A month ago, an 81-year-old Muslim bookseller in New York was caught with a copy of the Holy Quran. The FBI arrested him promptly, and just two days back, an anti-terrorism court in Washington DC sentenced him to eight years in prison with a hefty fine.
Christian leaders across the US are congratulating the government for protecting the soul of Christianity by punishing the Muslim blasphemer, and are urging the State to do more to restrict the Muslims.
Cursing the rise of Donald Trump?
Well, this didn't actually happen in America. Instead, it happened at home in Pakistan, and the target was not a Muslim (the majority), but a member of the Ahmadi community.
My friend’s aged grandfather, Mr. Abdul Shakoor, was arrested in Rabwah – along with his assistant – for selling Ahmadiyya literature to fellow Ahmadis.
Mr. Shakoor, affectionately known as Shakoor Bhai, is 81 years of age. I have met him numerous times and remember him as a very humble and affectionate man. His eight year sentence is an agonising thought.
Under Pakistan’s blasphemy laws, Ahmadis can be imprisoned for a myriad of reasons, from identifying a worship place as a mosque, identifying as Muslim, or distributing Ahmadiyya books, even if this means selling it to another fellow Ahmadi.
Also read: A guide to growing up Ahmadi in Pakistan
Imagine your elderly grandfather thrown in jail at this age merely for selling a book that someone else doesn't like, or doesn't agree with.
'He's always smiling'
Shakoor Bhai is no stranger to being harassed for his faith.
In 1974, his house and shop were ransacked in Sargodha by an anti-Ahmadi mob.
In 1985, a year into General Zia’s promulgation of the anti-Ahmadi laws, he was charged with blasphemy for profession of his faith.
In 1990, he was given a three-year prison sentence after a local cleric filed a complaint against him for wearing a ring that bore a Quranic inscription.
And just last year, Shukoor Bhai was harassed and had his store vandalised again by local police.
He is a living testament to perseverance in the face of persistent religious oppression. And still, you will always see him with a radiant smile on his face, without any bitterness for anyone, and patriotic to the core.
Like Shakoor Bhai, thousands of other Ahmadis have been arrested under the anti-Ahmadi laws in the past three decades.
Early last year, I wrote about Mr. Tahir Mehdi – a distant uncle and a publisher – who was imprisoned for publishing a Quranic verse in an Ahmadiyya publication. With his bail denied by the highest courts of the country, Uncle Mehdi still remains in a prison cell to this day.
The anti-Ahmadi laws are one of the worst examples of religious apartheid in this age. Sadly, they are fully endorsed by all religious clergy of Pakistan without exception. This is the same clergy that apparently hates Trump, only that he would appear a human rights activist in front of them.
And as Pakistanis, we are the same people who despise Trumpism, while actively or passively endorsing the enforcement of an even stricter version of his vision in our own country.
Shakoor Bhai’s harsh sentence has raised other questions, one of which is concern over Pakistan’s seriousness in the fight against extremism.
Heroes and garlands
Not even a month has passed since we marked the one-year anniversary of the Peshawar tragedy. The whole nation came together on December 16 to commemorate the innocent kids that we lost a year ago.
At that time, the government devised a National Action Plan (NAP) to check rising extremism and protect minority communities who have been a victim of rampant hate speech.
NAP was supposed to crack down on sectarian hate speech and literature in mosques and madrassas across the country. It was meant to honor our fallen angels.
For the last many decades, anti-Ahmadi hate speech has been accepted as norm in Pakistan. Stickers and signs denouncing the Ahmadis as traitors of Islam and Pakistan can be found plastered everywhere – on public buses, government schools, hospitals, streets, courts and mosques. Clerics openly call for further banishment of the Ahmadis, and even issue death threats.
Other Muslim sects also engage in hate speech against rival sects. The Shias have also been victim to hate speech and incitement to violence. The government finally recognised this open hate speech as a precursor to sectarian violence and introduced NAP to check its rise.
And what did NAP do?
It arrested Shakoor Bhai and charged him under provision 8 of the anti-terrorism act of Pakistan.
And what of hate speech against the Ahmadis?
It goes on unabated. It pains to note that extremist clerics like Maulana Abdul Aziz who openly incite hate and violence roam free in Pakistan.
Recently, a shopkeeper at Hafeez Center was arrested for actual hate speech. He put up signs saying, “Filthy qadianis (pejorative for Ahmadis) not allowed here.”
The following day, he was released after a huge protest erupted in Lahore with anti-Ahmadi slogans and banners taking over the whole Hafeez Center complex and the adjoining roads.
NAP was helpless as the anti-Ahmadi shopkeeper was garlanded a hero.
NAP was created to protect minorities from extremism, not impose it on them. But by surrendering to real hate speech and going after peaceful citizens on charges of alleged blasphemy, Pakistani authorities – and NAP – dishonor the trust of Peshawar’s fallen angels.