“I changed my name once I got out of jail,” says Yakoob nonchalantly.
“Why did you do that?” I ask him.
It seemed so aptly put. At the age of 28, he was forced to become someone else — adopt a new name, find a new home, and start a new life. The reason? — he had been convicted for committing blasphemy. Ten years after getting out of jail, he already looked old and worn out. So much for a new life…
“I was in for 3 years, and I was kept in solitary confinement throughout,” Yakoob tells me. “I was kept separate from the rest of the inmates, but the prison guards tortured me and kept saying things which I knew weren’t true.”
“Like, if I converted to Islam, they would try to get me a pardon.” He seems nervous saying this to me, perhaps because he knows I am a Muslim by faith.
“Why didn’t you convert then?” I ask.
“Sir, why should I? To each his own; my religion is as beloved to me as theirs is to them.”
Religious intolerance — that was the root cause of Yakoob’s misery. If religion is the opium of the masses, I was now beginning to find out why this particular narcotic was so lethal. In the wake of the much talked about case of Aasia Bibi, I had met Yakoob through the National Commission for Justice and Peace (NCJP), a human rights organisation that provided legal and financial help to those accused of blasphemy. We had agreed to meet in a church in Lahore where Yakoob felt safe.
Yakoob was from Sialkot but the fear of ‘street justice’ prevented him from visiting his family in their hometown. In the late 90s a rival shop-owner accused Yakoob of pelting stones on religious hoardings during a rally organised by Christians. This happened in the wake of a bishop killing himself in protest against the blasphemy laws. But according to Yakoob, he didn’t even know about the rally, much less attend it. Of course, no one paid attention to his pleas and the court sentenced him to jail. He has now been living in Lahore for many years, afraid that he will be lynched by the people in his hometown, despite already having served his sentence.
A glass half empty
Yakoob may have got out of jail in 3 years but Aasia Bibi isn’t so lucky. On death row, her hanging is contingent only on approval from the Lahore High Court, which is still pending. A friend sent me the 15- page court verdict on Aasia. An interesting fact in the hearing was Aasia’s denial of ever having committed blasphemy, but the large number of witnesses against her made her case weak. Aasia’s lawyer also raised objections on grounds of the discrepancy between the time of the incident and the complaint, which was registered four days later, but the district court judge still ruled against Aasia.
Out of the 300 households of Ittanwala, a small village some two hours’ drive from Lahore close to the Indian border, the only Christian residents were Aasia Bibi and her family. Our guide, a local journalist, took us along a road that led to mud houses built close to each other. “That’s Aasia’s house,” he said, pointing to the first house. “Some family members are still living there.”
This was surprising because the media had reported that Aasia’s family was on the run.
Before meeting anyone, we had to see the Maulvi of the village. Qari Salaam’s house was the last in a narrow lane lined with concrete and mud houses, next to the mosque where he led prayers. A friendly man in his mid-thirties, he had a long black beard and wore a turban. Salaam was the one who had registered the case against Aasia after two village-girls had complained to him.
Salaam took us to the exact spot where Aasia and the girls had had an argument. From a dirt road, we were led to an orchard where a man named Idrees, was sitting on a charpoy. Idrees was one of the testifier in Aasia’s case. With Idrees, we made our way further into the orchard until we reached an open spot under a tree. “This is where it all started,” said Idrees.
“It was the summer of 2009,” he began. “I was out here when I heard Asia fighting with the two sisters. It was lunch time and they were having food. When I asked them what the problem was, Mafia told me that Aasia had just committed blasphemy and said things about our religion and our Prophet,” he added.
“Why would she do that?” I asked.
“Well, Aasia and the sisters had just eaten lunch, and Aasia took their glass and drank water out of it. The two sisters did not touch the glass after that. So Aasia inquired why they weren’t touching the glass. The sisters told her that it was because she is Christian and they would not drink out of her glass,” said Idrees.
“This infuriated Asia so much that she went on to say blasphemous things,” Qari Salaam added.
“Like what?” I asked.
“Those are words that we cannot repeat,” the two said in unison.
I wanted to meet the girls who had reported Aasia Bibi to Qari Salaam and the maulvi agreed to take us to their house. Of the two sisters, only Mafia was home when we arrived. Her younger siblings and nephews were playing around her. She kept her face covered during our meeting. Her story was a repeat of what we’d heard in the orchard.
When she had finished, I asked her why she wouldn’t drink out of a Christian’s glass.
“As Muslims we should not share it,” she said with conviction.
Then I asked her what she thought of the pardon for Aasia.
“Aasia deserves death. She should be killed soon,” she said furiously. “These delay tactics of our judicial system reflect inefficiency.”
Fear and loathing
Our next visit was to Aasia’s house which was on the same street as Mafia’s. Aasia’s sister-in-law, woman in her mid-thirties, opened the door and told me that she was living there to take care of Aasia’s sister who had had a baby recently. By that time a sizable crowd had gathered outside the house and as she opened the door to let us in, I could tell that she was scared. Inside the house, I met Aasia’s sister, Sonia* a malnourished woman holding a baby in her lap.
When asked her if she thought Aasia could say all that she had been accused of, she replied “I don’t know.”
Then she added, “This is not the first time Aasia or her family have been targeted in this village. They would block the family’s sewerage line, damage the house walls. She was uneducated, she didn’t know about her own religion. How could she come up with such specific facts about the Prophet (pbuh) and present them in a twisted, derogatory manner?” she asked.
“So you think she’s being targeted for her religion?” I asked.
Before she could say anything, a face popped up from the wall beside her. A man was listening to our conversation. Sonia froze, too scared to speak.
“Are you not scared to live here?” I asked her.
“We don’t have a choice. Someone has to live here to protect the house,” she said.
Ashiq, Aasia’s husband, was on the run, and Sonia told me to get in touch with him through Aasia’s lawyer.
But, when I contacted him, the lawyer was reluctant. “Ashiq is in danger,” he told me over the phone. “Salmaan Taseer’s assassination has changed everything,” he added. Finally, he agreed to arrange a meeting in a village just outside Lahore after midnight.
I met Ashiq in a house that was under construction. I was ushered to the first floor where cement and sawdust were strewn on the floor. There sat Aasia’s three children, with their aunt. Their faces were unwashed, their clothes were tattered and uncertainty lingered in their eyes… I wondered how long it would be before they could stop running.
Ashiq told me that he met his wife once a week but the children never went along with him since it was too dangerous. He had lost his job a while ago and only his son was working now. He had a job in some other village, but it was likely that he would lose it soon. The family was barely able to survive.
I asked him why he was on the run but, before he could reply, one of children piped up.
“They were going to kill her that day. She was thrashed for hours. Do you think we could stay there? They beat her almost to death.” The anger in this child’s voice broke my heart. She was barely 12 and that had been the last that she’d seen of her mother.
“So do you think you will ever see your mother again?” I asked her.
“I trust God — He will bring her back to us,” she replied.
The road to Gojra
Analysts say that because of the circumstances surrounding Governor Salmaan Taseer’s assassination, Aasia has little or no chance of getting her sentence reverted. Following Taseer’s murder, the government announced that it would withdraw the proposed amendments’ bill in the blasphemy law which had been submitted to parliament by Sherry Rehman. With this, any hope of change has died out.
The blasphemy law was amended under General Zia-ul-Haq — a dictator who we all agree brought ‘the Kalashnikov culture’, heroin smuggling, and ethnic tension to this country. Pakistan is one of only two countries in the world that award capital punishment for blasphemy; the other is Saudi Arabia. Other Muslim states do not award death sentences for blasphemy. In that case do Pakistan’s laws really uphold the ideals that the country was built upon? Another round of investigations answered my questions.
In 2009, seven Christians were burnt alive by a mob in Gojra and recently, the Punjab law minister Rana Sanaullah claimed the issue had been settled. But NCJP, which had been handling this case, took issue with the minister’s claim. So I decided to see for myself.
The next day I was on my way to Gojra, an hour’s drive from Faisalabad. We had arranged to meet the local priest, Father Younus, in a church. As we sat down for tea, I noticed a nearby wall had ‘The Gojra Tragedy’ written on it. On closer inspection, I saw it was covered with photographs of women crying, injured men and a street with burnt houses… Father Younus introduced us to Haroon, whose mother and sister had been amongst those that died when Christian houses in Gojra were set on fire. Haroon took us to the street where it had all happened.
We reached a noisy street with freshly-painted houses on each side. Kids played in the street and women chatted with each other in corners. A big signboard lauded the government of Punjab’s reconstruction efforts. At the end of the street was a house which the government of Punjab had obviously not reconstructed: its walls were scorched and the dilapidated door had a big padlock on it.
“This is the house where seven people including my sister and mother were burnt alive,” Haroon said. “It all started with the sermons in the mosque that day. We could hear them over the loudspeakers: ‘Kill the Christians!’ And even though we were forewarned, what could a few Christians do against a mob of hundreds of people who wanted to kill them?” Haroon had fear in his eyes as he narrated the events of that dark day. He went on to tell us how, following the announcement, mobs of teenagers descended on their street, beating people, throwing petrol bombs into homes, and opening fire at those who were fleeing.
“Why wasn’t this house reconstructed?” I asked him.
“Because the son of the man killed in this incident has not withdrawn the case yet,” he said. Apparently, the Punjab government has rebuilt only those houses whose owners have withdrawn charges against members of the mob. And all have done so, except for the owner of this house where seven human beings had been burnt alive.
So that’s what the Punjab Law minister had meant when he said the issue had been settled.
Haroon took us to the Muslim preachers of the area. “That’s the mosque,” he said. “The mullah there is from Sipah-e-Sahaba.” According to reports from the interior ministry, Sipah-e-Sahaba, a banned organisation, was behind the Gojra attacks. I waited for Maulana Kashmiri to finish Friday prayers so that I could talk to him. His sermon that day is something that I cannot forget even today. He was screaming through a microphone and claiming that he was quoting most of it from the Quran. The crowd was mesmerised. “The infidels will lead you astray. They do everything for money — a worldly pleasure that will not last,” he shouted.
While waiting for him to get done with the prayers, I met some teenagers outside the mosque. One of them pointed to the mosque and said, “Maulana Kashmiri is not affiliated with Sipah-e-Sahaba anymore but he was with them. He left it after coming back from jail.”
When I joined Maulana Kashmiri at his home, I asked him whether he was a member of Sipah-e-Sahaba.tase
“No, I don’t belong to any religious organisation. I am just an imam of this mosque,” he replied. He told me that he had been in jail for fourteen months after the Gojra incident and had gotten out a few months ago. But his fourteen month detention was illegal, he claimed.
He flatly denied having made anti-Christian statements in his sermons. “I have made no such announcements. Nothing of the sort happened that day,” he said, referring to the day of the Gojra tragedy. “Actually some Muslim youth were attacked and injured by Christians. That led to the ‘riots’. You should check the hospital record which shows that Muslims were brought to the emergency room before the time quoted on the FIR registered by the Christians.”
He went on to defend himself and I realised that Maulana Kashmiri was not going to change his version of events. “It was just that people were angry because of the blasphemy committed by a Christian family in Korian, following which Christians tried to attack and ridicule Muslim youth in Gojra. This is what caused the riots.”
“So now you’re out and free?” I asked him.
“Not really, I still have to go to the hearing in the court,” he replied.
No Witnesses, no case
A few days later, I was at Maulana Kashmiri’s hearing at the Anti Terrorist court in Faisalabad. I found out that none of the victims would be present at the hearing, because all had withdrawn their cases except Almas Hameed. Almost all of Hameed’s family including his wife, son, daughter, sister-in-law, mother, aunt and father had died that day. Hameed himself had left the country for Thailand a few months ago, owing to security concerns. Now it was just the state and one Christian that pursued the case.
A few minutes after 9.00 am, a bus stopped in front of the gate and a group of around 50 people got off.
“Who are these people?” I asked the man leading the group.
“They are the nominated accused in the FIR of the Gojra incident,” he said.
The man I had spoken to was Rehmatullah, who belonged to the Jamaat-e-Islami and was providing legal support to these villagers.
When Rehmatullah came out of court he said, “The court has deferred the hearing for the next week due to a lack of witness accounts and has asked the state to present the witnesses next time.”
“We are innocent!” cried one of the men standing next to Rehmatullah. Maulana Kashmiri, who had also come out, nodded in agreement. “There are no witnesses because they know they are wrong,” he said. “We will get justice.”
“Do you know what happened at Gojra and Korian?” I asked him.
“Yes, I do, and even though none of us did it, the Christians still deserved it. They are blasphemers!” he shouted angrily. And a chorus of people echoed his words.
Among the believers
So whether it was the villagers, the educated masses or the politicians — the stance against blasphemy was the same.
I saw all these people come together under one umbrella the following week at a rally in Lahore organised by Islamist parties in support of the blasphemy law. The Jamaat-e-Islami representative Rehmatullah, who I had met outside the ATC in Faisalabad, was at the rally which was to begin from Nasir Bagh on Kachehri Road near the District courts and stop at the Punjab Assembly prominent leaders from the JUI-F, JI and JuD would address the crowd.
Islamist organisations were one of the biggest pressure groups in support of the blasphemy law and I could see how they managed their support. They backed these accused villagers and in return they got the street power they needed to shake the pillars of power. It was a win-win situation.
Rehmat-ullah got out of a bus in which he had brought a crowd of more than 150 people who were now marching towards the Kachehri Road.
The government had set up a loose security barrier that many were bypassing as we followed the group. The crowd was becoming larger and louder, shouting anti-government slogans, holding placards and party flags (including that of the banned Sipah-e-Sahaba’s). The rally was astonishing — there were people that carried posters of Mumtaz Qadri, the murderer of Salmaan Taseer with statements like ‘He is our hero’, and ‘Free Qadri’. Some people had placards with ‘Hang Aasia Bibi’ written on them. On Mall Road, a truck was painted with a photo-shopped full-size poster of Qadri sitting on a throne. His handcuffs had been digitally removed from the picture and two dead dogs lay in a puddle of blood at his feet. Two other dogs stood by, with Pope Benedict’s face photoshopped on their bodies. People were kissing Qadri’s feet while spitting on the dogs. A group of people carried effigies dressed as witches with the names of who they represented written on a placard. A man pointed at the effigies and shouted, ‘Meet Sherry Rehman and Fauzia Wahab.’
Sherry Rehman’s name had been changed to Sherry Satan. “She wants to bring a change in the blasphemy law. We will not let her,” shouted the man carrying her effigy. “She will end up like Salmaan Taseer!”
I had thought that the Islamists in Pakistan were politically motivated to pressurise the government and that the rally would be their show alone– but I had been wrong, mainstream political parties were at the rally as well. Outside the Punjab assembly, the rally was being addressed by the PML-N’s Khawaja Saad Rafiq and the ex-chief minister Punjab Chauhdry Pervez Elahi from the PML-Q. The Pakistan Tehreek-I-Insaaf had also sent its representative.
I asked Khawaja Saad Rafique if it was wise to mix politics and religion. “This is not politics; it is our duty as Muslims to defend Islam,” replied the parliamentarian before leaving in a convoy of jeeps.
“Islam will prevail no matter what,” screamed the loudspeakers around me as another political activist started to speak.
“Will it?” I thought to myself. And if so, which brand of Islam? With the hatred and bigotry I have witnessed in the past few weeks, I wondered what happened to the Islam of my childhood, the religion of peace, harmony and tolerance? How many more Taseers, Bhattis and Aasias will pay the price for our inability to tolerate the opinions and faiths of others?
Published in The Express Tribune, Sunday Magazine, March 13th, 2011.