Blasphemous Violence in Pakistan
Mob burns Christian village after allegations of desecrating a Koran, August 2009 and August 2023
It feels like every week, someplace I traveled during my years as a foreign/war correspondent makes news for the wrong reasons. Aside from the countries that are regularly in the news like Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria, in the last few months there have been everything ranging from clashes to coups in the Congo, Kosovo, and Khartoum.
Last week Pakistan was in the news for more than the ongoing political intrigue. Mobs attacked and burned two churches and ransacked a village in retribution for an alleged case of blasphemy.
The controversy erupted after torn pages of the Quran, the holy book for Muslims, were discovered near the Christian colony with alleged blasphemous content written on them.
The pages were taken to a local religious leader, who reportedly urged Muslims to protest and demand that the culprits be arrested.
The report continued:
Earlier this month, a teacher was killed in Turbat in the southern province of Balochistan after being accused of blasphemy during a lecture. In February this year, an angry mob snatched a suspect from his prison cell in the rural district of Nankana and lynched him for allegedly desecrating pages of the Quran.
This news story took me back to my trip to Pakistan in August 2009. I was reporting on the lack of religious freedom in the country and was planning to visit a village near Lahore that a month prior to my trip had been attacked by a mob in response to a blasphemy allegation.
However, unbeknownst to my fixer and me, during our drive from Islamabad to Lahore, a similar incident was taking place at another village, and the next morning, I was the first foreign journalist at the scene (unfortunately, this is all that’s left of my reporting as everything else has “aged” off the internet).
Distraught villagers stood among smoldering houses and smashed possessions as they explained that someone alleged a wedding procession tore up copies of a Koran to use as confetti. Officials investigated and dismissed the blasphemy allegation. However, villagers said a nearby mosque broadcast a message telling people to gather and deliver justice to the Christian community.
Here’s a quick excerpt from my book about this:
The streets were littered with smashed televisions and charred clothing. Destroyed houses smoldered. People dragged me through their houses to show me the devastation.
Walls were covered by thick black soot. Furniture was shattered and burnt. Dowries had been looted. Family photos lay under piles of ash and debris. The sun pierced through holes in burned out ceilings. Broken toys and dishes crunched under my feet. I stumbled across floors covered with bricks and tile from collapsed walls and ceilings. Smoke rose from piles of charred debris. The smell... I had never experienced anything like it. It was the smell of people’s entire lives—their possessions, their dignity, their sense of humanity—going up in smoke. It was sickening.
Pakistan’s blasphemy laws—which carry the death penalty—have long been a source of controversy. Islamist politicians I interviewed said blasphemy laws were important because Islam was under attack. I spoke with Shireen Mazari, who was spokesperson of the Movement for Justice political party and a political moderate.
We have blasphemy laws and they are—and can be, and have been—used for persecuting people. The uneducated mullah may fan up hatred. You have extremist mullahs in mosques, and therefore a lot of us are opposed to the blasphemy laws. They have been used to persecute people, they really have not been used in the spirit in which they should have been used, if they have to be used at all.
Unfortunately, in the 14 years since my reporting trip, little has changed. The laws continue to exist and individuals continue to take the law into their own hands. (To be fair, those two sentences could be written about gun violence in the United States.)
Again, from the Al Jazeera report:
Centre for Social Justice, an independent group advocating for the rights of minorities, has compiled data on blasphemy cases in Pakistan, which shows more than 2,000 people have been accused of blasphemy since 1987, and at least 88 people have been killed on these allegations.
As I mentioned earlier, the scene in Gojra was harrowing, and in my book I describe not only the situation, but also the process of covering the event. At the end of my radio story in 2009, I included a montage of villagers.
You can see the situation. We [unintelligible] our dead bodies outside the street, you go and you can see there…
Nobody give us justice, we haven’t any justice…
We are requesting you American please do something and help us. Please, please, please…
And save our lives, because we are not safe.
That was not the first time that someone I was interviewing asked me for help. Many times people plead for me to “deliver a message” to the local government or the U.S. government to help them. Sometimes they asked me for money or to have aid of some kind sent to them.
That is one of the difficult aspects of reporting on human suffering. How do you best “help” people and what is your responsibility to help people? There is also the journalistic drive to report a powerful and exclusive story, and it can be easy sometimes to prey upon the suffering for the sake of a more vivid story.
This dynamic is something I discuss in my book. Here’s another excerpt from the chapter about my trip to Pakistan and Gojra:
I was the only Western journalist there. I had the story to myself. I was trying to balance my responsibility as the conduit for the people there to voice their plight to the international community with my selfish desire to produce a story that could take my career to the next level. Fortunately, those two things weren’t necessarily in conflict—the better my story, the more it could help the people of Gojra, or if not them it could help prevent another Gojra, and it could help me advance my career.
That to me was the essence of the bargain of vulture journalism. Do right by the people on the ground, make the world aware of their situation so that governments, NGOs, the UN, whoever, would take action to address the underlying dynamics that led to their suffering. In the process, get recognized and rewarded for doing important work that makes a difference, a win-win.
Sadly, even the best reporting often fails to save people and drive change. I’m not saying that my story on religious freedom in Pakistan was the best reporting—although that program did win an award—but it clearly did not stop people from carrying out vigilante attacks in alleged cases of blasphemy.
Now, a pivot to another reporting location from my past making its way back into the news. In 2008, I visited the Ein el-Hilweh Palestinian refugee camp in Lebanon. In July, clashes broke out between Palestinian Fatah party members and Islamist groups in the camp, killing more than a dozen and threatening to spill over into the surrounding community.
The camp housing some 50,000 refugees struck me as a powder keg when I visited, and it clearly remains fragile and volatile.
Unfortunately, clashes in Lebanon are not uncommon, and I saw the aftermath of fresh clashes in the northern city of Tripoli during my 2008 visit.
Lebanon plays a major role in my book and is part of the origin story of how I ended up in conflict journalism. The original draft of the Lebanon chapter in my book contained a bunch of scenes I ended up cutting to tighten the narrative. In this and my next few posts, I am going to include scenes and reflections I deleted from the chapter.