Acts of faith: Why people get killed over blasphemy in Pakistan

Source: Herald

By Alizeh Kohari

Even though the rally had ended late, even though the night sky over Gangapur was turning translucent, Falak Sher’s wife insisted we stop by her house for kheer. There was no electricity all across the village, so she stumbled about in the dark, rattling pots and pans, intent upon hospitality. Outside, the lanes hummed with festive chatter: the village – birthplace of Sir Ganga Ram, the father of modern Lahore – had been looking forward to this rally for months now: a celebration of the glory of Prophet Muhammad (may peace be upon him) and an assertion of the finality of his prophethood. Sher, who worked as a police constable in Lahore, had asked for leave weeks in advance for the rally but the Zimbabwean cricket team happened to be in town, the first international team to tour Pakistan since the attack on Sri Lankan cricketers six years ago, and all vacation had been suspended for the police force. Sher paid no heed and came home anyway. He had never missed a khatm-e-nabuwwat rally in his village, said his wife.

It was the 26th of May, the death anniversary of Mirza Ghulam Ahmad, founder of the Ahmadi faith, which considers itself a sect of Islam. This was no coincidence, for everyone at the rally agreed that Ahmadis, whom they disparagingly referred to as Qadianis, were fifth columnists, aasteen kay saanp, and that the death of their founding father was something to celebrate. Indeed, the showpiece of the rally was a nephew of the current Ahmadi leader, Mirza Masroor Ahmed, a large moon-faced man who had recently split ranks with his uncle and converted to Sunni Islam. All of Gangapur, a part of the central Punjab district of Faisalabad, seemed to roar when he came on stage to speak. When he paused, loudspeakers blasted the rally’s signature soundtrack, a rousing refrain of ghustakh-e-Muhammad teri ab khair nahin hai, khair nahin, khair nahin, khair nahin hai (O blasphemer of Muhammad, you are done for now).

From the edge of a neighbour’s rooftop, where the women of the village had gathered to watch the proceedings, Sher’s wife sang along, not caring that she did not know all the words. Back at her house, she fussed over the chief guest’s wife, pressing a second serving of kheer into her hands, ensuring it had enough pistachios and, by way of small talk, directing her attention towards the top right corner of the room where rainwater had seeped through the wall, leaving a large damp mark amid curlicues of peeling paint. If you looked at it closely, said Sher’s wife, wiggling her torch in that direction, if you tilted your head a certain way, the mark resembled the name of Prophet Muhammad (may peace be upon him). She paused, then clambered on top of a trunk and brought down a small pink frame. Inside was a piece of old roti, its overcooked centre similar in shape to the mark on the wall. “Subhanallah,” murmured the chief guest’s wife admiringly. Her host beamed, luminous with pride.

Ahundred or so kilometres to the north, in Saroki village in Gujranwala district, Nazeer Cheema rose to offer his fajr prayers. His house was silent: his wife was still asleep, his three daughters, married now, all had their own homes and his only son, Aamir, dead at the age of 28, lay buried next door. He would have been 37 had he not walked into the office of Die Welt, a German daily that had reprinted caricatures deemed offensive by Muslims, to try to murder its editor, Roger Köppel — and, after six weeks in a jail in Berlin, hanged himself with a noose made of his own clothes. Nazeer Cheema, a retired college teacher, does not think his son took his own life; he believes Aamir was tortured to death by German authorities. So do the thousands who continue to flock to his shrine; they consider him a martyr, a modern-day Ilamdin. In the portrait that hangs above his grave, Aamir Cheema even appears to resemble his early 20th Century predecessor: the same moustache, the same meticulous side parting, both unnervingly young.

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