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Pakistan: Who was Mumtaz Qadri & What is Blasphemy ?

Pakistan: Who was Mumtaz Qadri & What is Blasphemy ?

Islamabad, Pakistan  A deep green dome with walls lined with inscriptions from the Quran and verses in praise of Islam’s Prophet Muhammad in the outskirts of Pakistan is of none other than Mumtaz Qadri a Pakistani police officer who, in 2011, fired 28 bullets into then-Punjab governor Salman Taseer over alleged blasphemy, killing him instantly.

Qadri was hanged last year after being found guilty of the murder. His funeral was attended by tens of thousands, and now his family has used donations in his name to build this ornate shrine, with an accompanying mosque and seminary to follow.

“This is all from the common people,” says Aamir Qadri, Mumtaz’s older brother, gesturing to the still under-construction shrine. Aamir sits at a small plastic table at the entrance to the shrine, a well worn passbook for donations in front of him.

“We made this for him, it is his right as an aashiq-e-rasool [lover of the Prophet],” he says, adding that thousands of people visit each week.

Quadri’s tomb costs $67,000 as of now, all of it either donated by supporters or raised from the family’s savings. When the mosque and seminary are completed, in around two years, the total cost will be about $955,000, Aamir says.

“We will build as much as we can … We have put bricks, the next person will put marble. And the next person after that might put gold, others silver.”

Pakistan’s blasphemy laws have been on the books since before independence from the British in 1947, but they have seen increased use since the 1980s when they were strengthened by then military dictator Zia-ul-Haq’s “Islamisation” campaign.

Today, those convicted of insulting the Prophet Muhammad face a mandatory death sentence. Other offences carry punishments ranging from fines to life imprisonment.

Currently, about 40 people are on death row or serving life sentences for blasphemy in Pakistan, according to the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom.

In late January, Pakistan’s Senate officially took up the issue of the law’s potential misuse for the first time in 24 years.

“Blasphemy is a very controversial law in Pakistan because people feel very strongly about it, and we naturally respect the sentiments of all people,” Nasreen Jalil, who heads the Senate Human Rights Committee, told Al Jazeera. “We should do something about the procedure … so that blasphemy allegations are not misused.”

“I think it’s more a question of enforcement. When people are accused, the police tend to panic, and … they often then give them away to be handled by the mob,”

“There is an urgent need for these laws to be amended. It’s like a sword hanging over everyone’s head. If you disagree with some religious point of view, then it’s very easy to accuse someone of blasphemy,” says Zohra Yusuf, chairwoman of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan.

London-based rights group Amnesty International says procedural changes must be backed by a strong statement of will by the government to take on those killing in the name of religion.

“A public message also has to be sent by the Pakistani government that they unreservedly condemn acts of violence, threats and intimidation purportedly justified in the name of religion, and ensure that effective steps are taken to prevent their recurrence,” said Nadia Rahman Khan, Amnesty’s Pakistan campaigner.

That political will, many say, has been lacking in recent years, particularly since Taseer’s murder. Two months after his killing, Shahbaz Bhatti, then federal minister for minority affairs and an ardent campaigner for reforming the blasphemy laws, was shot dead.

Sherry Rehman, a member of parliament who subsequently presented a bill to amend the laws that was abandoned by her party, continues to face blasphemy cases and threats in connection with her proposal.

“What happened [to Taseer and Bhatti] and the aftermath, the state should’ve set precedents and their failure to do so emboldened these actors,” says Shehrbano Taseer, Salman’s daughter. “There was a very palpable fear that spread in the country. People moved away. Everything changed overnight [and now] no one wants to touch the issue.”

“Our parliament should, keeping these issues in mind, make the law so strong that any person about to blaspheme is too scared to do so, since the law is so strong that it will get him,” says Abdul Rasool, a leader of the Pakistan Sunni Tehreek party.

Rasool says he believes Qadri’s act was justified, as police officers had refused to register a legal case against Taseer.

“There is no harm in debating [the law] to make it more effective. But to make it ineffective or to remove the death penalty, or to give room for any person who insults Islam, having that debate is a sin,” he declares.

“The state’s legitimacy for [someone like] Qadri is its link to Islam,” says Arsalan Khan, a cultural anthropologist who studies Islamic revivalist movements.

“The blasphemy law is crucial to this link between state sovereignty and Islam because it proscribes the defilement of the sacred symbols such as the Quran and the Prophet.”

“It is precisely the link between Islam, law and state sovereignty that Qadri believes people like Salman Taseer are destroying … The elimination of Taseer and the fear that that would spread through other potential Taseers was conceived as a restorative act that re-links the Pakistani state with its Islamic roots.”

That argument seems to ring true with visitors to Qadri’s shrine.

“Why did the government not take action themselves [against Taseer]?” asks Talha Shahbaz, a garment trader who travelled more than 400km to visit the shrine.

“Was it because he was a member of the government? Why did Mumtaz Qadri have to take this action himself?”

“According to our Muslim law, [what Qadri did] is completely correct,” says Gul Zaman, 60, a visitor to the shrine. “It is obvious that shariah law supersedes a country’s law … This is our faith, that what our Prophet has taught us is the truth.”

“The sense of alienation comes also from being economically marginal. The base of Sunni Islamic movements is overwhelmingly, though not uniformly, working to middle class people and petit bourgeois merchants. This also feeds the sense that the elite and state are corrupt,” he says.