed the agenda of Taleban), judiciary, education or even sports.

In my view the traces of religious terrorism can be found back during partition campaign when the voices of independent ‘Muslim Land’ were on rise.

At that time some of the Muslims might had opted the idea of migrating to separate land due to vested interests but by and large it was the dominating religious sentiment that caused division with the objective of turning Pakistan into the “Fort of Islam” comprised by majority of Muslims.

Two- Nation Theory which clearly rejects any of idea co existence of Muslims with Hindus is a true depiction of Pakistan’s current situation where Muslims are unable to coexist with other sects let alone religions and ethnicities.

Today, I being a moderate Muslim who is deeply concerned about his country’s image foresee not only the bleak future of Pakistan but raises the doubts whether creation of Pakistan was really an apt approach.

Shahbaz Bhatti, Modern Day Martyr in Pakistan

By Terry Mattingly for The Pocono Record

In the early days of Christianity, martyrs often gave their final testimonies of faith to Roman leaders before they were crucified, burned or fed to lions.

Times being what they are, Shahbaz Bhatti turned to Al-Jazeera and YouTube. The only Christian in Pakistan’s Cabinet knew it was only a matter of time before his work as minister for minority affairs got him killed. Threats by the Taliban and al-Qaida kept increasing.

“I want to share that I believe in Jesus Christ, who has given his own life for us. I know what is the meaning of the cross and I follow him on the cross,” said Bhatti, in a startlingly calm video recorded several weeks before his assassination on March 2.

“When I’m leading this campaign against the sharia laws for the abolishment of blasphemy law, and speaking for the oppressed and marginalized persecuted Christian and other minorities, these Taliban threaten me. … I’m living for my community and suffering people and I will die to defend their rights. So these threats and these warnings cannot change my opinion and principles.”

The last straw was almost certainly the Catholic statesman’s defense of Asia Bibi, a Christian mother of five who was sentenced to death last November for the crime of blasphemy after she publicly defended her faith in a village argument. The verdict — which must be upheld by a higher court — further polarized a tense nation and sparked a global firestorm.

Then again, in 2009 Bhatti received the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom’s first medallion for the promotion of religious freedom. A year later, he met with Pope Benedict XVI to discuss interfaith work and religious liberty in Pakistan. Bhatti was not hiding his convictions.

The blasphemy laws in question went into effect in 1986, during the dictatorship of Gen. Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq. They ban, among other actions, the use of “derogatory remarks, etc; in respect of the Holy Prophet. Whoever by words, either spoken or written or by visible representation, or by any imputation, innuendo or insinuation, directly or indirectly, defiles the sacred name of the Holy Prophet Mohammed (PBUH) shall be punished with death, or imprisonment for life, and shall also be liable to fine.”

These blasphemy laws have been used against hundreds of Muslim dissenters and Ahmadi sect members, whose approach to Islam is specifically attacked in the laws. In practice, conversion from Islam to another faith is considered blasphemy, as are attempts to advocate or defend minority faiths, such as Christianity or Hinduism.

Vigilantes often kill those formally or informally accused of blasphemy — making trials irrelevant.

This was the case with Bhatti’s death in a wave of machine-gun fire into his unarmored car. Pakistani officials had denied his request for an armored car, despite the constant threat of drive-by shootings.

Formalities were also irrelevant on Jan. 4, when Salmaan Taseer, the governor of Pakistan’s Punjab Province, was assassinated by one of his bodyguards. This outspoken Muslim also defended Bibi and called for reform in the use of blasphemy laws.

Adoring crowds showered Taseer’s assassin with rose petals and garlands as he arrived to face a magistrate, while moderate Muslim leaders remained silent. Pakistan’s legislators observed a moment of silence for Bhatti, since it probably would have been fatal for anyone to offer a prayer in his honor.

After all, pamphlets left by those who killed Bhatti warned that they would keep fighting “all the world’s infidels, crusaders, Jews and their operatives within the Muslim brotherhood. … This is the fate of that cursed man. And now, with the grace of Allah, the warriors of Islam will pick you out one by one and send you to hell, God willing.”

Apparently, many radicals in Pakistan have concluded — a perfect Catch-22 — that it is blasphemy to oppose the blasphemy laws.

Meanwhile, the Pakistani conference of Catholic bishops is preparing to render a judgment of its own. Later this month the bishops will review a proposal to ask the Vatican to designate Bhatti as a martyr.

“Bhatti is a man who gave his life for his crystalline faith in Jesus Christ,” Bishop Andrew Francis of Multan told a Vatican news agency. “It is up to us, the bishops, to tell his story and experience to the church in Rome, to call for official recognition of his martyrdom.”

-Terry Mattingly is director of the Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities.

In Pakistan, Justifying Murder for Those Who Blaspheme

By Aryn Baker for Time

“I believe in Jesus Christ who has given his own life for us,” the doomed man said, staring straight into the video camera. “And I am ready to die for a cause.” Shahbaz Bhatti had no hesitation in his voice as he responded to a question about threats from the Taliban and al-Qaeda. “I’m living for my community … and I will die to defend their rights.” It was his last answer in a four-month-old self-produced video that was to be broadcast in the event of his death. But the radicals had the final say. On March 2, Bhatti, Pakistan’s Minister for Minority Affairs, was shot dead in Islamabad. Pamphlets scattered on the ground claimed the act for a new alliance of “the organization of al-Qaeda and the Punjabi Taliban” and asserted that other infidels and apostates would meet the same fate.

Bhatti’s death had been foretold not just by himself but also in the nation’s response to a previous assassination, that of Punjab governor Salmaan Taseer on Jan. 4. Taseer, a self-made millionaire, had turned his largely ceremonial post into a platform for a campaign to amend Pakistan’s blasphemy laws. Bhatti, the only Christian in the Cabinet, refused to be a token and swore to battle intolerance. Both men supported clemency for Aasia Noreen, a Christian woman who had been accused of blasphemy and sentenced to death. Taseer’s stance on the issue infuriated a large part of the population that, thanks to religious leaders and school curriculums, believes that blasphemy is a sin deserving of execution. In the weeks leading up to his assassination, Taseer had been denounced at Friday prayers, excoriated in the media and largely abandoned by his Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) for fears that his campaign would prove politically toxic. The witch hunt culminated in a bodyguard’s pumping 27 rounds into his head and chest in the parking lot of a popular Islamabad shopping center.

Within hours of Taseer’s death, telephone text messages celebrating his assassination made the rounds. “Justice has been done,” read one. “If you love the Prophet, pass this on.” A Facebook fan page for assassin Malik Mumtaz Hussain Qadri garnered more than 2,000 members before site administrators shut it down. Even the leaders of state-funded mosques refused to say funeral prayers for the slain governor. When Qadri was transferred to a local jail, he was garlanded with roses by hundreds of lawyers — the vanguard of a movement that in 2008 helped unseat a military dictator — offering to take on his case for free.

At his court appearance a few days later, Qadri told the judge that he believed in a Pakistan where loyalty to the Prophet eclipses all other rights. According to Taseer’s daughter Shehrbano, her father “wanted an egalitarian society where open debate is protected and people are not killed for speaking out.” And Bhatti dreamed of a nation true to founder Muhammad Ali Jinnah’s vision, one where “you are free to go to your temples, you are free to go to your mosques or to any other place of worship.” Which vision prevails — Qadri’s or Taseer and Bhatti’s — will decide the future of the country.

The Roots of Extremism

 
It is not news that Pakistan has a lunatic fringe. What is disturbing is that after Taseer’s murder, when the silent majority finally spoke up, it praised Qadri, not his victim. The public reaction exploded the myth of Pakistan’s moderate Islam; Qadri belongs to a mainstream sect that routinely condemns the Taliban. “The Pakistan we saw in the wake of Taseer’s killing is the real Pakistan,” says Amir Muhammad Rana of the Pak Institute for Peace Studies. For the past two years, Rana’s organization has conducted in-depth interviews with a broad spectrum of Pakistani citizens. “They might dress Western and eat at McDonald’s, but when it comes to religion, most Pakistanis have a very conservative mind-set.”

Pakistan’s religious parties rarely do well at the polls — a fact often cited by those countering concerns that the country is going fundamentalist — but their street power is considerable. The furor over blasphemy appears to be partly in response to significant losses for the religious right in the 2008 elections. With the current government on the verge of collapse and popular sentiment against the PPP mounting, the religious parties are betting on significant gains if fresh elections are called. The case of Raymond Davis, a CIA contractor accused of killing two Pakistanis during what appears to have been a botched attempt to rob him, demonstrates the state of Pakistan’s politics. It has gone virtually unremarked in Pakistan that Qadri, a confessed murderer, has been hailed as a national hero, while Davis — who, whatever his background, seems to have been acting in self-defense — is considered worthy of the death penalty. Over the past few weeks, street rallies led by the religious right have simultaneously called for the release of Qadri and the hanging of Davis. (Read: “Pakistan’s Christians Mourn, and Fear for Their Future.”)

Using religion to shore up political support is nothing new in Pakistan. Founded as a Muslim nation carved from a newly independent India in 1947, Pakistan has long struggled to unite a diverse population divided by language, culture and ethnicity. Islam was the common denominator, but Jinnah was famously enigmatic about its role in government.

Then, in 1977, Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq, an Islamist military general, overthrew the democratically elected government of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, who was already retrenching his secular vision of Pakistan in an effort to win religious support. To further appease Muslim religious leaders, Zia-ul-Haq strengthened the colonial-era blasphemy laws, mandating that breaches should be answered by the death penalty. Since then, more than 1,274 cases have been lodged. As repeating blasphemous words could be considered to be perpetuating the crime, many cases are accepted without evidence, a system well primed for the pursuit of vendettas. That nobody has yet been executed by court order is hardly reassuring: 37 of the accused have been killed by vigilantes. (In 1929, Jinnah famously defended an illiterate carpenter who shot to death a Hindu publisher accused of blasphemy. The plea failed, and after the carpenter was hanged, Taseer’s father was one of the pallbearers.)

The Uses of Blasphemy
When a nation rises up in support of a murderer instead of his victim, it’s hard not to believe it is heading down a dangerous path. “What is happening now won’t matter in five years,” says Shehrbano Taseer. “It will matter in 25 years. What we are seeing now is the fruit of what happened 30 years ago. If people had stood up against [Zia-ul-Haq], we would not be here today. Because of that silence we have madrasahs spewing venom, a true Islam threatened by the same people who claim to serve it, and a cowed majority too afraid to speak.”

President Asif Ali Zardari, an old friend of Taseer’s, condemned the murders but didn’t go to either funeral. After paying his respects to Taseer’s family, Interior Minister Rehman Malik gave an impromptu press conference outside Taseer’s house during which he announced that he too would kill any blasphemer “with his own hands.” A few days later, the Prime Minister announced that he would drop the issue of the blasphemy laws altogether. Meanwhile, the government is under pressure to go through with Aasia’s sentence, and now her two champions are dead.

Reaction to Bhatti’s murder has been muted, characterized mostly by denial. What little newspaper coverage there was focused on security lapses or the role of the country’s Christian community rather than on the motives of the killer. On television talk shows, members of the religious parties and right-wing commentators spun a conspiracy theory that alleged that Bhatti’s murder had been “a plot” hatched by “outside forces” to “divert attention from the Raymond Davis affair.” There was no mention of the fact that Bhatti was campaigning alongside Taseer on the issue of blasphemy.

The PPP was founded in 1967 with the goal of bringing secular democracy to a nation under military rule. It vowed to give power to the people and promised to protect the nation’s downtrodden. That Pakistan’s most progressive party — one that has already endured the assassination of former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto — should cave in the face of religious fundamentalism speaks volumes about the strength of the religious right. A candlelight vigil promoting a progressive Pakistan a few days after Taseer’s assassination drew nearly 1,000 supporters; a religious rally in Karachi the same day had 40,000 in the street chanting Qadri’s name. “Taseer’s murderer was tried in the court of public opinion, and he has emerged a hero,” says a woman shopping for vegetables in the same market where the governor was killed. “If someone kills me because I criticize Qadri, will he too be called a hero?” She declined to give her name. (Read: “Murder in Islamabad: Pakistan’s Deepening Religious Divide.”)

Of course, few Pakistanis would ever go as far as Taseer’s or Bhatti’s killers. But their ambivalence can easily be manipulated. “Just because we are religious does not mean we will all be reaching for guns the next time someone says something wrong,” says Malik Khan, a university student who spent a recent afternoon at a shrine in Lahore dedicated to a revered Islamic saint. “But Salmaan Taseer was an extremist as well. He should not have touched the blasphemy law.” Khan received a text message praising Qadri and exhorting him to pass it along. It posed a moral quandary: “I don’t agree with the message,” he says. “But I love the Prophet. My thumb hesitated a long time over the delete button.” In the end, he passed the hate along.

Qadri himself was the religious-minded youngest son of a family just stepping into the middle class. Like his brother, he joined the special-forces branch of the Punjab police in 2002. He had been flagged as a security risk because of his strong religious leanings but was nevertheless appointed to Taseer’s security detail when he visited Islamabad. In his confession, Qadri said he had been inspired by the teachings of his local mullah, Hanif Qureshi. At a rally a few days later, Qureshi claimed credit for motivating Qadri. “He would come to my Friday prayers and listen to my sermons,” he said. Then he repeated his point: “The punishment for a blasphemer is death.”

But is it? Two weeks after Taseer’s murder, I visited Qari Muhammad Zawar Bahadur, the head of one of Pakistan’s mainstream religious groups and a co-signer of a statement that advised Muslims not to show “grief or sympathy on the death of the governor, as those who support blasphemy of the Prophet are themselves indulging in blasphemy.” For more than an hour, he justified his group’s stance, telling me that the Koran was clear on the issue. I asked Bahadur to show me the exact verse that detailed the punishments for blasphemy. He mumbled that “there are several passages,” as if there were so many, he couldn’t decide which one to quote. When pressed further, he consulted a Koran and read aloud a passage that spoke of killing a man who had once harmed the Prophet.

That verse has routinely been dismissed by leading Islamic scholars as referring to a specific case and having nothing to do with blasphemy. They say there is no definition of blasphemy in the Koran, nor any prescription for its punishment. “Nobody challenges these mullahs, and that is our problem,” says Omar Fazal Jamil, who runs a p.r. firm in Lahore. “We can’t invoke liberal secular values anymore. I have to have the knowledge to contradict these men who distort our religion for their own political gain. I have to be able to say, ‘No, this did not happen, this is not right, and show me where it says in the Koran that blasphemers should be shot on sight.’ ”

The Sin of Silence
In the absence of such challenges, those favoring religious intolerance will continue to have things go their way. In late 2007, Benazir Bhutto released an updated manifesto for her father’s party. “The statutes that discriminate against religious minorities and are sources of communal disharmony will be reviewed,” it said. Less than a month later she was dead, killed in a bomb attack just 13 km from where both Taseer and Bhatti were murdered. Her death was an opportunity to rally the nation against the forces of extremism. Instead the party focused on consolidating power. The manifesto remains an empty promise, and two more voices of tolerance have been silenced. For evil to prevail, goes the old aphorism, all that is required is for good men to do nothing.

With reporting by Ershad Mahmud / Lahore and Omar Waraich / Rawalpindi

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