When the outcome is as terrible as this, it seems almost unfair to the dead to begin their story not with their demise, but at the beginning. Especially when the beginning involves something as trivial as a Facebook post.
Sometime on Sunday, an image of a semi-nude woman atop a holy monument in Mecca materialized on the Facebook page of an 18-year-old man belonging to an Islamic religious minority, the Ahmadi.
News quickly filtered through the majority community, the New York Times reports. The marauders first numbered in the hundreds, but soon swelled to encompass about 1,000 members who looted, threw stones and set multiple houses ablaze in the eastern Pakistani city of Gujranwala.
The Facebook post, they said, was “blasphemous” — and someone was going to pay. But ultimately, it wouldn’t be the young man, Aqib Saleem, who was left unharmed in in the riots. It would be the women. It would be one Ahmadi grandmother. It would be her two Ahmadi granddaughters — one age 7, the other just 8 months old. They had been trapped inside one of the burning buildings and died there of smoke inhalation, according to the New York Times. And it would be the unborn child of another Ahmadi woman, who had been pregnant seven months and miscarried during the riots.
In a religiously intolerant Muslim country, where an accusation of blasphemy can ignite riots against religious minorities, it was unclear Tuesday morning whether the mob had its facts right. Observers suspected the teen’s password had been stolen and someone had surreptitiously planted the “blasphemous” picture.
“The people who were killed were not even indirectly accuse of blasphemy charges,” explained the chairman of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan in an interview with the Times. “Their only fault was that they were Ahmadis. Torching women and children in their house simply because of their faith represents brutalization and barbarianism stooping to new levels.”
But there’s nothing necessarily new about such “brutalization.” Accusations of blasphemy play a dark role in Pakistani society, abetted by a politically popular law that can prescribe death for insulting Islam. Often manipulated to suppress religious minorities and settle scores, human rights groups say accusations of blasphemy can lead to lengthy prison terms, a death sentence, and vigilante killings — regardless of evidence. Human Rights Watch reports that “thousands” have been charged under the blasphemy law since its implementation, and 18 people are on Pakistani death row for it.
Others, however, never make it to court.
“There is a fanaticism and intolerance in society, and such people never consider whether their accusation is right or wrong,” Rashid Rehman, an attorney who has defended those accused of blasphemy, told the BBC earlier this year. Rehman, who was shot dead at his office in May for apparently taking blasphemy cases, said it was like “walking into the jaws of death. … People kill for 50 rupees. So why should anyone hesitate to kill in a blasphemy case?”
Some will also not hesitate to kill to protect the blasphemy laws themselves, which General Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq passed in the 1980s in an effort to unify the country under one religious banner.
In 2010, an outspoken secular politician named Salman Taseer denounced blasphemy laws after one Christian woman was sentenced to death for allegedly insulting the Prophet Muhammad. “I was under huge pressure 2 cow down b4 rightest pressure on blasphemy,” he would later tweet. “Refused. Even I’m the last man standing.” In early January of 2011, his bodyguard pumped several bullets into Taseer in daylight at close range as he climbed out of his car, killing him. Afterward, his bodyguard explained he did it because of Taseer’s opposition to the blasphemy law. Days later, Prime Minister Yousaf Gilani reaffirmed his support of the blasphemy law and said there would be no changes to it.
In the years since, rights groups say, the number of blasphemy accusations have skyrocketed. According to Reuters, there was only one accusation of blasphemy in 2011, but in 2013, there were at least 68. Already this year, around 100 people have been accused of blasphemy.
In that time, a Christian neighborhood in Lahore in northeast Pakistan was attacked by a mob following an allegation of blasphemy, according to the Human Rights Commission in Pakistan. “Houses were set on fire and household goods looted and burnt,” the group reported. Then something strange happened that allegedly recurred again in Sunday’s tragedy. The police did nothing.
“Police admitted that it had failed to assess the gravity of the situation, but said that as a precautionary measure it had evacuated the locality,” the group said. “When the aggressive mob moved toward the police officials they had to take refuge. … With police running for their lives, the mob had an open field to create havoc.”
On Sunday, some residents said the police did little to quell the riots that would ultimately claim the lives of one woman and two girls. “A lot of policeman arrived but they stayed on the sidelines and didn’t intervene,” one resident told Reuters, but police dispute that. Police told the New York Times that they had registered cases against the 400 attackers, though it was unclear Tuesday morning what the next step would be.
“As things stand, even an accusation of blasphemy can mean prison, death or exile,” Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch, once said in a statement. “… Killers remain free while those engaged in peaceful expression are targeted by the state and extremists.”