March 01, 2017

Pakistan: Islamabad under tight security as devotees throng to honor a man who assassinated a liberal governor

The Washington Post March 1, 2017

Pakistani capital under tight security while Muslim devotees honor man who assassinated a liberal governor

People chant slogans during a gathering to mark the anniversary of Mumtaz Qadri’s death next to the shrine built over his grave outside Islamabad, Pakistan, on March 1. (Faisal Mahmood/Reuters)

By Pamela Constable and Shaiq Hussain

BARAKAHO, Pakistan — The Pakistani capital was shut down and on high alert Wednesday because of a regional economic summit. English-language posters lined the road from the international airport, welcoming foreign leaders and their partnership in development projects this impoverished Islamic republic desperately needs.

But a few miles away, in this gritty, nondescript suburb, posters of Koranic verses welcomed thousands of devotees to a new shrine honoring a man they revere as a hero of Islam. His name was Mumtaz Qadri, and as a 26-year-old security guard in 2011, he shocked the nation by assassinating a provincial governor. He was convicted of murder and hanged in prison one year ago.

“What he did was for the love of our prophet. He was a peaceful man who did a great service for his faith,” said Basit Ali, 36, an accountant who rode 250 miles in a truck to honor Qadri on the anniversary of his death. “You must understand. We are not people of bombs and guns,” he explained. “But when someone insults our prophet, we cannot bear it. It is a matter of inexpressible emotions.”

The idolization of Qadri — a martyr to some Pakistani Muslims and a murderer to others — stems from his confession that he killed out of religious duty. Qadri believed that his boss, Punjab Gov. Salman Taseer, had committed blasphemy by calling for reforms in Pakistan’s draconian laws against insulting Islam or the prophet Muhammad; Taseer had especially spoken out in defense of a Christian peasant woman, Asia Bibi, who was sent to prison for blasphemy.

On Wednesday, police secured much of the capital in an effort to prevent Qadri’s supporters from interfering with the regional summit. Most major streets were blocked off, and schools and government offices were closed after noon. Qadri devotees had planned to rally in a park in Rawalpindi City and make their way to the shrine 20 miles away, but the park area was sealed off and only a few thousand people managed to reach Barakaho.

Authorities prevented any physical confrontation, but the coinciding economic and religious events seemed an especially stark illustration of the deep divide confronting Pakistan as its leaders struggle between contradictory pulls toward global outreach and political modernization, on the one hand, and religious fervor and radicalization on the other.

Abroad, Pakistan’s government is often criticized for sheltering Islamist militias that attack Afghanistan and India, but at home its leaders must contend with the intense devotion of its Sunni-majority population, whose historically moderate views have become increasingly hard-line under the influence of fundamentalist clerics and teachings.

Authorities have periodically cracked down on violent Islamist groups, usually after high-profile attacks such as the 2014 massacre that killed 141 students and teachers at an army school and the spate of deadly suicide bombings last month, including one in a crowded plaza in Lahore city and another at a famous Sufi shrine in rural Sindh province. The recent attacks prompted a nationwide anti-terrorism campaign by the army and the police.

But when it comes to sensitive matters of faith, especially blasphemy, the state has largely given in to the hard-liners. Under Pakistan’s harsh blasphemy laws, any perceived offense against the prophet Muhammad or Islam — even a dropped Koran or a mild curse — can be punishable by death. Vigilante mobs often take matters into their own hands, and false blasphemy charges are often hurled at personal enemies or members of religious minorities.

Members of parliament have repeatedly proposed amendments to moderate the blasphemy laws, but they have always been quashed amid strong opposition by religious party leaders. The state eventually convicted and executed Qadri, but it allowed thousands of devotees to parade his coffin aloft through the streets of Rawalpindi city, reinforcing his growing stature as a cult figure.

“This is a visible sign of growing extremism in our society. If we eulogize the killers of innocent people, we wonder in what direction this country is going,” said Asma Jehangir, a leading human rights activist. “If these followers of Qadri call themselves peaceful, it is a blatant lie. There is no difference between them and the Taliban,” she added. “If the state doesn’t stop them, more and more people will take the law into their own hands and turn into heroes.”

At the green-domed hillside shrine to Qadri, officials kept order among several thousand devotees Wednesday and screened everyone with metal detectors. Many of his relatives were there, including his widow and 5-year-old son. His elder brother Malik Qadri, a telecommunications technician, stressed that their religious movement, “Invitation to Islam,” opposes violence. He said that the government had executed Qadri because of “foreign pressure,” but that even his widow was “happy because he gave his life to protect the prophet.”

Some speakers at the gathering, however, seemed to exult in the violent example Qadri had set and the renown his crime had brought. Among them was Allama Hanif Qureshi, a leader of the Barelvi sect of Sunni Islam.

“Today there are millions of Qadri lovers, and there are many children named after Qadri, but there are none named after Salman Taseer or the apostate Asia Bibi,” Qureshi said. “The government tried to stop the people from participating in this gathering, but they cannot stop us forever. We will continue with his mission. We will not spare blasphemers.”

The adoration of Qadri has been a factor in the growing rivalry between the relatively mainstream Barelvis, who oppose the Taliban and other armed militias, and the more radical Deobandi sect, which has spawned many such religious warriors. With more than 175 million Sunni Muslims in Pakistan, the competition for support is fierce, and Qadri’s martyrdom has become a huge draw for the faithful.

“I am here for the love of a great man,” said Zafar Iqbal, 38, a flower seller from Rawalpindi who was visiting the shrine, and who said he had participated in the mass public funeral for Qadri a year ago. “The Koran is very clear that blasphemers are to be killed, and we respect and love him for that.”

The impact on Taseer’s family and legacy has been conflicted in a different way. Taseer was a wealthy and outspoken liberal, and his views on blasphemy as the appointed governor of Punjab province were controversial. After he was shot 26 times by Qadri — his personal guard — while leaving a restaurant in Islamabad, the government proclaimed three days of national mourning.

But in an indication of how powerfully the issue of blasphemy reverberates across Pakistani society, some Muslim clerics refused to lead his funeral prayers, and even some courthouse lawyers expressed sympathy for his killer. Seven months later, one of Taseer’s sons was kidnapped by Islamist militants and held captive for nearly five years.

As for Asia Bibi, it has been seven years since the Christian field worker was convicted of blasphemy after arguing with Muslim co-workers who objected to her drinking water from the same bucket. She has remained in prison ever since, condemned to death despite international pleas for her release, even from Pope Benedict XII. She has been threatened with lynching if she ever leaves prison.

Hussain reported from Islamabad and Barakaho.