It is a year since the governor of Punjab, Salman Taseer, was gunned down by his own close protection officer in the Pakistani capital, Islamabad.
A secular politician who championed women's rights and tried to reform the country's repressive religious ordinances, Taseer riled religious fundamentalists. The point of no return was finally crossed after he took up the case of Asia Bibi, a Pakistani Christian sentenced to death for blasphemy on questionable evidence.
While trying to secure her freedom, Taseer also declared his opposition to the constitutional discrimination against the Ahmadi/Qadyani sect, currently declared heretical by the Pakistani state.
The fallout was surreal. Supposedly educated and liberal minded lawyers who had brazenly defied President Musharraf when he imposed martial law now garlanded the assassin, Malik Mumtaz Hussein Qadri, outside the courthouse. The youth section of the Islamabad bar association even offered to represent Qadri pro bono. In the aftermath of Qadri's arrest, militant groups rallied thousands of supporters along the dense and twisting streets of Lahore where his family lived.
The message was simple: any politician who dared challenge the blasphemy law could expect a similar fate.
Since Taseer's assassination, an already sour case has turned even worse. Pakistani newspapers report that the man who originally accused Asia Bibi of blasphemy, Qari Salam, has had a change of heart. Describing him as a "guilty prayer leader," the Express Tribune notes:
At the forefront of a popular, polarizing case, Qari Salam ostensibly regrets filing a blasphemy charge against an impoverished Christian woman, Aasia Bibi.
The source of his guilt -- realisation that the case was not based on facts but on hyped religious emotions and personal bias of some village women.
Aasia has been languishing in Sheikhupura jail since a sessions court awarded her death sentence for insulting Prophet Muhammad. [sic]
Salam confided in friends that he was thinking of discontinuing the case against Asia and that he would not attend an appeal hearing in the Lahore High Court later this year. This might have presented the most obvious means of diffusing the tensions surrounding this highly emotional case.
Instead, a British organization has insisted that Salam proceed with the case. The leader of the Khatm-e-Nabuwat group (whose name means "Seal of the Prophet") dispatched his son to the Nankana district of Punjab, where the original offence is alleged to have taken place and where Salam currently lives. "We will chase her [Asia] through hell … don't worry about the money, [we're] hiring best lawyers," Salam was told.
That a British organization –- whose members are presumably British citizens – should put its weight behind championing such religious intolerance and persecution anywhere is a scandal.
To do so in a country already crippled by millenarian extremism, where such matters cost innocent lives, is unconscionable. How bitterly ironic that young Pakistani lawyers are risking their lives to offer Asia her most basic of human rights, legal representation in court, while British Muslims living in a free and secular country are actively bankrolling attempts to execute her.
The Khatm-e-Nabuwat is not an insignificant group. It enjoys close connections with the Pakistani establishment and has previously met with Pakistan's High Commissioner in London. From London, it promotes a deeply sectarian and divisive message -– particularly against Ahmadis, the persecuted group Taseer had tried to support before his assassination.
The group's website describes Ahmadi's as, "nothing but a gang of traitors, apostates and infidels."
One of its preachers in the London borough of Newham warned that if Pakistan's blasphemy laws were repealed, "the 1953 Lahore agitation against the Qadianis will be repeated in the streets once more. The streets and roads of Lahore were filled with blood in that agitation." The 1953 attack to which he refers was a sectarian massacre of Ahmadis in Pakistan.
The Central Convener of the Khatm-e-Nabuwat group, Abdul Latif Khalid Cheema, who resides in Pakistan, has regularly visited London and spoken at events for the group, spreading their sectarian message. In Pakistan, days after Taseer's assassination, he was among the radical leaders glorifying the governor's death and condemning Asia Bibi. Small wonder then that his group should now be financially supporting the case against her.
British Muslims supporting Khatm-e-Nabuwat are now culpable in her fate and, more generally, to the spread of sectarian violence both in Pakistan and the United Kingdom. A spokesman for the Ahmadi community warned:
We appeal to the authorities to nip this in the bud; otherwise this campaign of hatred against Ahmadi Muslims today will tomorrow grow into a threat against other moderate Muslims and indeed the wider society.
The government should investigate those fomenting unrest abroad and, where possible, bring prosecutions against the individuals concerned. This might include investigating possible breaches of the Racial and Religious Hatred Act 2006 which makes it an offense to intimidate and persecute individuals on the basis of their race or creed.