The abuse and killing of innocent Pakistanis because of the country’s ill-conceived blasphemy laws is something I am, as part of my work supporting persecuted Christians, confronted with on a regular basis. But the report of a mob dragging a man from a police station and setting him on fire because he had supposedly desecrated a Koran is staggering in its despicableness.
Like a pack of animals, a group of men broke into the police station in the Chani Ghoth area of Bahawalpur, in Punjab Province, and hauled Ghulam Abbas out on to the street, before dousing him in fuel and setting him alight. According to a report from the BBC World Service, crowds of people stood by and watched as Ghulam screamed for help.
Never mind the fact that Ghulam was reported to be mentally handicapped, nor the fact that he had only been accused of blasphemy – not found guilty – and that police had not even started their investigation into the allegation.
Even if Ghulam, a Muslim, had been found guilty of desecrating the Koran, he could not under Pakistani law have been sentenced to death, as the maximum sentence for this crime is life imprisonment.
This, I’m sorry to say, is the frightful reality for those who fall short of the lofty standards of righteousness imposed by extremists. Police may wear uniforms and courts may pass down their judgments, but let no one be in any doubt that when it comes to blasphemy, it is others who wield the power in this virtually lawless land.
Christians experienced this when extremists went on the rampage in Gojra in 2009 in full view of the police and burnt eight Christians to death, among them a child. The trigger was a blasphemy accusation.
While I am used to receiving calls from terrified Christians, what makes Ghulam’s case slightly more unusual is that he was a Muslim.
His brutal murder reveals the extent to which the blasphemy laws continue to be misused to harass and steal from innocent people. Most of the accusations are levelled against Christians, but Muslims are not immune and it takes brave men to exonerate the accused.
While that happens occasionally, more often than not the radicals start to heap pressure on to the police and on to the courts to uphold the blasphemy charges and imprison the accused – or even worse, sentence them to death.
Even when people are acquitted, they are not safe. They are released from prison only to enter a prison of another kind, forced into hiding because extremists are baying for their blood.
And behind it all are the radical preachers and imams, abusing their holy mosques and their loudspeakers, abusing the name of God and their own faith to call for hate and murder instead of love and forgiveness.
This is the world of mob justice, a world in which extremists deem the desecration of a book – albeit a holy book – an unforgivable crime but not the destruction of a human life made in the image of God. A world in which the criminals make politicians cower into looking the other way, while the innocent are locked up for years in miserable prison cells or brutally murdered while others stand by and watch, too afraid that they will share the same fate if they step in to help.
The murderous extremists have no respect for human life and no fear of the law because they have not been given any reason to. What is there to fear when, after the assassination of Salman Taseer and Shahbaz Bhatti, no politician will touch the blasphemy laws with a barge pole? Why fear when those who hound or kill people on the basis of blasphemy accusations are not made to feel the full force of the law for the “justice” they mete out to others?
It is interesting that July 5 – the day Ghulam Abbas was killed – was also the anniversary of the day that General Zia ul-Haq threw out Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto’s democratically elected government and imposed martial law. The general would later go on to impose a mandatory death sentence on insulting the Prophet Muhammad. The shadow his rule has cast over Pakistan is long and dark, and there is little sign of any will to break it among those with the power to do so.
The murder of Ghulam Abbas is one of the most horrific in recent years and yet there is only silence from the government and the authorities. Where are the statements of condemnation? Where are the public declarations vowing to catch the perpetrators and make them answer for their crimes? Where is the pledge from the government to review the blasphemy laws behind this and so many other callous and unjustified murders?
There should be no doubt after Ghulam Abbas’s death that extremists are taking things into their own hands in a way that should be stopped immediately. The laws of this land must be changed to end this lunacy.
The popular adage goes: “Where there is a will, there is a way.” But equally true is: where there is no will, there is no way. For now, the extremists and their “mob justice” are ruling the roost in Pakistan.