BARAKAHO, Pakistan — The Pakistani capital was shut down and on high alert Wednesday because of a regional economic summit. English-language posters lined the road from the international airport, welcoming foreign leaders and their partnership in development projects the impoverished Islamic republic desperately needs.
But in this gritty suburb few miles away, posters of Koranic verses welcomed thousands of devotees to a shrine honoring a “hero of Islam.” His name was Mumtaz Qadri, and as a 26-year-old security guard in 2011, he shocked the nation by assassinating a provincial governor. He was convicted of murder and hanged in prison one year ago.
“What he did was for the love of our prophet. He was a peaceful man who did a great service for his faith,” said Basit Ali, 36, an accountant who traveled 250 miles for the anniversary of Qadri’s death. “We are not people of bombs and guns,” he explained. “But when someone insults our prophet, we cannot bear it. It is a matter of inexpressible emotions.”
The idolization of Qadri — a martyr to some Pakistani Muslims and a murderer to others — stems from his confession that he killed out of religious duty. Qadri believed that his boss, Punjab Gov. Salman Taseer, had blasphemed by calling for reforms in Pakistan’s harsh laws against insulting Islam or the prophet Muhammad, and by defending a Christian woman, Asia Bibi, after she was sent to prison for blasphemy.
On Wednesday, police secured much of the capital to prevent Qadri’s admirers from interfering with the regional summit. Streets were blocked off and schools were closed. Qadri devotees had planned to rally in a park in Rawalpindi City and make their way to the shrine 20 miles away, but the park was sealed and only a few thousand people managed to reach Barakaho.
Still, the coinciding economic and religious events seemed to starkly illustrate the deep divide that is pulling Pakistan in two directions: toward global outreach and political modernization, on the one hand, and toward religious fervor and radicalization on the other.
Pakistan’s government is often criticized for sheltering Islamist militias that attack Afghanistan and India, but at home its leaders also must contend with the intense devotion of its Sunni-majority population, whose views have increasingly hardened under the influence of fundamentalist clerics.
Authorities have periodically cracked down on violent Islamist groups, usually after high-profile terrorist attacks. Last month, a spate of deadly suicide bombings across the country prompted the army to mount a nationwide anti-terrorism operation.
But when it comes to sensitive matters of faith, the state has largely given in to the hard-liners. Under Pakistan’s harsh blasphemy laws, any perceived offense against the prophet Muhammad or Islam is punishable by death. Vigilante mobs often take matters into their own hands, and false blasphemy charges are often hurled at personal enemies or members of religious minorities.
Legislators have proposed numerous reforms to the blasphemy laws, but they have always been quashed amid opposition by religious party leaders. The state eventually convicted and executed Qadri, but it allowed thousands of devotees to parade his coffin aloft through the streets of Rawalpindi, reinforcing his growing stature as a cult figure.
“This is a visible sign of growing extremism in our society. If we eulogize the killers of innocent people, we wonder in what direction this country is going,” said Asma Jehangir, a human rights activist. Of Qadri’s followers, she said,“there is no difference between them and the Taliban. If the state doesn’t stop them, more and more people will take the law into their own hands and turn into heroes.”
At the green-domed hillside shrine to Qadri, officials kept order among several thousand devotees Wednesday. Many of his relatives were there, including his widow and young son. His elder brother Malik Qadri, a telecom technician, insisted that their movement opposes violence and that the government had executed Qadri only because of “foreign pressure.”
Some speakers, however, seemed to exult in Qadri’s violent example and renown. Among them was Allama Hanif Qureshi, a leader of the Barelvi sect of Sunni Islam.
“Today there are millions of Qadri lovers, and there are many children named after Qadri, but there are none named after Salman Taseer or the apostate Asia Bibi,” Qureshi said. “The government tried to stop the people from participating in this gathering, but they cannot stop us forever. We will not spare blasphemers.”
The adoration of Qadri has been a factor in the growing rivalry between the relatively mainstream Barelvis, who oppose armed militias, and the more radical Deobandi sect. With more than 175 million Sunni Muslims in Pakistan, the competition is fierce and Qadri’s martyrdom is a huge draw.
“I am here for the love of a great man,” said Zafar Iqbal, 38, a flower seller from Rawalpindi who was visiting the shrine. “The Koran is very clear that blasphemers are to be killed.”
The impact on Taseer’s family and legacy has been conflicted in a different way. Taseer was a wealthy, outspoken liberal, and his views on blasphemy were controversial. After he was shot 26 times by Qadri — his personal guard — while leaving a restaurant in Islamabad, the government proclaimed three days of national mourning.
But in an indication of how powerfully the issue of blasphemy reverberates in Pakistan, some Muslim clerics refused to lead his funeral prayers, and some courthouse lawyers expressed sympathy for his killer. Seven months later, one of Taseer’s sons was kidnapped by Islamist militants and held captive for nearly five years.
As for Asia Bibi, it has been seven years since the Christian field worker was convicted of blasphemy after arguing with Muslim co-workers who objected to her drinking water from the same bucket. She has remained in prison ever since, condemned to death despite international pleas for her release. She has been threatened with lynching if she ever leaves prison.
Hussain reported from Islamabad and Barakaho.