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Footprints: Mumtaz Qadri mosque, memorials to our misdeeds

Updated May 11, 2014

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Mumtaz Qadri - File
Mumtaz Qadri - File

I am inside the mosque. I walk back to the doorway and look out.

Awash with sunlight, there in the dusty lane a gang of labourers yell something like a work-song as they pass a bag of cement along a moving chain of men.

A peddler pushes his wooden-wheeled cart into the street, selling milky biscuits from a see-through plastic case.

One little boy sets up a narrow wooden plank on two concrete blocks — a play bridge — and tries to walk across. He is steady for a second. In the next, he is knocked over by the clamour of his own laughter.

I turn around and am back in the dark prayer hall of the mosque.

In the absence of windows, the sunlight outside barely finds its way in. Fluorescent bulbs hang from the high ceiling, lighting up the gold and red carpet and yellow walls embellished with the many names of Allah.

Garlands of plastic flowers and gold and green ribbons still adorn the walls of the prayer hall, the echoes of an inauguration ceremony from more than a year and a half ago.

The effect is unsettling, somehow. All I can think of is life outside. The laughing child. The chanting workers. The rows of narrow streets that frame a distant view of Rawalpindi. People walking up and down the alleys and roads, the sound of gravel and garbage crunching under their feet. The grey walls of houses and shops and mosques and schools tilting unevenly, looking ordinary and ominous at the same time.

It is only as I come out of the mosque and enter the everyday world around it that I fully understand what I have experienced.

This is not just any mosque — and there are many in Pakistan. This is the apotheosis of the moral ambiguities that arise in the shadow of crimes committed so often in this country in the name of blasphemy.

To some believers, the Jamia Masjid Mumtaz Qadri is a monument to a religious hero who killed a blasphemous governor who was supporting a blaspheming woman.

“My faith is not that strong,” says Ashfaque Sabri, who leads prayers at the mosque and oversaw its construction. “Otherwise I and every other Muslim would also do what Mumtaz Qadri did.”

Indeed, to some believers, this mosque — with its cream-coloured exterior and girders sticking out of the roof into the sky, waiting for another floor to be raised and more believers to be greeted — is a befitting compliment to a man who languishes in jail for doing what it is every believer’s duty to do.

For other believers, the 500 square metres of construction on the outskirts of Islamabad is a tribute to an unimaginably atrocious crime.

But standing in the doorway of the mosque and looking out — the dark halls commemorating Qadri behind me, glimpses of ordinary life in front — I feel disoriented, teetering on that elusive, almost indiscernible line that separates good from evil, guilt from innocence, death from life.

There is nothing to divide this monument to a killer from the city around it.

From where I stand, the sense of ambiguity — matters of ordinary living, a universe of terrifying vice — is enlarged.

It is not hard to imagine believers pouring in through the mosque’s door, children playing outside on a spring afternoon, peddlers selling their knick-knacks. They are all already there.

The threat of more deaths at the hands of protectors of the faith; those who deny a crime was committed and seek to justify murders — they exist in the same world as the one occupied by the laughing boy. And me.

As the peddler wheels away his cart and I get into my car, it becomes clear how ambiguous and undefined the parameters of guilt can sometimes be. They don’t just include killers and those who set them free or make mausoleums in their name. They also include those who look the other way, who continue with their work, who refuse to be involved, who refuse to protest, who allow it all to just go on.

This is true of the worker and the peddler and the bureaucrat and the terrorists and the prime minister. And it is true of me.

But then again, perhaps there is some wisdom in building memorials to our own misdeeds.

These concrete walls, the booming loudspeaker — they are also directed at people who have found the capacity to forget Salmaan Taseer, Aasia Bibi, Rimsha Masih and Rashid Rehman.

The quiet abstraction of the mosque — its bleak physical presence, its very existence — inextricably entangle the murder of our own heroes into our everyday existence so that we can never forget them.

Let’s never forget them.