And the state’s ‘helping’ hand
At 6pm on 12 May 2014 Mubasher Ahmad, Ghulam Ahmed, Ehsan Ahmed, Khalil Ahmed tore down pamphlets displayed on a shop in Bhoiwal in Sharkpur Sharif, a small town in Sheikhupura, around 22 kilometres from Lahore.
All four had been arrested, under sections 295-A, 337/2 and 427 of the Pakistan Penal Code, over charges of blasphemy for tearing the posters that declared Ahmadis, the community that they belonged to, were wajib-ul-qatl (liable to be murdered) for their beliefs.
On 16 May 2014 Khaleel Ahmad was shot dead in the custody, and the killer fled. As a result, the other three were shifted to a jail in Sheikhupura. On Thursday, 12 October 2017, all three were sentenced to death for blasphemy by a district and sessions court in Sheikhupura.
Syed Riaz Hussain Shah, the owner of the shop where the posters were torn off from, says the accused deserve to be punished according to law.
“They have committed blasphemy, and outraged the sentiments of all Muslims by insulting Islam. They deserve the harshest punishment,” he said.
The verdict comes two days after PML-N leader and ouster prime minister Nawaz Sharif’s son-in-law, Captain (r) Safdar, launched vitriol against the Ahmadiyya community in the National Assembly, where he asked for the name of Quad-e-Azam University’s physics department, named after Dr Abdus Salam, to be changed, and a ban on Ahmadis being recruited in the arms forces.
Saleem Uddin, the spokesperson of the Ahmadiyya community, sees an obvious correlation.
“A man who was under arrest over corruption charges, a few hours later starts his tirade against our community, because we are an easy target – a convenient distraction,” he says. “But what this is going to do is further exacerbate an atmosphere of hate against us and further increase violence.”
According to the annual Persecution of Ahmadis in Pakistan report six members of the community were murdered over their belief last year. Among incidents of mob violence was the occupation of the Ahmadiyya place of worship in Dolmial, Chakwal and a Counter Terrorism Department raid in Rabwah. According to the report, more than 1,754 news stories and 331 opinion pieces were published in the mainstream media targeting the Ahmadis, last year.
“Ours is the one issue on which all these religious clerics unite,” says Saleem Uddin. “They call each other kafir and can’t stand each other, but when it comes to the Ahmadiyya question, they are on the same page, many also declaring us wajib-ul-qatl”
Federal Interior Minister Ahsan Iqbal and PML-N leader says while there is consensus among the Islamic clergy in Pakistan over the status of Ahmadis, the fatwas have no backing of the state.
“Only the state can declare jihad,” he says. “We will only cause chaos if we started issuing edicts on who a kafir and who is Muslim. Only Allah can decide that,” he maintains.
However, community members fear that with their status embedded in the Constitution and the Ordinance XX in Pakistan Penal Code’s barring Ahmadis from ‘posing as Muslims’, and sanctioning jail sentences for using Islamic titles, reciting Islamic scriptures in public or even giving the Islamic call to prayer, the violence and hate speech perpetuated against them from the pulpits is a natural corollary.
Sharing his views on the Sheikhupura blasphemy case, a member of the Supreme Court Bar Association says that tearing posters directed against a community does not breach Section 295.
“As per law, it’s a straightforward case. Nobody can be sentenced to death for tearing a piece of paper that incited violence against them,” he says. “I expect the verdict to be challenged in the high court and you’ll see that the accused will be released.”
While history does not depict much leeway for the blasphemy accused, Interior Minister Ahsan Iqbal has condemned Capt (r) Safdar’s speech in the National Assembly.
“It is tragic to see hate speech against minorities in National Assembly. We believe in inclusive Pakistan. Pakistan respects all minorities,” he tweeted.
Prime Minister Shahid Khaqab Abbasi has also condemned the speech and sought ‘explanation’ from Capt (r) Safdar.
However, there has been no word from Nawaz Sharif, or any member of the Sharif family, currently fighting multi-pronged corruption charges in the National Accountability Bureau.