We've seen it before. Perhaps the most dramatic examples in recent history of that particular insanity prevalent in Islamism were the Danish cartoon "protests." Global riots, mayhem, and murder – because of some splotches of ink on paper.
Currently, false blasphemy accusations led to open season on Christians in Pakistan's Punjab Province. Korian, home to about 100 families, was destroyed on the night of July 30 because Islamists accused a Christian family of desecrating the Koran. Two days later, the same unfounded rumor resulted in three Christian women and a child being burned alive in the northeastern Punjab town of Gojra. At least ten others were also killed as Islamists set fire to houses and shops. Then on August 5 in Sheikhupura, a Christian factory owner and two others were killed by an enraged mob when workers accused their employer of desecrating the Koran.
Pakistan's blasphemy laws provide justification for atrocities such as these against the tiny Christian population, as well as against fellow Muslims. It is quite useful when involved in a property dispute to be able to accuse one's infidel opponent of blasphemy against Islam. Whether or not he is convicted, the accused may be killed by mobs. And those whose sentence is overturned have to flee the country anyway, leaving property behind. It is also easy to put an uppity Christian dhimmi in his place using the blasphemy law. In one such incident a few years ago, an incensed ice cream vendor accused a Christian of defaming Mohammed when he had the nerve to ask why he could not eat ice cream from the same bowl used by a Muslim.
Most people with a functioning moral compass may have the crazy notion that derogatory remarks or damage to a holy book is not sufficient cause for a death sentence. But even if the punishment did fit the crime, no Pakistani Christian in his or her right mind deliberately would utter or write an offending phrase. It is insane to believe that Christians are out there, all around, spouting blasphemies again Islam. But then, sanity has never been a strong point in these cases. That was made clear in 1995 when a 13 year old Christian boy named Salamat Masih was accused of writing insults against Mohammed on the wall of a mosque. He was still convicted and sentenced to death even when it was evident that he was completely illiterate. (Salamat Masih was acquitted by the High Court. One of the senior judges responsible for the acquittal was murdered by an Islamic extremist. Asma Jahangir was the boy's attorney.)
Korian was attacked four days after a clash between a Christian wedding and a Muslim funeral. Muslim mourners reportedly demanded that the Christians stop their music and the Christians refused and continued on with the wedding festivities. Following the custom, wedding guests tossed paper currency and coins into the air for children to catch.
The next day Muslims came to the home of the bride's parents to accuse the couple's sons of cutting pages from (you guessed it) the Koran to throw in the air along with paper currency! The couple, Talib and Muktar Masih, said no such thing had happened. Nevertheless, being used to dhimmi status, they offered to have their sons apologize for any perceived offense. But an eye-witness told Compass Direct News Service that this gracious gesture was not exactly accepted. The Muslims began to beat the Masihs until Talib was unconscious.
On Thursday, July 30, clerics announced from the village mosque that "if any infidel Christian wanted to save his or her life, then get out of here or they would be killed," the eye-witness said. The ensuing attack was carried out by a mob equipped with firearms and explosives. According to one witness, the mob first looted the homes and then "used trucks to break the walls and petrol to start the fires." Sixty houses and two churches were totally destroyed and all the livestock was stolen. Members of the mob also blockaded the road leading to the village, refusing entry to firefighters and police. The Christians who had fled hid in the fields until 3:00 A.M. the next day when relatives arrived with vehicles to take them to safety.
Two days later Islamist extremists used the same Koran desecration claim as the excuse to attack Gojra. This time three women and a child were burned alive in one of the houses that was set on fire. Ten other people were killed as well, including some who were shot when the armed militants opened fire on them shouting, "Kill the infidel Christians" and "Allahu Akbar." Again the extremist mob barred firefighters and ambulances, ensuring the agonizing death of those who had been burned in the fire. Christians' houses were totally destroyed but the adjacent houses of Muslims were spared.
Insane as these actions may be, there was method in the madness of the extremist mobs. The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan's (HRCP) fact-finding team that was sent to the site of the Islamist hate crime determined that the rioting "was not spontaneous but planned by the attackers, some of whom belong to an al-Qaeda-linked group." According to Associated Press, members of a banned Sunni group Sipah-e-Sahaba Pakistan and Al Qaeda-linked Lashkar-e-Jhangvi were arrested as suspected attackers. Pakistani intelligence reports speculated that the Islamist groups were changing their mode of terror from suicide bombs to widespread sectarian violence. And the Regional Police Officer told HRCP that many of the attackers had come from outside the district, possibly from Jhang, home to many radicals.
Asma Jahangir, the courageous and indomitable Muslim attorney who chairs the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, released a press statement about the HRCP's findings. Jahangir, who is also the U.N. Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion, reveals that Gojra administrative officials and police knew the attack was coming and did nothing to intervene. The HRCP reported that the day after Muslim clerics delivered a rousing sermon in which they beseeched the faithful to "make mincemeat of the Christians," as many as 1,000 people gathered and marched to Gojra's Christian enclave. There was a contingent of police in the neighborhood, but they did not try to stop the mob, which included a number of masked men. Witnesses told the HRCP that the attackers "seemed to be trained for carrying out such activities" and that they "torched over 40 houses of Christian families in less than half an hour." The only bright spot in this demonstration of evil was that some Muslims in the neighborhood helped Christians to escape the violence and provided shelter for them.
Police also did nothing to stop the killing of factory owner Najib Zafar in Sheikhupura on August 5, says the HRCP. When an outdated calendar containing Koranic verses fell off the wall, factory clerk Qasim Ali accused Najib, the owner of the Eastern Leather Factory Muridke, of desecrating the Koran. Qasim incited fellow workers and almost immediately the local mosque was calling on Muslims "to attack the factory owner and kill him." According to the HRCP, police arrived after Najib had been wounded. They attempted to protect him from the violent workers by hiding him in a storeroom. But they were unarmed, and when reinforcements from the mosque arrived, the police could not prevent them from entering the factory. HRCP says that "when the provoked villagers and the factory workers teamed up to storm the storeroom, the policemen looked the other way to save their own skin. The mob was free to beat the owner to death."
The HRCP reported that following the murder of Najib Zafar, "a widespread fear exists among factory owners in the region that the spread of such baseless rumours by unhappy factory workers against an owner may result in a replay of similar incident." So what is the solution? Should Christian employers eschew wall calendars in favor of desk-size planners? An Islamist with a grudge would still find a way to target them. Muslim extremists know however insane the charge they make, any accusation of blasphemy against Islam will be taken seriously by the clerics and judges who hold the power of life and death over the vulnerable Christian community. And they know that increasingly they are being taken seriously by those outside their Islamist enclave, as well.
Society frequently responds as if Islamists are excused from the conventions and norms observed by other people. Media reports on the attacks on Korian and Gojra depict the atrocities as "Christian-Muslim riots," as if the actions of the Islamists and any slight attempt by Christians to defend themselves from the Islamist attack are morally equivalent. And a recent Front Page Magazine article by Winfield Myers describes Yale University's refusal to print the Danish cartoons or any other illustrations depicting Mohammed in a book that is actually about the controversy sparked by the cartoons. The insanity seems to be spreading.
Faith J. H. McDonnell directs The Institute on Religion and Democracy's Religious Liberty Program and Church Alliance for a New Sudan, and is the author of Girl Soldier: A Story of Hope for Northern Uganda's Children (Chosen Books, 2007).