The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The mob killing of a factory manager in Pakistan comes amid surge in anti-blasphemy violence

This religious crusade is rapidly gaining popular support and could threaten the country’s stability

An expression of condolences in Karachi, Pakistan, on Dec. 5, after the lynching of the Sri Lankan manager of a garment factory in the city of Sialkot on Dec. 3. (Akhtar Soomro/Reuters)

SIALKOT, Pakistan — Priantha Kumara, the longtime Sri Lankan manager of a sportswear factory in this gritty industrial city, was known as a “strict administrator,” according to police. Workers complained that he forced them to stay past their shifts to meet export orders. He was also a foreigner and a Christian, while the 2,000-plus employees were mostly young Muslim men.

On the morning of Dec. 3, the resentments at Rajco Industries exploded into mob violence. Word spread across the factory that Kumara, preparing to repaint the walls for a visiting delegation, had taken down some religious posters that praised the prophet Muhammad and tossed them in the trash — thus committing an act of blasphemy.

Enraged by rumors of Kumara’s offense, several hundred workers chased him onto the factory roof and then dragged him into the yard, where they beat, stoned and kicked him to death, then set his crumpled corpse on fire.

The grisly incident highlighted a dangerous streak of radicalization that is spreading among ordinary, lower-income and nonmilitant Muslims, according to observers in Pakistan. Some say this trend is a greater threat to Pakistan’s stability than the armed, pro-Taliban militias that have been challenging state security forces for years. Unlike the militants’ agenda, the anti-blasphemy cause enjoys wide support in this majority-Muslim nation of 220 million.

Amid the chaotic attack in Sialkot, security cameras and television news videos recorded workers taking selfies and chanting religious slogans. “We told the foreman what [Kumara] had done, but he ran away. Then we all rushed to find the manager, and we sent him to hell,” one young worker, flushed with righteous bravado, explained to several TV crews that arrived before he was arrested. Other workers crowded around, and several shouted, “I am here in the service of the Prophet,” the slogan of a radical Muslim movement.

The killing shocked the country, drawing swift condemnation from political, civic and religious leaders of all stripes. Prime Minister Imran Khan denounced the “horrific vigilante attack” and said it had brought a “day of shame” to Pakistan.

Khan vowed that the perpetrators would be punished “with full severity of the law,” and he publicly awarded a certificate “for courage and valor” to a junior factory manager who had tried to hold back the mob. The government sent Kumara’s remains home to Colombo with full state honors, and officials from Sri Lanka — one of Pakistan’s few regional allies and a major economic partner — expressed confidence that Pakistani authorities would do justice in his death.

Sialkot police, who had been slow to reach the factory and were criticized for failing to stop the attackers, launched investigations with the help of several other police agencies, using security videos to identify attackers. In the past two weeks, more than 100 suspects have been arrested, all young men who worked at Rajco, and a smaller number are being held for prosecution in anti-terrorism courts.

“The fury of the attackers was frightening. Some of them might be punished, but it is the impunity for rising religiously inspired violent extremism that will keep producing tragedies like Sialkot,” columnist Zahid Hussain wrote in Dawn newspaper. The “weaponization of faith” is the main reason for the spread of such brutality in society, he wrote, adding that the state’s “policy of appeasement” has made it worse.

In the past decade, millions of Pakistanis have been caught up in the religious fervor of an anti-blasphemy campaign, launched after a liberal politician named Salman Taseer was assassinated by his own bodyguard for his denunciation of the harsh legal punishment of a Christian peasant woman accused of blasphemy.

The anti-blasphemy group built a cult around the bodyguard, Mumtaz Qadri. After he was hanged for murder in 2016, they declared him a martyr for Islam, built a shrine near the capital, Islamabad, and formed a new political party, Tehrik-e-Labbaik Pakistan. Since then, Labbaik’s leaders have staged increasingly large, aggressive protests across the country and rapidly gained electoral support.

First, in 2017, these party leaders challenged a change in election laws that weakened requirements for candidates to declare their faith. After protesters blocked a major highway for weeks, the government, then led by Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, backed off and made peace with Labbaik leaders. In 2019, the group staged protests when Asia Bibi, the woman championed by Taseer, was freed after 10 years on death row and allowed to flee to the West.

In 2020, Labbaik supporters again occupied highways and bridges, this time protesting the publication of anti-Muslim cartoons in France and demanding that the French ambassador to Pakistan be expelled. The disruption continued until last month, when the Khan government finally agreed to drop Labbaik’s leader, Saad Rizvi, from a terrorism watch list and released him from prison.

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Labbaik’s leaders have repeatedly declared that they do not condone violence, yet they also preach that blasphemers deserve to die, and their crusade has inspired incidents of murder and arson. At a college campus in northwest Pakistan, a secular student was accused of blasphemy and beaten to death by classmates in 2017. A few days before the Sialkot attack, a mob burned down a police station in the northwest after officials refused to hand over a prisoner accused of blasphemy.

In an interview this week at an Islamic seminary in the city of Rawalpindi, Syed Enayatul Haq Shah, a senior official of Labbaik, asserted that the group had “nothing to do” with the mob attack in Sialkot, which he attributed to the natural outrage of Muslims when they believe the prophet Muhammad has been insulted. The group’s name translates as “Here in the Service of the Prophet.”

“We have always been peaceful, and we never preach violence,” Shah said. “To a Muslim, the biggest crime in the world is insulting the Prophet, but it is up to the state to take action. Instead, people see the judicial system failing to act in these cases. They see the government under pressure from Western liberal forces to change the law. They cannot bear it, and sometimes they take the law into their own hands.”

Pakistan’s anti-blasphemy law is harsh, calling for death when the case has been proved. People can spend years in prison on mere accusations of insulting Islam, such as making a joke or dropping a Koran. The law is also misused to target Christians and other minorities, especially from the Ahmadi sect, in cases of personal or community grudges.

A top religious adviser to the government, Allama Hafiz Tahir Ashrafi, said officials have been encouraged by the broad array of groups that condemned the Sialkot attack, including Labbaik. He said that he and others are working to counter anti-blasphemy radicalism through dialogue but that Islamic fervor has taken deep root in Pakistan and will be difficult to counter.

“This is not the product of one day. It is a disease that has grown during 40 years,” said Ashrafi, the prime minister’s special representative on religious harmony. “There is so much ignorance and unemployment. People take advantage of it.” But he also said the West should not press Pakistan too hard on the blasphemy issue because that will backfire. “It will take time, but we can put our own house in order,” he said.

This week in Sialkot, near Pakistan’s southern border with India, the streets were crammed with noisy motorbikes and cargo trucks, and talk about the attack had died down. The Rajco factory was closed and under guard, but dozens of other garment and small manufacturing plants — a mainstay of Pakistan’s modest export economy — were operating normally.

People from all walks of life expressed horror and condemnation over the attack on Kumara, a bespectacled man in his 50s who had managed the plant for more than a decade. Some had heard conflicting versions of what sparked the workers to violence and were not sure whether the foreign manager realized he was stripping sensitive Islamic sayings off the walls.

“This was a very wrong thing, to kill and burn a man in such a cruel way,” said Arshad Arif, 60, a retired textile factory worker who was sitting in the sun with some friends. No matter what alleged abuse triggered the workers’ violent wrath, he said, “It was especially wrong if it was done in the name of God.”

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