Pakistan’s Hybrid Government and the Aasia Bibi Fiasco..

Aasia bibi is a poor Christian woman from a village in Punjab who was arrested for blasphemy in 2009. She got into an argument with some other women from the village while working in the fields (purportedly over her drinking from a cup of water and hence “polluting” it) and in the course of the argument she allegedly said something  “blasphemous” about the holy prophet of Islam. The details of the case are murky and no one seems to know for sure what blasphemous statement she actually made that day (the most commonly reported one is that she said something along the lines of “Jesus died for the sins of the world, what has your prophet done for humanity”; other versions exist; the investigating police officer claims that she said much more, but even quoting it wud be blasphemy, so look it up on wikipedia) but whatever the details, a case was registered under Pakistan’s uniquely harsh blasphemy law (a death sentence is mandatory in case guilt is proven) and she has been in prison ever since.

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As usually happens in blasphemy cases, she was sentenced to death by the local court (local judges usually feel it safest to convict any and all accused blasphemers, expecting that the most egregiously wrong verdicts will be reversed by higher courts that have better security). Meanwhile her case had come to national attention and the governor of Punjab, Salman Taseer, visited her in prison and spoke of her getting a presidential pardon. He was attacked in the media as a supporter of blasphemers and one of his own body guards shot him dead. The body guard was arrested and eventually hanged, but his grave has become a religious shrine and several ministers (including some in the current Imran Khan government as well as the opposition PMLN) have visited the grave to pay respects to this “hero”. Continue reading “Pakistan’s Hybrid Government and the Aasia Bibi Fiasco..”

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Homoeroticism, Blasphemy, and Classical Muslim Society

The following stray thoughts on Islamicate homo-eroticism were penned by Irfan Muzammil on Twitter and I am posting them here for the sake of generating more discussion. My own “off the top of my head” comments are at the end in Italics.

A thread on homoeroticism, blasphemy, and classical Muslim society
By Irfan Muzammil 

In my class on Arabic literature today, we read an anecdote about one of the earliest and greatest of Arab poets, Abu Nuwas. Abu Nuwas lived during the height of Islamic civilization in the early Abbasid period, and rose to such esteem that he taught the sons of caliph Harun al-Rasheed. One of those sons al-Amin became the next caliph and Abu Nawas’ greatest patron. What’s most interesting is that his poetry is filled with eroticism of both homo and hetero kind, and with love for wine and for young boys. The anecdote we read was written by Abu Faraj, who was himself one of the descendants of Umayyad caliphs, and wrote one of the classics of Arab literature, Kitab al-Aghani (Book of Songs), a 20 volume collection of anecdotes on Arabs poets, singers, and musicians.

One of his anecdotes on Abu Nuwas, which we read in class, is about Abu Nuwas seducing a young boy but the conversation between Abu Nuwas and the boy is entirely in Quranic verses. I was frankly shocked, and told my professor that I’d be killed or jailed for even  posting this, much less writing it out in a book or teaching it in a class. But according to the professor, who is an Arab himself and an expert in Arabic and Islamic studies, this anecdote has often been quoted even in religious texts as a great example of Arab literature.  And it was only in 2001 that the Egyptian Ministry of Culture burned 6000 copies of Abu Nuwas’ books. The amount of homo-eroticism in both classical Persian and Arabic poetry is just staggering.

By the way, yesterday in my class on early Islamicate societies, we saw the naked women painted on the palaces of Umayyad caliphs. I wonder if the classical Muslim civilization was far more liberal than the modern one -unless you were a slave, or a non-elite woman, or a young boy or girl. But it does trash all those silly theories of Iqbal and Sayyid Qutb etc. about the downfall of Muslim civilization because of its moral lassitude. We were far more liberal, at least in terms of sexual mores and wine drinking, when we were at our mightiest, and our downfall began as our society became more severe and intolerant.

(I would be cautious about interpreting this in terms of liberal (then) vs intolerant (now). Times were different all round. And the elites frequently lived lives that did not concern themselves with the moral standards regarded as ideal for commoners or spouted by priests and theologians. Augustus promoted strict Roman virtue without feeling too closely bound by its strictures in his own private life. The Catholic church had a slew of libertine popes without any discernible change in the morality the church was trying to teach their followers. Every Ummayad caliph except Umar Bin Abdul Aziz was supposedly an alcoholic. As were most of the Delhi Sultans and Mughal Kings, but the religious texts in their times all had the same prohibitions they have today. And last but not the least, classical Islam developed within the womb of the Arab empire, it was not present fully formed when that empire rose to power. There is much more interesting stuff to be said about this, but perhaps another day.. meanwhile, I expect commentators will add value)

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Blasphemy, blasphemy laws, Pakistan, Charlie Hebdo..

I just picked this out of a past post about the cruel blasphemy execution (by being burned alive) of a Christian couple in Pakistan. I am posting this here because blasphemy is in the news again and I cannot count the number of times someone has managed to say “colonial era blasphemy laws in Pakistan” in a misleading manner. I wanted to have a post handy where I could direct them, so here it is, a quick overview of the blasphemy issue in Pakistan (some thoughts about the Hebdo events are at the end of this post, you can jump to that if all this familiar to you):A blasphemy law was part of the 19th century Indian Penal code as section 295.. It was not a bad law at all and the lazy habit of blaming it for later blasphemy law crap in the Indian subcontinent is just that: a lazy habit.
Here is section 295 of the Indian Penal Code of 1860:
 Injuring or defiling place of worship with intent to insult the religion of any class.—Whoever destroys, damages or defiles any place of worship, or any object held sacred by any class of persons with the intention of thereby insulting the religion of any class of persons or with the knowledge that any class of persons is likely to consider such destruction, damage or defile­ment as an insult to their religion, shall be punishable with imprisonment of either description for a term which may extend to two years, or with fine, or with both.


The aim of the law was to prevent/punish things like someone throwing a dead pig into a mosque or a cow’s head into a temple. An actual physical desecration is to be punished.
This seems like an eminently sensible law  and cannot really be blamed for all the evils that came later. But in the 1920s there was a famous case in Lahore where a Hindu publisher was arrested by the colonial authorities after Muslims agitated against him for having published a book called Rangila Rasul (“merry prophet”). The British colonial authorities tried to prosecute him for hurting the religious sentiments of Muslims, but the high court in Lahore (quite properly) found him innocent because there was no law on the books against just publishing a book, no matter how offensive it may be to some religious group. Fearing future communal discord from such provocations, the British then had the legislative assembly add section 295A to the law in order to criminalize deliberate attempts to “outrage the religious feelings of any community”. This section states:

Whoever, with deliberate and malicious intention of outraging the religious feelings of any class of citizens of India, by words, either spoken or written, or by signs or by visible representations or otherwise], insults or attempts to insult the religion or the religious beliefs of that class, shall be punished with imprisonment of either description for a term which may extend to 4[three years], or with fine, or with both. 

But even with this new and expanded article 295A in place, prosecutions for blasphemy were few and far between until, in the 1980s, General Zia added two new sections to the law in Pakistan and really set the ball rolling.  These infamous sections are labelled 295B and 295C.

295-B:  Defiling the copy of Holy Qur’an. Whoever wilfully defiles, damages or desecrates a copy of the Holy Qur’an or of an extract there from or uses it in any derogatory manner for any unlawful purpose shall be punishable with imprisonment for life.

295-C: use of derogatory remarks etc., in respect of the Holy Prophet: – who ever by words, either spoken or written, or by visible representation, or by any imputation innuendo, or insinuation, directly, defiles the sacred name of the Holy Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) shall be punished with death, or imprisonment for life and shall also be liable for fine.

Note that the law no longer requires that the offense be malicious in intent. Intent is no longer an issue. Insulting the Quran or the prophet, even unintentionally, is now punishable by death. To seal the deal, in 1991 the Federal Shariat Court of Pakistan struck down the option of life imprisonment and made the death penalty obligatory. 
And of course, the new amendments only apply to blasphemy against Islam, not against all religions (in this sense, the new laws are more “rational” and internally coherent, since all religions blaspheme against all other religions as a matter of course, so the original law was not coherent in principle, though still workable in practice). Between 1984 to 2004, 5,000 cases of blasphemy were registered in Pakistan and 964 people were charged and accused of blasphemy; 479 Muslims, 340 Ahmadis, 119 Christians, 14 Hindus and 10 others. Thirty-two people charged with blasphemy were killed extra-judicially during that time. More have died since. Eighty-six percent of all the cases were reported in Punjab.

In the wake of this latest horrendous outrage, many liberal people are hoping that this blasphemy law can be changed to finally stop or slow down this torrent of prosecutions and killings. Others have noted that the law is not the problem, free-lance enforcement of a broader blasphemy meme in the Muslim community is the problem and will likely persist even if the law is repealed. In my view the law is not the only problem, but it IS a very potent symbol of the surrender of state and society in front of the blasphemy meme. Repeal of the law will not kill that meme, but repeal of the law will be an equally powerful signal that things have changed and that state and society no longer approve of the killing of blasphemers. It will not end the problem, but it will be the beginning of the end. Repeal of the law is not a sufficient condition for this nightmare to end, but it is a very important necessary condition.

Unfortunately, I don’t think such repeal or amendment is actually likely in the foreseeable future. My predictions:

1. The law will not be repealed. Some minor amendments may be made someday (and even these will excite significant Islamist resistance and are not likely) but their effectiveness will be limited. Blasphemy accusations will continue, as will the spineless convictions issuing from the courts. In fact, new blasphemy accusations will almost certainly be made with the express intention of testing any new amendment or procedural change (thus, ironically, any amendment is likely to lead to at least one more innocent Christian or Ahmedi victim as Islamists hunt around for a test case).
2. Aasia bibi, the law’s most prominent current victim, will not get a reprieve from anyone but she will not be hanged. Instead, she will be held in prison till she dies or is killed by a vigilante in prison.  Her immediate family will have to leave the country at some point. The local Christian community will have to clearly show their humble submission in order to be allowed to get on with their lives.
 3. Blasphemy will continue to be a potent weapon in the hands of the deep state, the Islamists and sundry local gangsters and land grabbers.
These predictions may appear pessimistic and discouraging, but I would submit that they are not meant to be discouraging; they are meant to be realistic. The law will not be repealed because the law is not just an invention imposed by General Zia on an unwilling populace. Rather, this law is the updated expression of a pre-existing social and religious order. Blasphemy and apostasy laws were meant to protect the orthodox Islamic theological consensus of the 12th century AD and they have done so with remarkable effectiveness. Unlike their Christian counterparts (and prosecutions for heresy and blasphemy were seen throughout the middle ages in Europe) these laws retain their societal sanction and have been enforced by free-lancers and volunteers where the state has hesitated. The most famous, and in many ways, the most telling example of the wide societal sanction for killing blasphemers is the case of the carpenters apprentice Ghazi Ilm Deen Shaheed, who executed the Hindu publisher of Rangila Rasul after legal prosecution had failed. The demand to kill Rajpal was being made openly in public meetings and two other Muslims had already attempted to kill Rajpal prior to Ilm Deen’s successful attempt. In fact Ilm Deen’s best friend had supposedly wanted to do the act and only stepped aside because they drew lots and Ilm Deen won thrice in a row.
And when Ilm Deen did kill Rajpal in his shop, the Muslim community mobilized to defend him and in the high court his appeal was handled by two lawyers, one of whom was none other than Quaid E Azam Mohammed Ali Jinnah, who was asked to take up the case by that illustrious modernist and “moderate Muslim hope”, Allama Mohammed Iqbal. After the appeal failed and Ilm Deen was hanged by the British, Allama Iqbal was one of the leaders of a campaign to have his body brought to Lahore for reburial (he had been quietly buried in a remote prison by the British authorities). When this demand was conceded in the face of massive public protests, his funeral drew thousands of spectators and was attended with pride by Allama Iqbal, who reputedly said that “this carpenter has left us, educated people, far behind”.
In an ironic twist the charpoy (rope bed) on which Ilm Deen was borne to his grave is said to have been donated by another literary luminary, Mr MD Taseer, whose own son would later become governor of Punjab and would be killed for “blasphemy” by a new Ilm Deen. Ilm Deen’s grave is now a popular shrine and a movie has been made about his exploit, complete with a dance sequence featuring the blasphemer enjoying himself before he meets his fate.

When Salman Rushdie’s book was declared blasphemous and rallies demanding his head were held all over the world and books were burned, General Zia was not the agent of those protests.

Rushdie went underground and has managed to survive, though some of his translators were not so lucky. But Theo Van Gogh was killed in broad daylight in Amsterdam and Ayan Hirsi Ali was driven underground for producing a supposedly blasphemous movie in liberal Holland. Another blasphemy execution was attempted by textile engineering student Aamir Cheema in Germany. And as expected, Aamir Cheema too has achieved sainthood in Pakistan after he took his own life in a German prison, with his funeral attracting thousands and his grave becoming a popular shrine.
A minister in Musharraf’s enlightened cabinet wrote more than one op-ed commending such acts and fantasizing about the day Salman Rushdie’s skin will be torn from his body with sharp hooks. A fantastically surreal movie has even been made about the execution of Rushdie by Muslim Guerillas who penetrate his secret Zionist hideout and attack him with flying Korans.
I am not kidding.

In 2002 a convicted murderer named Tariq decided to atone for his sins by killing a man accused of blasphemy who happened to be in the same prison in Lahore. Director Syed Noor (known for countless song and dance Lollywood films) produced and directed a movie called aik aur ghazi (one more holy warrior) about this young man and his glorious exploit. It is worth noting that Syed Noor is a “moderate Muslim”, but this has not prevented him from glorifying the actions of a vigilante who killed another prisoner because he believed him guilty of blasphemy.

When a poor christian boy was accused of blasphemy in Lahore, the entire colony he lived in was burned to the ground. When a poor Christian woman named Aasia bibi acted “uppity” in front of some Muslim ladies (see details in the video below), she was charged with blasphemy and sentenced to death. These episodes highlights another important aspect of the blasphemy meme: it functions to bully and oppress minorities by threatening them with legalized lynching in exactly the same way as the “uppity nigger” meme was used to bully and oppress black people in the pre-civil-rights South in the United States. The fear of being accused of blasphemy, enforced by periodic horrific lynchings, ensures that Christians, Hindus and Ahmedis never forget their place and act uppity in front of good Muslims, since any indiscretion could lead to a blasphemy accusation and once accused, your goose is cooked.

 

Aasia Bibi’s death sentence was so flagrantly unjust that Salman Taseer (whose own father had provided a funeral bier for Ilm Deen), the then governor of Punjab, was moved to say she should be let go and the blasphemy law should be amended to prevent such misuse. He was killed by his own guard for saying so. His guard was garlanded and showered with rose petals by Pakistani lawyers when he appeared in court and now has at least one mosque named in his honor.

HE has not been hanged. In fact, he is a hero to many and has been handing out new death sentences of his own while in prison; he convinced one of his guards to go and shoot a 70 year old mentally unstable British man who has been sentenced to death on blasphemy charges but not yet exectuted (probably not yet executed because he is British). MNA Sherry Rahman introduced a “private member bill” to amend the law and was herself charged with blasphemy for her pains (though being a member of the ruling elite, she has not yet been brought to trial). Rashed Rahman, a well known human rights lawyer was shot dead because he dared to take up the case of a young university lecturer who is being tried for blasphemy on insanely ridiculous grounds in Multan. Javed Ahmed Ghamdi, a liberal cleric who has tried to present religious arguments against this law (a law that clearly goes well beyond anything written even in most of the medieval compilations of shariah law) has had his assistant killed and is now living in exile in Malaysia. “Respected” Pakistani religious scholars have declared him to be an apostate and an agent of the enemies of Islam. The law is no closer to repeal or even modification.

And just a few weeks ago, the spineless Lahore High Court upheld the death sentence on Aasia Bibi. She may be hanged before the Governor’s killer.

In fact. the law is now moving on to fresh pastures. There is a sustained push by anti-Shia groups to use the law against Shias just as it is being used against Ahmedis, Christians and other minorities. The law does not specifically mention the issue of blasphemy against the companions of the prophet (the sahaba), but why not? if you insult any of the companions of the prophet, do you not insult the prophet? Never mind that the companions themselves were frequently at each other’s throats, but today the issue is the wedge that will open the way to legal persecution of Shias and help push them into the same position now occupied in daily fear by Christians, Hindus and Ahmedis. Several Shias have already been charged under the law and there is more to come. In fact, on the same day when Shahzad and Shama met their gruesome fate in Kot Radha Kishan, a Shia Zakir was killed in custody in Gujrat. He may have been mentally unstable and had been arrested for brawling in the bazar. In custody, he continues to harangue the police about the calumnies suffered by the Banu Hashim (the family of the prophet) at the hands of some of the companions (the sahaba). This so upset one of the police officers present that he got an axe and decapitated the prisoner inside the police station. The police officer concerned has been arrested and desperate attempts are being made to play down the sectarian dimension of this killing, but all will become clear once the policeman is put on trial. The ASWJ (the main umbrella anti-Shia organization) will protest that he was only defending the honor of the prophet. Punishment will not be easy. “Sweep under the rug” is likely to be the compromise.

In short, killing blasphemers is considered a highly admirable deed by a very large number of people in Pakistan (and probably in several other Islamicate nations). While it is indeed true that misuse of the law has become common after General Zia’s time (an intended consequence, as one aim of such laws is to harass and browbeat all potential opposition), the law has deeper roots and liberals who believe that it is possible to make a distinction between true blasphemy and misuse of the law, may find that this line is not easy to draw. The second, and perhaps more potent reason the law will not be repealed is because the law was consciously meant to promote the Islamist project that the deep state (or a powerful section of the deep state) continues to desire in Pakistan. The blasphemy law is a ready-made weapon against all secular opposition to the military-mullah alliance (though some sections of the military now seem to have abandoned that alliance, hence the qualification “section of the deep state”). Secular parties are suspected of being soft on India and are considered a danger to the Kashmir Jihad and other projects dear to the heart of the deep state. At the same time, Islamist parties provide ideological support and manpower for those beloved causes. In this way, the officers of the deep state, even when they are not personally religious, recognize the need for an alliance with religious parties and against secular political forces (Musharraf was a good example). They may have been forced into an uneasy (temporary?) compromise with secular parties by circumstances beyond their control (aka America) but with American withdrawal coming soon, the deep state may not wish to alienate its mullah constituency too much. They will be needed again once the Yankees are gone. Hence too, no repeal at this time.

Of course blasphemy accusations and their use to suppress speech are not limited to Muslim countries; e.g. Sikhs have resorted to violence to protest blasphemy and Hindu mobs have rioted to enforce the sanctity of Shivaji’s memory in Mumbai. But Islamist consensus on blasphemy is wider and deeper and has an edge that other fanatics can only envy. In the long run (decades, not centuries) Islamists will be forced to compromise with modernity one way or the other (with one way being less painful than the other). But that time is not yet here…For many years, perhaps decades, we are going to see terrible violence in the Islamicate core and some of it is going to be about blasphemy. That is just where we happen to be..The above was written BEFORE the Hebdo killings. The reaction to the Charlie Hebdo killings in Western countries (and especially in France) has been so visceral and immediate that many Muslim countries felt the need to send officials to express solidarity with France (those marching for freedom of expression have included the representatives of such bastions of free speech as Turkey and Egypt and even Hamas, Iran and Saudi Arabia were moved to condemn the killings. And within the Western world, even the postMarxist apologists who generally support restrictions on free speech in the name of “sensitivity” have been split vertically by the Hebdo murders. Some like Zizek have taken (for their ilk) an unusually harsh stance against the killers and their ideology, multiculturalism be damned.. But the Hebdo moment does not extend into the Islamicate core. In fact, Islamists in Pakistan are recovering their balance as we speak and are likely to launch some more protests this Friday to remind people that they are still around (though if the deep state does not wish to promote their cause at this time then the affair may not reach the level of past protests).
Prophet Mohammed cartoons, Charlie Hebdo protest, Charlie hebdo, Charlie hebdo cartoon, Charlie hebdo coverIn Niger, crowds have already burned several churches and several people have been killed (it seems they were not impressed by Pope Francis’ attempt to use this moment to ask for insult-protection for all faiths). More such stuff may happen in the days and weeks to come. In any case the Islamists do not have to respond soon. Patience is one of their virtues. Revenge attacks will come some day even if nothing happens soon. They have long memories. They are not done yet.

Longer term, the outcome in Western countries is likely to be more blasphemy, not less (things will be more confused in the world’s largest democracy). And it will not all be some principled defense of free speech. In terms of abstract principle, the French (and many other European countries) are not without their own hypocrisies. Many European countries have laws against “hate speech” , holocaust denial and even blasphemy that are a mockery of free speech (and that do not really promote the peace and harmony they are supposed to be promoting; see a must read article by Sam Schulman on this issue) They frequently do not apply these laws, or fail to convict when they do apply them (and punishments are very very mild), so the actual situation on the ground is not as bad as it is in many Islamicate or Marxicate countries, but it is certainly not ideal. The United States is, in terms of abstract principles, probably the best country in the world for freedom of expression. As in all human endeavors, there is some distance between the ideal and the practice even in these United States, but legal restrictions on freedom of expression are lower in the US than in any country I can think of (past or present). Thank Allah for the first amendment.
But while discussions of abstract principle have their place, they can also distract from far more obvious and simpler points. In this case, here is the situation: there are people of many religions in Europe, in Japan, in China, in the Americas (North AND South) and in all these religions (except Islam) it is now the norm to argue about the foundational myths and to make fun of them. Some people take them literally (in ALL religions), many people deeply respect them, but some find them totally unbelievable and others just make jokes about them. In this atmosphere, you have a Muslim population that is asking for very special treatment for their particular myths. They are saying (in effect) that not only will WE live under rules XYZ, we want EVERYONE to live under rules XYZ. But they (and their intellectually more sophisticated defenders in the Western liberal elite) also insist they are not different in principle from anyone else. They also have ongoing and historic disputes with many groups (including, for example, right wing anti-immigrant politicians, Zionists, Jews in general, Christian religious nutjobs, Serbs, etc etc). In this setting, how likely is it that everyone in Western societies will accept MUSLIM rules that even some Muslims find unbearably oppressive? …I think it is not very likely.

btw, Charlie Hebdo itself has come out of this tragedy with flying colors. The accusation that they are some kind of racist right wing publication was a canard in any case, and their current issue proves it. You can read more about it here.

Anyway, here are my predictions:
1. More blasphemy in the West. Things will go back and forth, but the overall trend is that Islamicate taboos on satirizing Islam will gradually fall, as will taboos on discussing early Islamic history any differently from the histories of other religions or other ideologies. There will be more attacks, more Islamophobia (both real as well as imagined-SOAS-type Islamophobia) and more unpleasantness all around, but the overall trend will be towards more criticism and more satire and ever fewer taboos.
2. In the Islamicate core, blasphemy will remain a huge big deal and many more people may yet share the fate of Raif Badawi (or worse), but the internet will ensure that the discussions that will become common in the West will slowly make their way into the Islamicate core as well. But they will invite a backlash and in places (like Pakistan) things will get worse before they get better.

3. PostMarxist thinkers will split further, with some joining the critics of Islamicate taboos and other defending them in the cause of fighting Islamophobia. Many of them will continue to insist (not always without justification) that the “real issues” are economic or political, not religious, and that Islamophobia is real and the people on Fox News really do have more power than the Islamists still living in Western Muslim communities, but the circle within which religion is ALWAYS “not the real issue” will shrink, not expand. This is not of much interest to many people (since Post-Marxists don’t actually run the world, in the “West” or the “East”), but is always of interest to some of us because of the friends and family we hang out with. It will not be a happy few years in this circle as things in the Islamicate core get worse, Islamophobia (the actual cases) gets worse and neither Zionists nor Palestinians get to win cleanly. I feel a bit sad about this.
4. “Reform Islam” (consciously or unconsciously modeled on Reform Judaism) as promoted by people like Reza Aslan or Karen Armstrong may eventually become a real thing, with some sort of coherent theological framework and it’s own network of mosques and religous teachers, but we are nowhere close to it being a reality already. The notion that there is already some kind of “moderate Islam” that lies hidden under a recent Wahabi overlay and can be recovered by promoting Sufiism and the poetry of Maulana Rumi is highly exaggerated. Blasphemy and apostasy, for example, are capital crimes in ALL major sects of Islam and a few superficial books from Reza Aslan or Armstrong are not enough to change that. On the other hand, where there is damand, someone will eventually provide supply. These books are not completely useless. In the years to come, other, more subtle, more knowledgeable and more sophisticated thinkers will no doubt create such Islams (plural) in the Western world and in China. But not so easily in the Islamicate core. Things there will get worse before they get better. Dr Ali Minai has an excellent piece about some of the work that will have to be done.

The full-frontal Islamist memes meanwhile can be seen in this excellent video. Our Imam in school used to say a lot of these things in 1974 and we thought it was more funny than threatening. But they were serious and here we are today.

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Post by Jürgen Todenhöfer.Postscript: Excellent nuanced piece from Indian journalist Praveen Sami http://indianexpress.com/article/opinion/columns/the-silence-of-corpses/99/

btw, as an illustration of things to come: several people (and more important, the magazine Newsweek) have posted respectful portraits of the prophet Mohammed painted by Islamic artists in Iran, Turkic and Mughal lands in the pre-colonial era. See for example




Btw, Hafiz Saeed is on it..

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Burnt Offering: The Martyrdom of Shama and Shahzad Masih

Shama and Shahzad Masih were poor Christians who lived in the small village of Chak 59 in the Tehsil (subdivision) of Kot Radha Kishan near Lahore. It is not a remote area (though some orientalist in the BBC has managed to describe it as such), being a well developed center of the leather industry lcoated only 60 kilometers from the provincial capital of Lahore on a major national highway (and is the home of 2 former prime ministers of Pakistan!). Like many other poor people in their village, they worked as modern-day slaves in the local brick kiln. This, by the way, is not an exaggerated or poetic description of their employment status; bonded labor in brick kilns in India and Pakistan is internationally recognized as a type of modern slavery and involves many of the abuses known to us from books and movies about slaves in the days of yore.

The young couple had 4 children: Solomon (8) and Zeeshan (5) had been given to an uncle for adoption, probably due to the parent’s poverty. Sonia (4) and Poonam (18mths) lived with them and Shama was pregnant again with her fifth child. Her father-in-law had died recently and a few days later Shama cleaned out his room and disposed of his old papers by burning them. He had been an “amil” (a folk healer) who used various religious texts in his amulets and suchlike, and the burnt papers apparently included some with arabic writing on them. Shama, who was illiterate and so could not read them in any case, burnt the lot and threw the remains on a nearby garbage heap.What happened next is best described in this report from World Watch Monitor (corroborated to me by a friend in the police as the best description of the event):

“On Sunday, Shama burned them all and threw the ashes on a garbage heap outside their quarters. Shama never meant any disrespect to Islam as she was totally illiterate and had no idea what the amulets contained,” she said. “A few people recognized partially burned pages in the ash and raised a cry that Shama had burned the Qur’an.”
Shahzad Masih and his five brothers worked for many years at the brick kiln, owned by Yousuf Gujjar. Parveen said Shahzad and his brothers went to Gujjar to resolve the matter after the situation got tense in the village. “Gujjar on the one hand assured us that nothing would happen, and on the other hand asked his accountant not to let Shahzad and Shama flee the village without paying back their bond money”, (taken from them as an ‘advance’ against their employment and wages).
By Monday night, some Muslim neighbors had informed the police of the alleged desecration and warned of a possible attack on the Christian couple, Parveen said. “That night I had Shahzad and Shama sleep in my home so that if the police arrested them, at least we would know.”At about 6 a.m. when Shahzad and Shama went back to their own home in order to prepare for work, an angry mob began pouring into their quarters. Sensing the danger all the Christians fled except Shama’s sister Yasmeen (married to Shahzad’s brother Fiaz Masih).Yasmeen said they were still preparing breakfast when a few more people knocked at their door and enquired about Shama. 
“They entered the house and one of the men dragged Shama out. Shama had their youngest daughter Poonam in her arms. That man snatched Poonam and threw her on the floor…So brick kiln guard Muhammad Akram rescued Shama and took her to the kiln office (only a few yards away from their house) and locked her in there, to save her from the attackers.”
“By then, the number of mobsters was very small, but we could hear announcements being made from mosque loudspeakers in nearby villages – that a Christian woman had desecrated the Qur’an”.Yasmeen said people from five surrounding villages – Chak 60, Rosey, Pailan, Nawan Pindi and Hatnian – were gathered together by the residents of Chak 59 and their brick kiln coworkers.
Soon thousands of men armed with clubs, hatchets and axes loaded onto tractors and trolleys began pouring in.(The guard) Akram had locked the main kiln office door from the outside, but the angry protestors broke in anyway. But they failed to break the iron door of the office inside, and Shama and Shahzad must have locked it from inside.”The angry protestors then climbed on to the roof, and broke it in, “as if it was made of wood, straw and mud” said Yasmeen.She says these men then opened the door from inside and brought the couple into the open, where the highly-charged protestors were ready to attack.
“They beat them with wooden clubs on their heads, and hatchets, before they were both tied to a tractor and pulled out onto a road which was under construction, covered with crushed stones.”“I think they were unconscious, but still breathing, but the mob was still not willing to leave them alone,” said Yasmeen. “They took some petrol from a tractor and doused their bodies and threw them in the kiln. Then I lost hope and fled with my children from there.”
Another relative, Parvaiz Shehzad, who also lives in Clarkabad, said that Muslims of neighboring villages “were very much jealous of Christians”. The village is named after Robert Clark (1825–1900), the first Anglican missionary to Pakistan. Parvaiz Shehzad said it was the first village in the district that had electricity, a bank, a post office and a high school.“Most educated people of surrounding villages had studied in in Clarkabad…Strife between the Christian villagers and Muslim villagers has been a common feature in recent years”.As Shehzad and Shama were of Clarkabad, he claims jealousy came into play.
The dead woman’s sister Yasmeen says that during the entire violent attack, a police van was present, but because they were so few, the police did not take charge. “Some men asked them to fire into the air to quell the protestors, because the mob had no weapons to fire back…Shama and her husband might have survived if the police had taken timely action.”
Heavy contingents of police did arrive at the scene after the crowd had killed the couple. A local media reports that the police have arrested at least 42 people in connection with the case.The police themselves filed the case and lodged the First Information Report (FIR), [no. 475/14], registered in Kot Radha Kishan Police Station. The FIR states that 500 to 600 men tortured the Christian couple. The FIR identifies 60 men by name and says that:“the incident took place after the above-nominated persons gathered a crowd of people and roused their passion though false announcements from the mosque (loudspeakers) of desecration of the Qur’an.”...


Another eyewitness reports that when the young couple, beaten to near death, were put into the fire, a large heavy iron sheet was put on top of them to hold them down; as if the crowd wanted to make sure that they would burn. As if there was ever any doubt. As if there could be a different ending after a mob had arrived to defend the honor of Allah and his prophet. As if this was not 2014 in Kot Radha Kishan (“stronghold of Radha and Krishna“). As if this was not Kalyug…

Several pictures of the couple have surfaced. We do not know if it was Shahzad or Shama who chose the backgrounds. (Note: I hv been told (and agree after looking again at the pictures) that it is not the same girl in all the pictures, some are with a cousin or niece of Shahzad, not with his wife Salma; this will no doubt become clearer with time; In any case, there seems to be no doubt about the picture of their last remains)

Yes, many thousands were killed in equally gruesome ways in 1947, in 1971, in 1984, in 2002; India, as Naipaul said, is a wounded civilization. But just look at these pictures…the contrast between the idyllic scenes depicted in the photographer’s backgrounds and the actual life of the poor couple was already harsh when they took went to the photographer in Clarkabad; the contrast between these beautiful, hopeful faces and their terrified, screaming last hour on earth is unbearable and unimaginable. Too painful for words. After such knowledge, what forgiveness?

Someone took a picture of the remains after the good people of Kot Radha Kishan had finished with the couple.

Burnt offering
What more can one say?

The government of chief minister Shahbaz Sharif has acted with some speed and 40 or so people have been arrested for this atrocity. The Prime Minister has expressed shock, condemned the incident, and promised to bring the guilty to book. Multiple organizations within Pakistan have condemned this murder and I have no doubt that millions of Pakistanis are shocked to the core. I also believe that both the chief minister and the prime minister are entirely sincere in their concern. They are not inhuman bastards and they are not dumb. They see this is a terrible atrocity and they know how ugly it looks to the rest of the world. But their best intentions will not prevent the next incident and the fact that the blasphemy law itself has been openly questioned in Pakistan after this incident will not lead to any change in the law.

Why not? Because the law runs deep and has real support among the people and, perhaps more to the point, serves real purposes for sections of the ruling elite. (the follow is modified from an earlier article I wrote about the blasphemy law)

A blasphemy law was part of the 19th century Indian Penal code as section 295 (this fact has allowed many a postmarxist to begin any discussion of blasphemy laws with the phrase “colonial era law”, God be praised).
Here is section 295 of the Indian Penal Code of 1860:  Injuring or defiling place of worship with intent to insult the religion of any class.—Whoever destroys, damages or defiles any place of worship, or any object held sacred by any class of persons with the intention of thereby insulting the religion of any class of persons or with the knowledge that any class of persons is likely to consider such destruction, damage or defile­ment as an insult to their religion, shall be punishable with imprisonment of either description for a term which may extend to two years, or with fine, or with both.

This seems like an eminently sensible law and cannot really be blamed for all the evils that came later. But in the 1920s there was a famous case in Lahore where a Hindu publisher was arrested by the colonial authorities after Muslims agitated against him for having published a book called Rangila Rasul (“merry prophet”). But the court in Lahore (quite properly) found him innocent because there was no law on the books against just publishing a book, no matter how offensive it may be to some religious group. Fearing future communal discord from such provocations, the British then had the legislative assembly add section 295A to the law in order to criminalize deliberate attempts to “outrage the religious feelings of any community”). This section states:

Whoever, with deliberate and malicious intention of outraging the religious feelings of any class of citizens of India, by words, either spoken or written, or by signs or by visible representations or otherwise], insults or attempts to insult the religion or the religious beliefs of that class, shall be punished with imprisonment of either description for a term which may extend to 4[three years], or with fine, or with both. 

But even with this new and expanded article 295A in place, prosecutions for blasphemy were few and far between until, in the 1980s, General Zia added two new sections to the law in Pakistan and really set the ball rolling.  These infamous sections are labelled 295B and 295C.

295-B:  Defiling the copy of Holy Qur’an. Whoever wilfully defiles, damages or desecrates a copy of the Holy Qur’an or of an extract there from or uses it in any derogatory manner for any unlawful purpose shall be punishable with imprisonment for life.


295-C: use of derogatory remarks etc., in respect of the Holy Prophet: – who ever by words, either spoken or written, or by visible representation, or by any imputation innuendo, or insinuation, directly, defiles the sacred name of the Holy Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) shall be punished with death, or imprisonment for life and shall also be liable for fine.

Note that the law no longer requires that the offense be malicious in intent. Intent is no longer an issue. Insulting the Quran or the prophet, even unintentionally, is now punishable by death. To seal the deal, in 1991 the Federal Shariat Court of Pakistan struck down the option of life imprisonment and made the death penalty obligatory. Between 1984 to 2004, 5,000 cases of blasphemy were registered in Pakistan and 964 people were charged and accused of blasphemy; 479 Muslims, 340 Ahmadis, 119 Christians, 14 Hindus and 10 others. Thirty-two people charged with blasphemy were killed extra-judicially during that time. More have died since. Eighty-six percent of all the cases were reported in Punjab.

In the wake of this latest horrendous outrage, many liberal people are hoping that this blasphemy law can be changed to finally stop or slow down this torrent of prosecutions and killings. Others have noted that the law is not the problem, free lance enforcement of a broader blasphemy meme in the Muslim community is the problem and will likely persist even if the law is repealed. In my view the law is not the only problem, but it IS a very potent symbol of the surrender of state and society in front of the blasphemy meme. Repeal of the law will not kill that meme, but repeal of the law will be an equally powerful signal that things have changed and that state and society no longer approve of the killing of blasphemers. It will not end the problem, but it will be the beginning of the end. Repeal of the law is not a sufficient condition for this nightmare to end, but it is a very important necessary condition.

Unfortunately, I don’t think such repeal or amendment is actually likely in the foreseeable future. My predictions:

1. The law will not be repealed. Some minor amendments may be made someday (and even these will excite significant Islamist resistance and are not likely) but their effectiveness will be limited. Blasphemy accusations will continue, as will the spineless convictions issuing from the courts. In fact, new blasphemy accusations will almost certainly be made with the express intention of testing any new amendment or procedural change (thus, ironically, any amendment is likely to lead to at least one more innocent Christian or Ahmedi victim as Islamists hunt around for a test case).
2. Aasia bibi, the law’s most prominent current victim, will not get a reprieve from anyone but she will not be hanged. Instead, she will be held in prison till she dies or is killed by a vigilante in prison.  Her immediate family will have to leave the country at some point. The local Christian community will have to clearly show their humble submission in order to be allowed to get on with their lives.
 3. Blasphemy will continue to be a potent weapon in the hands of the deep state, the Islamists and sundry local gangsters and land grabbers.
These predictions may appear pessimistic and discouraging, but I would submit that they are not meant to be discouraging; they are meant to be realistic. The law will not be repealed because the law is not just an invention imposed by General Zia on an unwilling populace. Rather, this law is the updated expression of a pre-existing social and religious order. Blasphemy and apostasy laws were meant to protect the orthodox Islamic theological consensus of the 12th century AD and they have done so with remarkable effectiveness. Unlike their Christian counterparts (and prosecutions for heresy and blasphemy were seen throughout the middle ages in Europe) these laws retain their societal sanction and have been enforced by free lancers and volunteers where the state has hesitated. The most famous, and in many ways, the most telling example of the wide societal sanction for killing blasphemers is the case of the carpenters apprentice Ghazi Ilm Deen Shaheed, who executed the Hindu publisher of Rangila Rasul after legal prosecution had failed. The demand to kill Rajpal was being made openly in public meetings and two other Muslims had already attempted to kill Rajpal prior to Ilm Deen’s successful attempt. In fact Ilm Deen’s best friend had wanted to do the act and only stepped aside because they drew lots and Ilm Deen won thrice in a row.
And when he did do the deed the Muslim community mobilized to defend him and in the high court his appeal was handled by two lawyers, one of whom was none other than Quaid E Azam Mohammed Ali Jinnah, who was asked to take up the case by that illustrious modernist and “moderate Muslim hope”, Allama Mohammed Iqbal. After he was hanged by the British, Allama Iqbal was one of the leaders of a campaign to have his body brought to Lahore for reburial (he had been quietly buried in a remote prison by the British authorities). When this demand was conceded in the face of massive public protests, his funeral drew thousands and was attended with pride by Allama Iqbal, who supposedly said that “this carpenter has left us, educated people, far behind”. In an ironic twist the charpoy (rope bed) on which Ilm Deen was borne to his grave was said to have been donated by another literary luminary, Mr MD Taseer, whose own son would later become governor of Punjab and would be killed for “blasphemy” by a new Ilm Deen. Ilm Deen’s grave is now a popular shrine and a movie has been made about his exploit, complete with a dance sequence featuring the blasphemer enjoying himself before he meets his fate.

When Salman Rushdie’s book was declared blasphemous and rallies demanding his head were held all over the world and books were burned, General Zia was not the agent of those protests.

Rushdie went underground and has managed to survive, though some of his translators were not so lucky. But Theo Van Gogh was killed in broad daylight in Amsterdam and Ayan Hirsi Ali was driven underground for producing a supposedly blasphemous movie in liberal Holland. Another blasphemy execution was attempted by textile engineering student Aamir Cheema in Germany. And as expected, Aamir Cheema too has achieved sainthood in Pakistan after he took his own life in a German prison, with his funeral attracting thousands and his grave becoming a popular shrine. A minister in Musharraf’s enlightened cabinet wrote more than one op-ed commending such acts and fantasizing about the day Salman Rushdie’s skin will be torn from his body with sharp hooks. A fantastically surreal movie has even been made about the execution of Rushdie by Muslim Guerillas who penetrate his secret Zionist hideout and attack him with flying Korans.
I am not kidding.

In 2002 a convicted murderer named Tariq decided to atone for his sins by killing a man accused of blasphemy who happened to be in the same prison in Lahore. Director Syed Noor (known for countless song and dance Lollywood films) produced and directed a movie called aik aur ghazi (one more holy warrior) about this young man and his glorious exploit. It is worth noting that Syed Noor is a “moderate Muslim”, but this has not prevented him from glorifying the actions of a vigilante who killed another prisoner because he believed him guilty of blasphemy.

When a poor christian boy was accused of blasphemy in Lahore, the entire colony he lived in was burned to the ground. When a poor Christian woman named Aasia bibi acted “uppity” in front of some Muslim ladies (see details in the video below), she was charged with blasphemy and sentenced to death. These episodes highlights another important aspect of the blasphemy meme: it functions to bully and oppress minorities by threatening them with legalized lynching in exactly the same way as the “uppity nigger” meme was used to bully and oppress black people in the pre-civil-rights South in the United States. The fear of being accused of blasphemy, enforced by periodic horrific lynchings, ensures that Christians, Hindus and Ahmedis never forget their place and act uppity in front of good Muslims, since any indiscretion could lead to a blasphemy accusation and once accused, your goose is cooked.

 

Aasia Bibi’s death sentence was so flagrantly unjust that Salman Taseer (whose own father had provided a funeral bier for Ilm Deen), the then governor of Punjab, was moved to say she should be let go and the blasphemy law should be amended to prevent such misuse. He was killed by his own guard for saying so. His guard was garlanded and showered with rose petals by Pakistani lawyers when he appeared in court and now has at least one mosque named in his honor.

HE has not been hanged. In fact, he is a hero to many and has been handing out new death sentences of his own while in prison; he convinced one of his guards to go and shoot a 70 year old mentally unstable British man who has been sentenced to death on blasphemy charges but not yet exectuted (probably not yet executed because he is British). MNA Sherry Rahman introduced a “private member bill” to amend the law and was herself charged with blasphemy for her pains (though being a member of the ruling elite, she has not yet been brought to trial). Rashed Rahman, a well known human rights lawyer was shot dead because he dared to take up the case of a young university lecturer who is being tried for blasphemy on insanely ridiculous grounds in Multan. Javed Ahmed Ghamdi, a liberal cleric who has tried to present religious arguments against this law (a law that clearly goes well beyond anything written even in most of the medieval compilations of shariah law) has had his assistant killed and is now living in exile in Malaysia. “Respected” Pakistani religious scholars have declared him to be an apostate and an agent of the enemies of Islam. The law is no closer to repeal or even modification.

And just a few weeks ago, the spineless Lahore High Court upheld the death sentence on Aasia Bibi. She may be hanged before the Governor’s killer.

In fact. the law is now moving on to fresh pastures. There is a sustained push by anti-Shia groups to use the law against Shias just as it is being used against Ahmedis, Christians and other minorities. The law does not specifically mention the issue of blasphemy against the companions of the prophet (the sahaba), but why not? if you insult any of the companions of the prophet, do you not insult the prophet? Never mind that the companions themselves were frequently at each other’s throats, but today the issue is the wedge that will open the way to legal persecution of Shias and help push them into the same position now occupied in daily fear by Christians, Hindus and Ahmedis. Several Shias have already been charged under the law and there is more to come. In fact, on the same day when Shahzad and Shama met their gruesome fate in Kot Radha Kishan, a Shia Zakir was killed in custody in Gujrat. He may have been mentally unstable and had been arrested for brawling in the bazar. In custody, he continues to harangue the police about the calumnies suffered by the Banu Hashim (the family of the prophet) at the hands of some of the companions (the sahaba). This so upset one of the police officers present that he got an axe and decapitated the prisoner inside the police station. The police officer concerned has been arrested and desperate attempts are being made to play down the sectarian dimension of this killing, but all will become clear once the policeman is put on trial. The ASWJ (the main umbrella anti-Shia organization) will protest that he was only defending the honor of the prophet. Punishment will not be easy. “Sweep under the rug” is likely to be the compromise.

In short, while it is indeed true that misuse of the law has become common after General Zia’s time (an intended consequence, as one aim of such laws is to harass and browbeat all potential opposition), the law has deeper roots and liberals who believe that it is possible to make a distinction between true blasphemy and misuse of the law, may find that this line is not easy to draw. The second, and perhaps more potent reason the law will not be repealed is because the law was consciously meant to promote the Islamist project that the deep state (or a powerful section of the deep state) continues to desire in Pakistan. The blasphemy law is a ready-made weapon against all secular opposition to the military-mullah alliance (though some sections of the military now seem to have abandoned that alliance, hence the qualification “section of the deep state”). Secular parties are suspected of being soft on India and are considered a danger to the Kashmir Jihad and other projects dear to the heart of the deep state. At the same time, Islamist parties provide ideological support and manpower for those beloved causes. In this way, the officers of the deep state, even when they are not personally religious, recognize the need for an alliance with religious parties and against secular political forces (Musharraf was a good example). They may have been forced into an uneasy (temporary?) compromise with secular parties by circumstances beyond their control (aka America) but with American withdrawal coming soon, the deep state does not wish to alienate its mullah constituency too much. They will be needed again once the Yankees are gone. Hence too, no repeal at this time.

Of course blasphemy accusations and their use to suppress speech are not limited to Muslim countries; e.g. Sikhs have resorted to violence to protest blasphemy and Hindu mobs have rioted to enforce the sanctity of Shivaji’s memory in Mumbai. But Islamist consensus on blasphemy is wider and deeper and has an edge that other fanatics can only envy. In the long run (decades, not centuries) Islamists will be forced to compromise with modernity one way or the other (with one way being less painful than the other). But that time is not yet here…For many years, perhaps decades, we are going to see terrible violence in the Islamicate core and some of it is going to be about blasphemy. That is just where we happen to be..

Post Script: It is likely that in the coming days some of the details of the murder will be revised (though the beating and burning are not in doubt and will not be wished away). About such revisions, it is important to keep in mind that a number of new stories are going to be circulated by interested parties to muddy the waters, spoil the prosecution, confuse the issue and so on. And the “best supported” new stories may not be the most authentic. As Goldhizer noted about hadith authentication, in many cases the best authenticated are the ones most likely to be untrue (the authentication chains being so good precisely because they were invented to look authentic).
Local MPA’s will be activated to defend the kiln owners. Local villagers will find ways to play down their own barbarity and play up the “desecration”. Clerics will find NGO’s behind a new conspiracy to defame Islam.
It has all happened before….

PPS: The All Pakistan Private Schools Association (which may or may not represent too many schools) has observed an “anti-malala day” to condemn her membership in the “Rushdie club”. Mashallah.
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