Hundreds of demonstrators had staged a sit-in that paralysed Islamabad for almost four days.
Islamabad, Pakistan – Two narrow minarets rise into the sky, flanking a deep green dome on top of a building nestled in rolling hills on the outskirts of Pakistan’s capital.
Inside, the walls are lined with inscriptions from the Quran and verses in praise of Islam’s Prophet Muhammad, whose mosque in the Saudi city of Medina the dome seeks to mimic. The ceiling is inlaid with an intricate mirror-work mosaic, a kaleidoscope of colours and shapes.
In the centre of the inner chamber lies a white marble grave. The stone around its edges is carved into a delicate latticework. The grave is covered with fresh roses, whose scent fill the room.
On the carpeted floor, visitors pay their respects. Some pray, others read from the Quran. In one corner, three young men quietly recite poems in praise of Prophet Muhammad.
The peaceful calm is eerily at odds with the act that brought them all here. For this is the grave of Mumtaz Qadri, a Pakistani police officer who, in 2011, fired 28 bullets into then-Punjab governor Salman Taseer over alleged blasphemy, killing him instantly.
‘From the people’
Qadri was hanged last year after being found guilty of the murder. His funeral was attended by tens of thousands, and now his family has used donations in his name to build this ornate shrine, with an accompanying mosque and seminary to follow.
“This is all from the common people,” says Aamir Qadri, Mumtaz’s older brother, gesturing to the still under-construction shrine. Aamir sits at a small plastic table at the entrance to the shrine, a well worn passbook for donations in front of him.
“We made this for him, it is his right as an aashiq-e-rasool [lover of the Prophet],” he says, adding that thousands of people visit each week.
So far construction has cost $67,000, all of it either donated by supporters or raised from the family’s savings. When the mosque and seminary are completed, in around two years, the total cost will be about $955,000, Aamir says.
“We will build as much as we can … We have put bricks, the next person will put marble. And the next person after that might put gold, others silver.”
Pakistan’s blasphemy laws have been on the books since before independence from the British in 1947, but they have seen increased use since the 1980s when they were strengthened by then-military dictator Zia-ul-Haq’s “Islamisation” campaign.
Today, those convicted of insulting the Prophet Muhammad face a mandatory death sentence. Other offences carry punishments ranging from fines to life imprisonment.
Currently, about 40 people are on death row or serving life sentences for blasphemy in Pakistan, according to the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom. Increasingly, however, right-wing vigilantes and mobs have taken the law into their own hands, killing at least 68 people over alleged blasphemy since 1990, according to an Al Jazeera tally.
Rights groups say blasphemy allegations have regularly been used to target minorities and to settle personal feuds or discredit people publicly.
Senate debate ‘a sin’
In late January, Pakistan’s Senate officially took up the issue of the law’s potential misuse for the first time in 24 years.
“Blasphemy is a very controversial law in Pakistan because people feel very strongly about it, and we naturally respect the sentiments of all people,” Nasreen Jalil, who heads the Senate Human Rights Committee, told Al Jazeera. “We should do something about the procedure … so that blasphemy allegations are not misused.”
While making it clear that the Senate was not discussing repealing the law, Jalil said one of the recommendations being reviewed was to amend procedure so that a senior police officer must conduct an inquiry before any blasphemy case is filed to rule out personally motivated allegations.
“We hope that the debate will be able to open people’s minds and do something good for the people,” she says.
Rights groups, however, suspect that such procedural changes would do little to lessen the number of cases of vigilante murder.
“I think it’s more a question of enforcement,” says Zohra Yusuf, chairwoman of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan. “When people are accused, the police tend to panic, and … they often then give them away to be handled by the mob,” she added, citing several cases where such violence resulted in the death of the accused before a legal case was ever filed.
“There is an urgent need for these laws to be amended. It’s like a sword hanging over everyone’s head. If you disagree with some religious point of view, then it’s very easy to accuse someone of blasphemy.”
London-based rights group Amnesty International says procedural changes must be backed by a strong statement of will by the government to take on those killing in the name of religion.
“A public message also has to be sent by the Pakistani government that they unreservedly condemn acts of violence, threats and intimidation purportedly justified in the name of religion, and ensure that effective steps are taken to prevent their recurrence,” Nadia Rahman Khan, Amnesty’s Pakistan campaigner, told Al Jazeera.
That political will, many say, has been lacking in recent years, particularly since Taseer’s murder. Two months after his killing, Shahbaz Bhatti, then federal minister for minority affairs and an ardent campaigner for reforming the blasphemy laws, was shot dead.
Sherry Rehman, a member of parliament who subsequently presented a bill to amend the laws that was abandoned by her party, continues to face blasphemy cases and threats in connection with her proposal.
“What happened [to Taseer and Bhatti] and the aftermath, the state should’ve set precedents and their failure to do so emboldened these actors,” says Shehrbano Taseer, Salman’s daughter. “There was a very palpable fear that spread in the country. People moved away. Everything changed overnight [and now] no one wants to touch the issue.”
Pakistan’s right-wing, meanwhile, remains adamant that the laws cannot be touched, unless it is to make them even stricter.
“Our parliament should, keeping these issues in mind, make the law so strong that any person about to blaspheme is too scared to do so, since the law is so strong that it will get him,” says Abdul Rasool, a leader of the Pakistan Sunni Tehreek party. Rasool says he believes Qadri’s act was justified, as police officers had refused to register a legal case against Taseer.
“There is no harm in debating [the law] to make it more effective. But to make it ineffective or to remove the death penalty, or to give room for any person who insults Islam, having that debate is a sin,” he declares.
Why all the violence?
This is one of the issues at the centre of the debate surrounding the laws: that even questioning them is considered blasphemy.
Qadri proclaimed that he killed Taseer for declaring the blasphemy law “a black law” while he campaigned for the release of Aasiya Noreen, a Pakistani Christian sentenced to hang after being convicted of blasphemy. Others who have been killed by vigilantes include lawyers for those accused of blasphemy, judges adjudicating cases, and even family members of those accused.
For Arsalan Khan, a cultural anthropologist who studies Islamic revivalist movements, the reason there are such high levels of violence surrounding the debate on the laws in Pakistan is because of a fractured social contract between the state and its people.
“The state’s legitimacy for [someone like] Qadri is its link to Islam,” he says. “The blasphemy law is crucial to this link between state sovereignty and Islam because it proscribes the defilement of the sacred symbols such as the Quran and the Prophet.
“It is precisely the link between Islam, law and state sovereignty that Qadri believes people like Salman Taseer are destroying … The elimination of Taseer and the fear that that would spread through other potential Taseers was conceived as a restorative act that re-links the Pakistani state with its Islamic roots.”
That argument seems to ring true with visitors to Qadri’s shrine.
“Why did the government not take action themselves [against Taseer]?” rails Talha Shahbaz, a garment trader who travelled more than 400km to visit the shrine. “Because he was a member of the government. Why did Mumtaz Qadri have to take this action himself?”
Others point to the conflict between strict interpretations of divine law and laws codified by a representative democracy.
“According to our Muslim law, [what Qadri did] is completely correct,” says Gul Zaman, 60, a visitor to the shrine. “It is obvious that shariah law supersedes a country’s law … This is our faith, that what our Prophet has taught us is the truth.”
There also appears to be a perception, Arsalan argues, that in a country such as Pakistan – where economic inequality is high and formal judicial processes are often inefficient – the ruling elite is disconnected from the concerns of regular citizens, and enforcing the borders of the debate on blasphemy – sometimes on pain of death – is a way of citizens fighting back.
“The sense of alienation comes also from being economically marginal. The base of Sunni Islamic movements is overwhelmingly, though not uniformly, working to middle class people and petit bourgeois merchants. This also feeds the sense that the elite and state are corrupt,” he says.
Or, as Shahbaz puts it: “Why were we forced to do this, why did the issue get to where it is … You can see how ‘justice’ is done here. The rich always get away with it. Everyone knows it.”
Meanwhile, a few metres away, an elderly woman ambles up to Aamer Qadri’s donation table to contribute Rs100 (about $1) for the cause.
“He is a lover of the Prophet,” she said when asked why she donated. “Can there be anything better than this?”
Asad Hashim is aljazeera.com’s correspondent in Pakistan. Follow him on Twitter: @AsadHashim