On May 6, Ahsan Iqbal, Pakistan's Minister of the Interior, was shot during a rally in his own constituency, in the province of Punjab. Fortunately, he survived the attack, but the bullet in his abdomen could not be removed. "The bullet lodged in my body... will keep reminding me of the impending need to remove the seeds of hatred sowed in the country," Iqbal said.
An initial report suggested that the main suspect, Abid Hussain, 21, had carefully planned the attack; recently, Pakistan's Anti-Terrorism Court issued an 8-day judicial remand of four possible accomplices.
On May 6, Pakistan's Minister of the Interior, Ahsan Iqbal (pictured at left), was shot and wounded by an Islamist extremist during a rally in Punjab. (Image source: USAID Pakistan/Wikimedia Commons)
According to other reports, Hussain is linked to Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP) -- also known as Tehreek-e-Labbaik Ya Rasool Allah ("Movement of the Prophet's Followers"). TLP is a new Sunni extremist party known for aggressively calling for enforcing Pakistan's blasphemy laws, which can carry the death penalty, and for opposing any relaxation of these laws.
Many fear that this assault is not an isolated incident and that other members of the cabinet are on the TLP's hit list. This apprehension, however, does not mean that the government is against sharia or blasphemy laws, or is even thinking of reforming them. Many extremist Muslims are aiming at even more government submission to sharia through intimidation and terror.
Extremist Muslims in Pakistan have been successful in achieving their objectives. according to the U.S. Department of State's 2017 Report on International Religious Freedom:
"The [Pakistani] courts continued to enforce blasphemy laws, the punishment for which ranges from life in prison to the death sentence for a range of charges, including 'defiling the Prophet Muhammad.'"
According to reports from civil society organizations, in 2017, there were at least 50 individuals imprisoned on blasphemy charges, at least 17 of whom had received death sentences, In addition, the report added, the police registered at least 17 new cases under the blasphemy laws against still other individuals.
Pakistan's TLP party activism is just one example of how extremist Muslims and official complicity combine to perpetuate sharia and blasphemy laws. TLP itself was apparently inspired by a "blasphemy killer." The party "was born out of a protest movement supporting Mumtaz Qadri, a bodyguard of the governor of Punjab who gunned down his boss in 2011 over his call to relax Pakistan's draconian blasphemy laws," Reuters reported.
In October 2017, Pakistan's president, Mamnoon Hussain, signed into law a bill that changed an electoral oath which affirmed the belief that the Prophet Muhammed is the final prophet of Islam to a "declaration" and abolished separate voter lists for Ahmadi Muslims, whom many Muslims consider non-Muslim, as Ahmadis regard Mirza Ghulam Ahmad (1835-1908) as their Mahdi (Messiah). In 1974, a constitutional amendment introduced by the prime minister at the time, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, had declared the Ahmadiyya community a non-Muslim minority; and in 1984, President Zia-ul Haq issued Ordinance XX which makes it a criminal offense for Ahmadis to call themselves Muslims, and to practice or propagate their faith.
In any event, the law sparked weeks of protests, led by Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan members, against the government. The TLP accused then-Minister for Law and Justice, Zahid Hamid, of blasphemy and demanded his resignation. The government succumbed to pressure by extremist Muslims, and attributed the change in the oath to "clerical error." Parliament reversed the provisions; Hamid was forced to resign and the government gave assurances that Asia Bibi, a Christian mother of five with a highly questionable blasphemy conviction, would not be sent abroad. Notably, Qadri had apparently also murdered governor Salman Taseer for speaking against a death sentence on Asia Bibi.
More appalling is what the U.S. Department of State report said: that government officials -- under pressure from the extremist Muslims' protests of October 2017 -- and probably to deny any support to Ahmadis -- had engaged in anti-Ahmadi rhetoric and attended events that Ahmadis said incited violence against members of their community. The Ahmadiyya Muslim Community leaders and human rights organizations "continued to express concerns about the government's targeting of Ahmadis for blasphemy, and Ahmadis continued to be affected by discriminatory and ambiguous legislation that denied them basic rights," the report added.
Christians and Ahmadi Muslims are not by any means exceptional: members of all religious minority communities in Pakistan are distressed that the government submitted to Tehreek-e-Labbaik party and other Islamists' pressure. Christians and Ahmadis continue to raise concerns regarding the government's failure to safeguard minority rights as well as its persistent discrimination against religious minorities. Authorities have also often failed to intervene during episodes of violence against religious minorities, and the police have often failed to arrest perpetrators of these abuses.
In his condemnation of the assassination attempt of the Minister of Interior, Rizvi, TLP's leader, emphasized that his party is waging an unarmed struggle to bring "the Prophet's religion to the throne," in a way that clearly identifies his party role in achieving Islamists' ultimate goal of al-hakemyah of Allah (the sovereignty of God and sharia law), a role that consists in spreading narratives such as the supremacy of Islam, the supposed religion of truth, over all other world religions (Quran 3:19); the supposed supremacy of sharia over all man-made laws, and that the Christians and Jews are supposedly conspiring against Islam and Muslims (Quran 2:109). Extremist Muslims, like Tehreek-e-Labbaik, have been able to plant seeds of intolerance, hatred and fear, lionize terrorists and lead protests to impose sharia and blasphemy laws.
Within this context of Islamists' "unarmed struggle," the goal of bringing "the Prophet's religion to the throne" is likely to take place in a country where the government, under religious pressure, was unable to defend an electoral reform bill enacted by the president last October. The government also has not followed most of the instructions issued four years ago by Pakistan's Supreme Court to protect religious minorities after a terrorist bomber murdered 127 innocent people at a church. Pakistan is also where Muslim militants, such as the Pakistani Taliban, carry out assassinations and terrorist attacks. It seems no one is there to stop them.
A. Z. Mohamed is a Muslim born and raised in the Middle East.