- - Sunday, October 14, 2018

LAHORE, Pakistan — Those convicted of dishonoring the Prophet Muhammad or desecrating the Koran in Pakistan face the death penalty — one of the harshest punishments in the Islamic world.

But the harshness doesn’t stop at the South Asian’s country’s borders. Many Pakistanis, whose nation was birthed as a harbor and homeland for South Asia’s Muslim population, say they expect the same punishments to apply to non-Muslims abroad.

A diplomatic rift opened between Pakistan and The Netherlands after populist right-wing Dutch lawmaker Geert Wilders announced in June a Prophet Muhammad cartoon competition with a $10,000 prize. The contest, now canceled, was clearly designed to provoke Muslims, who rioted in the past after Muhammed caricatures appeared in foreign newspapers. About 200 people submitted cartoons before Mr. Wilders‘ November deadline. Others in the Muslim world expressed disapproval of the stunt, but the reaction was far sharper in Pakistan.

After news of Mr. Wilders‘ contest spread, demonstrators in Pakistan called to sever diplomatic ties with the Dutch government.

Leading the demonstrations was cleric Khadim Hussain Rizvi, whose far-right political party, Tehreek-e-Labbaik, aims to protect “the honor of the prophet.” Confident after garnering 2 million votes in the July parliamentary elections, Mr. Rizvi took to the streets and asked the government to launch a missile strike against the Netherlands.

“The only way to stop the release of blasphemous cartoons is through jihad,” Mr. Rizvi said at a rally at Data Darbar, a Sufi Muslim shrine in Lahore. “Pakistan should end diplomatic ties with Netherlands. We demand the government to launch Ghauri missile on Holland.”

His followers agreed. “Dutch are kafirs” — nonbelievers, said Muhammad Tayab, a public school teacher in Lahore. “They dared to humiliate our prophet. They should all be killed for hurting our religious sentiments.”

New Prime Minister Imran Khan condemned the contest but tried to calm angry constituents with a video statement saying people living in the West didn’t understand Muslims’ religious sensitivities.

Westerners “have their own way of looking at their religions, while we look at it in a very different way,” said Mr. Khan, adding that he would raise the issue at the U.N. General Assembly.

Along with India and the Kashmir dispute, blasphemy has long been the hot-button political issue domestically. The country is sharply divided over the case of a Christian mother of four who would be the first woman put to death under the country’s draconian blasphemy laws.

The Pakistani Supreme Court last week heard an appeal for mercy in the case of Asia Bibi, accused of making derogatory remarks about Islam after her Muslim neighbors complained about her drinking water from their glass. Global Christian groups have condemned the sentence, and a leading hard-line Islamist group warned of “terrible consequences” if the execution is not carried out.

In late August, Dutch police in The Hague arrested Junaid Iqbal Gujjar, a 26-year-old Pakistani who threatened to attack Mr. Wilders and the Dutch Parliament to stop the cartoon contest. In a Facebook video, he vowed to send the Dutch politician “to hell.”

“I am a true lover of prophet,” Mr. Gujjar said in the video, adding that he needs support and help from other Muslims to achieve his goal. “I have come here from France and will not return until I reach to the person who is conducting the competition.”

Mr. Wilders canceled the competition the next day.

The Pakistani government claimed victory. “The cancellation of the blasphemous contest is a great moral victory of Muslim [community],” said Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi.

But Mr. Wilders warned on Twitter, “Don’t claim victory too soon Pakistan government, I am not finished with you yet. I will expose your barbarism in many other ways.”

Uniquely aggressive

The episode reflects Pakistan’s unique — and uniquely aggressive — stance against perceived slights and blasphemy targeting the national religion.

In 2005, Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten published 12 satirical cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad. The same set of cartoons was reprinted in 2006 by some publications in the United States, the United Kingdom, France, Germany and several other European countries.

The reaction was violent in Egypt, Afghanistan and other Muslim-majority countries, but the fury was particularly intense in Pakistan, which was engulfed in protests.

Vandals looted storefronts of the Norwegian phone company Telenor, KFC fast-food restaurants and Western banks. Several people died in the violence. A Pakistani cleric, Maulana Yousaf Qureshi, announced a $1 million bounty and a car for anyone who killed the Danish cartoonists. Denmark closed its embassy because of security concerns.

Nearly 10 years later, French satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo printed cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad. Protests again broke out in Pakistan, with thousands thronging the streets, leading to clashes with police.

Many say the intense reaction is rooted in Pakistan’s history. The country was formed along with India in the breakup of colonial British rule, a partition that uprooted an estimated 14 million people and killed an estimated 1 million to 2 million people.

“Since independence from India in 1947, Pakistan has made religion, rather than a more inclusive, multicultural and more secular state narrative, it’s raison d’etre both at home and abroad,” said Farahnaz Ispahani, a fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington who specializes in Pakistan’s minorities.

Mr. Khan has used the blasphemy issue to improve his standing among voters, she said. Now he needs to follow through with his rhetoric and condemn anyone who appears to trespass against the rule.

“The present and past governments live entrapped by jihadi rhetoric and the Islamist mindset that believes the world would be better off cast in its image,” she said.

Critics accuse Pakistan’s political and religious establishment of stoking popular anger of perceived insults to Islam abroad.

Rabi Pirzada, a pop singer who was not even aware of Mr. Wilders‘ competition, tweeted that “freedom of expression can never justify blasphemy. We strongly protest against disrespect of our beloved prophet in France. The sketchmakers must be hanged immediately.”

A legal analyst at the Pakistan International Commission of Jurists, Reema Omer, noted that Christians and other religious minorities are most likely to run afoul of the country’s blasphemy laws.

She said the country’s supreme court and the National Commission for Human Rights raised concerns about the misapplication of the law but added that officials had done little to follow up with those worries.

“Change seems unlikely,” she said.

Mr. Khan’s support for the laws would only erode Pakistan’s standing abroad, she said.

“The current government’s pretense that its extremist positions will somehow bring the rest of the world round to its point of view will only isolate Pakistan further,” Ms. Ispahani said.


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