Mobarak Haider, intellectual, author of three books on the roots of radicalisation in Muslim societies, and a frequent commentator on social networking sites, informed his friends on Facebook on August 10 that a blasphemy case had been filed against him by an individual unknown to him, accusing Haider of preaching Ahmadi beliefs to him.
Members of the Ahmadi community in Pakistan, who were declared non-Muslims through a constitutional amendment during Zulfikar Bhuto’s tenure in 1974, and further restricted from propagating their faith and performing religious rituals similar to those of Muslims through further legislation in the Zia era, have over the years been under constant threat from religious radicals.
Haider’s views on religious radicalism and orthodoxy were well known, and he had never abstained from expressing them. It was almost par for the course then that he would elicit anger in some quarters. How that anger would manifest itself, however, was justifiably serious cause for concern. In many instances, personal enmities, political vendettas, one-upmanship, and even momentary rage over trivial issues, have spurred accusations of blasphemy against individuals. And while some have been charged for the crime – irrespective of evidence to support these charges – and languish in prison, others have become victims of mob justice. In some instances this has resulted in death by often horrific means, like the burning alive of a pregnant woman and her husband – the parents of five children – in a kiln, to cite just one example. Haider thus, must understandably have been alarmed by the charge levelled against him, but he responded in a rather out-of-character way: he went on social media and stated that he had nothing to do with the Ahmadi faith. In fact, he said, he had always been a critic of the Ahmadia movement, in the same way he had opposed other forms of organised religious exploitation. Haider also expressed his firm belief in the finality of the Holy Prophet Mohammad (PBUH).
Many people were shocked by Haider’s reaction to the charges and the way he criticised the already persecuted Ahmadi community. Initially, it was thought that the charges against him were an attempt by Islamic extremists to endanger his life by framing him as a closet Ahmadi, as his views on religious extremism are well known. But individuals close to him maintain that the charges were levelled against Haider by his old adversaries who, ironically, belong to the Ahmadi sect, which could perhaps explain his avowed position in his rebuttal to the accusations against him.
As it turned out, the charges against Haider were not filed by religious radicals, and the case was dismissed by the court in the first hearing.
But the saga revealed once again how innocent people can be charged with blasphemy or links to the Ahmadi community and be exposed to serious danger.
Another case in point is the story of a Karachi Building Control Authority (KBCA) official, who was trying to demolish the encroachments made by the custodians of the powerful religious seminary, Jamia Binoria, SITE, Karachi, owned by Mufti Muhammad Naeem. When the official refused to relent to pressure and continued to proceed with the demolition plans, graffiti linking him to the Ahmadi community appeared overnight in the vicinity of the seminary. Finally, he was forced to retreat and even made to apologise for daring to undertake a task that infuriated the influential clergy.
Similarly, there is the case of the lecturer at the department of English in the Bahauddin Zakariya University, Multan. Junaid Hafeez is currently facing blasphemy charges filed against him for an alleged post he filed in a Facebook discussion group. Initially he was not even able to find a lawyer to defend him. When the human rights defender, Rashid Rehman, took on the task, he was threatened in the presence of the presiding judge and subsequently killed in his office.
Even those who merely spoke in support of the accused were not spared. When Shoaib Adil, editor of the Urdu periodical, Naya Zamana, published a story on the Junaid Hafeez case and the murder of his lawyer Rashid Rehman, he had to face outrage.
Religious radicals lodged an FIR against him and accused him of blasphemy for being the publisher of a book by a former Lahore High Court judge who belongs to the Ahmadi community. The book was published seven years ago, but Adil had to close his office and move to a safer place. Later he left the country. Now his magazine is confined to the online version, and no more print copies are out for sale.
Over the years, these cases and countless others have been widely covered and discussed, but recently another name was added to the list of those allegedly killed for their views – that of blogger, Aniqa Naz, a frequent commentator on Blogistan, an Urdu blog aggregator site. Naz also ran her own blog, Shokhiye Tehrir.
In a video statement released in May this year, posted on various jihadi propaganda sites, Asim Omar, the chief of Al-Qaeda, South Asia, claimed that his group’s affiliates were not only behind the Bangladesh assassinations, but also those of religious scholar and academic, Mohammad Shakil Auj of Karachi University, and Aniqa Naz, the Pakistani Urdu blogger known for her views on rights of women, her opposition to political Islamists, her criticism of religious extremism, and for challenging their activists in the Urdu blogsphere. Her last blog, just a few days before her death in October 2012, was about the attack on Malala Yousufzai by militants.
Asim Omar said that blasphemers have been taught a lesson in France, Denmark, Pakistan and now Bangladesh. He maintained that these individuals had been killed by the Al Qaeda’s Bangladesh affiliates on the orders of Al-Qaeda chief, Aiman al Zawahiri.
In a recent email to the Bangladeshi media, after the murder of the fourth blogger, Niloy Chatterjee (who wrote under the alias Niloy Neel), on Friday, August 7, at his apartment, Ansarul Islam, a militant group affiliated with the Al-Qaeda-South Asia issued the following statement: “We, Al-Qaeda in the Indian subcontinent, claim responsibility for this operation as vengeance for the honour of the messenger of Allah. We declare war against the enemies of Allah and His Messenger… we are coming [for] you … If your ‘Freedom of Speech’ maintains no limits, then widen your chests for ‘Freedom of our Machetes’.”
The news of Al-Qaeda’s involvement in Naz’s death was a matter of surprise for her family and friends who assumed she had died in a random traffic accident.
A family associate said, “Aniqa went to pick up Mashal, her daughter, from school; a car hit hers from the back. She wasn’t wearing a seatbelt and had a head injury. She was rushed to the hospital, but did not survive surgery.”
A friend of Amar Mahboob, Aniqa’s husband, adamantly refuted the claim made by Al-Qaeda, maintaining, “I am certain that Aniqa’s death was an accident. Amar, another friend and I closely examined the car and the accident scene and no evidence of foul play or sabotage were found. I have no doubt that the Al-Qaeda story is entirely false.”
That notwithstanding, her name appearing in an Al-Qaeda propaganda video is alarming for those who have been writing against religious radicals and challenging religious ideologies, particularly on the internet, where alternative media forums are flooded by the views of the extremist lobby and their propaganda.
Urdu blogsphere and online forums have more readers and visitors than those in English, but the majority of those who log in to these sites are people with conservative religious opinions, even some with radical views. This makes it unsafe for secularists and liberals, or even moderates to express views that do not conform with theirs.
“You cannot deny the importance of engaging in Urdu. It has a far wider outreach than English, which can only be read and understood by a limited audience,” says Ale Natiq, the founder of an Urdu blog going by the nameRoshni, which has a huge following on social networks. That is certainly unarguable. So creating material that would educate, inform and mould public opinion in the vernacular could prove highly beneficial in shaping hearts, minds and the national discourse. But time is of the essence.