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A Pakistani man performs Friday prayers at the Red Mosque in the capital Islamabad. (File photo for illustrative purposes only) Image Credit: AFP

November 4, 2014

Chak 59, Kot Radha Kishan, District Kasur, Punjab, Pakistan

A mob stormed through the village. Dozens, or was it hundreds, of people, the number is uncertain. It was a large cluster of very angry individuals who on that day had congealed into a force that had assumed multiple roles: of accuser, witness, judge, jury and executioner. Without any real comprehension of the allegation and its entailment, normal human beings in their avatars of vigilantes shouted and cursed and threatened and acted. That is the thing about a fuming mob. It has no eyes, ears, mind, heart. All it does is unleash mayhem. That is what happened on November 4, 2014 in Chak 59 of Kot Radha Kishan.

On that indelibly dark day, there occurred destruction of reason, destruction of a due process of justice, destruction of compassion, destruction of humanity. It was the day Shama and Shehzad Masih were killed. A Christian couple who worked as labourers at a brick kiln and whose horrific murders made international headlines were accused of blasphemy and killed.

Beaten, dragged, their clothes tattered, their bodies bleeding, their screams unheard, their pleas fading into the sound of their broken limbs, they were thrown in a kiln. The kiln’s furnace was ablaze. Whether they were still breathing or were already dead remains uncertain. The undisputed fact is that a Christian couple was accused of blasphemy, and without given a chance to prove their innocence in a court of law was burnt. After death, or to death, that is a mere detail.

Shama and Shehzad, both in their 20s, had three children. One of them, the oldest, Suleman, 10, witnessed what happened to his parents. Shama was pregnant with their fourth child. The vigilantes of a divine religion that does not need any worldly protection killed an unborn human. Humanity shrank into a corner, soundlessly wailing its helplessness.

According to media reports, the dispute was regarding an amount of PKR 100,000 that the couple had taken from the contractor of the kiln. Dawn reported in January 2019: “Shama began to question the status of their peshgi, which she argued with the contractor had already been paid. Peshgi is a kind of ‘earnest payment’ that labourers pay to take a loan; this often keeps them indebted to their employers. Peshgi is a system of bonded labour.”

Every act of courage of standing against bigotry and hate of other faiths is laudable. Every victim of a false accusation of blasphemy getting justice makes the world a tad kinder, a tad fairer.

- Mehr Tarar, Special to Gulf News

That questioning led to the contractor luring them to his office on the pretext of a discussion and locking them there.

Later, obeying the directives of the owner of the kiln, the contractor “informed” the village maulvi, the local cleric, that Shama had burnt some pages containing ayats of the Quran. The reality: “They had burnt some documents that belonged to Shahzad’s recently deceased father who was a faith healer.”

The cleric announced the act of “blasphemy” through the loudspeaker that on a normal day was used for azaan and other important local matters. That day, a death sentence was declared through a mosque. The prayer place of the devotees of Allah was misused to propagate an unverified allegation against the people of another religion whose prophet Isa, Jesus, is one of the most revered messengers of Allah and the second most mentioned prophet in the book of Allah sent to Prophet Mohammad (PBUH): Holy Quran.

Javed Ahmad Ghamidi, one of the most esteemed and erudite religious scholars of our times, has reiterated multiple times that the Holy Quran does not prescribe a worldly punishment for an act of blasphemy. In January 2017, Ghamidi wrote: “It is generally understood that the shari'ah has also prescribed punishment for drinking, apostasy and blasphemy against the Prophet. I have argued that this is totally baseless. There is no punishment for these crimes in the shari'ah. All these issues relate to ijtihad and whatever opinion is formed about them will be on this basis.”

The Shama-Shehzad murder case was tried in an anti-terrorist court. 103 people were charged. Five of the accused were given the death penalty. Ten of the accused were sentenced to different jail terms for abetment to murder.

November 4, 2020

Quaidabad, Tehsil Khushab, Punjab, Pakistan

Six years later, on the same date, it was not a mob. Another murder took place. A security guard of a bank shot the manager of the bank. The security guard was seen in a video marching towards a police station. Flanked by a chanting, supporting crowd, the security guard is heard boasting of killing a “blasphemer” who had “denigrated the prophet.”

Dawn reported, “The suspect was then joined by the leaders of a religious group, all of whom raised slogans and addressed supporters from the rooftop of the Quaidabad Police Station. Police personnel could be seen standing nearby recording videos.”

The victim, Malik Imran Hanif, was rushed to Services Hospital in Lahore. He died.

Another life taken in the name of religion that has an explicit instruction regarding the sanctity of human life: “that if any one slew a person–unless it be for murder or for spreading mischief in the land–it would be as if he slew the whole people.” (Holy Quran: 5:32)

In 2020, as the distortions and the misuse of the message of Allah’s religion, 113 of 114 surahs of whose Holy Quran starts with “In the name of Allah, the most Gracious, the Most Compassionate”, continue in Pakistan and elsewhere, I see a glimmer of hope. It is in the tweet of Maulana Tahir Ashrafi, the recently appointed Special Representative to Prime Minister on Religious Harmony.

Ashrafi tweeted on November 5: “A human being was labelled a blasphemer of the prophet and killed in Quaidabad. The state of Pakistan will not allow anyone to promulgate such terror and barbarity. If [truth be] considered, the real blasphemer is the one who kills a Muslim in the name of the holy prophet.” Ashrafi also tweeted: The killer of Quaidabad will, InshaAllah, be punished.”

A religious leader who in the past has been accused of displaying bigotry towards certain religious sects and who is now working with the government taking a clear stance on a coldblooded murder done in the name of religion is a hopeful sign that not all is lost in the Muslim majority Pakistan where misuse of religious teachings is a regular occurrence as a camouflage for settling of personal, political and other scores.

Dawn reported: “DPO Wilayat [of Quaidabad] said the police were investigating the incident. Quoting initial reports, he said that the security guard and the manager had been quarrelling for some time. The guard was, reportedly, fired a few months ago; he was subsequently rehired and had an argument with Hanif a few days ago, the officer added. Police sources also expressed doubt over the guard's claim that he had killed the manager over blasphemy. They suggested that the guard had committed the murder due to personal grievances.”

What has also happened after the murder of Malik Imran Hanif: “Residents of Quaidabad rejected repeated calls from local clerics and some political workers to shut business to show their support for the killer of a bank manager on Thursday.”

The janaza, the funeral prayer, of the slain bank manager, held in Jauharabad, was attended by hundreds, if not thousands of, people. Once upon a time in Pakistan it was the killers of alleged blasphemers whose funerals were densely attended. This funeral was different.

As people prayed for the man killed on the false accusation of blasphemy, the imam, the payer leader, addressed the attendees of the janaza: “…firstly, it was said that he [bank manager Imran Hanif] was a Qadiani [a term derived from the name of the birthplace of the leader of Ahmadis, the word is generally used as a slur for Ahmadis]. I attest that he [Hanif] often used to offer namaz-e-Juma in my mosque. Many of you are a witness to that. In the mosque in which he used to pray in Quaidabad, the maulana of that mosque has confirmed the same. The Constitution and the penal code of Pakistan categorise them [Ahmadis] as non-Muslims, but war is not to be waged even against them. To kill them where they are seen, that is wrong. No scholar of any religious school of thought has prescribed this [act]. No one is to get into a fight with them, kill them.”

A disclaimer: To me Ahmadis are Muslim. All the Ahmadis I know are devout followers of Allah, His Prophet Mohammad (PBUH) and the Holy Quran. Their devotion to Allah and their reverence to Prophet Mohammad (pbuh) is categorical, their knowledge of Holy Quran immense, their understanding of religion profound. That is what I have seen in Ahmadis that I know personally. My faith is essential for my existence. And my faith teaches me that ONLY Allah has the power to judge an individual’s faith. No human has the prerogative to gauge the veracity or falsehood of another human’s faith.

A religious leader speaking up for a blatant misuse of religion is of paramount importance. It is one person’s stance against decades of faith-based bigotry and intolerance. It is supplemented by another person’s stance. It is strengthened by hundreds and thousands of others endorsing tolerance and acceptance of the other. That is how positive change deepens its roots. A representative of the government and a local cleric, both known for their credentials of religious knowledge and service, have put forth their categorical denunciation of murder in the name of blasphemy. I consider these statements a huge milestone.

Much, much, much more needs to be done. Steadily, consistently, unapologetically. And for inculcation of stability in that process every positive step is consequential. Every act of courage of standing against bigotry and hate of other faiths is laudable. Every victim of a false accusation of blasphemy getting justice makes the world a tad kinder, a tad fairer.

It is the world in which all falsely accused of blasphemy will get justice.

Shama and Shehzad and their unborn baby will get justice.

Malik Imran Hanif will get justice.

InshaAllah.

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