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Pakistan's Religious Right Mobilizes Anew to Defend Blasphemy Laws

Pakistani religious protesters march in the capital Islamabad on Wednesday, where tens of thousands demonstrated this past week. Their demands included government assurances that the country's strict blasphemy laws would not be eased. The protesters agreed to leave after saying they had received such promises.

A strange new shrine has appeared on the eastern edge of Islamabad, Pakistan's capital, amid the low hills that roll towards the Himalayan mountains.

Within a small gazebo, crowned by a green dome, there is a grave, decorated with silver tinsel and surrounded by flowers and richly patterned red carpets.

Inside lies the body of Mumtaz Qadri, a former policeman whose recent hanging for murder suddenly galvanized the mass forces of Pakistan's religious right into a fresh, potentially destabilizing, confrontation with the state.

People "come here to sing hymns, and to recite the Holy Quran and verses for the departed soul," said Raja Nafees Ahmed, Qadri's father-in-law, as a group of men sat cross-legged around the grave, praying quietly.

Big colorful banners bearing Qadri's picture flap in the warm breeze. These include images of the vast crowd — an estimated 30,000 plus — who turned out to honor the killer at his funeral a month ago.

Last Sunday, Qadri's supporters were on the streets again. What started as a chehlum remembrance — officially, the 40th day of mourning, though the organizers brought the date forward — turned into a mass march on Islamabad.

The police blocked the roads with giant shipping containers, yet this failed to prevent thousands of men from reaching the city center, including the high-security "red zone" containing the key institutions of government.

Some ran amok, wrecking a Metrobus station and torching vehicles. About 2,000 of them began a sit-in outside parliament. In an apparent effort to deter further unrest, the authorities shut down much of Islamabad's mobile phone network, to the annoyance of many of its 2 million or so residents.

For several days, the center of the capital echoed to the chant of "Mumtaz Qadri! Mumtaz Qadri! Symbol of courage and bravery! Mumtaz Qadri!" and "Mumtaz Qadri! Your lovers or devotees are numerous, numerous!"

Qadri was convicted under anti-terrorism laws because, in 2011, he shot dead the governor of Pakistan's Punjab province, a widely-admired progressive politician and businessman, Salmaan Taseer, for whom Qadri worked as a bodyguard. Qadri committed this crime because Taseer had spoken out against Pakistan's blasphemy laws, which carry the death penalty.

These laws have long been the source of deep concern to international rights organizations and others, not least because they are sometimes misused to settle feuds, grab land, or persecute religious minorities by making false allegations.

There was a worldwide outcry when a Christian woman, Asia Bibi, was sentenced to death in 2010 on the word of a co-worker. Bibi remains the only woman on Pakistan's death row over a blasphemy allegation — a charge she denies.

The men who took part in the sit-in outside parliament are Barelvi Muslims, a branch of Islam followed by a large proportion of Pakistan's 190 million people. Barelvis are often loosely characterized as "moderate" in their faith, which is entwined with Sufi mysticism and ancient South Asian folk practices.

They tend to view the rival Saudi Arabian-nurtured ultra-conservative Deobandi school as hardline.

Yet many Barelvis are not "moderate" on the issue of blasphemy laws.

"For this, we will sacrifice our lives, our parents and our wives and our children," said Mohammad Javed Iqbal, one of the protesters.

The sit-in was to press several demands, one of the organizers, Mohammed Younis Qadri, told NPR. They included assurances that there will be no change to Pakistan's blasphemy laws, and that Asia Bibi, the Christian woman, will be executed.

After lengthy negotiations with government officials, the protest came to an end on Wednesday. Attention is now focusing on what kind of deal might have been made to secure the departure of the 2,000 protesters. Until then, fearful of attracting official accusations of fanning extremism, Pakistan's media had greatly underplayed the story. But editorial writers weighed in, once it emerged that a deal may have been struck.

"Surrender by the state has never looked more tawdry and dismal," said an editorial Friday in the English-language Dawn newspaper. The paper reported that, according to protest leaders, Pakistan's government had "agreed not to review the blasphemy laws - thereby abandoning its legislative prerogative - and to review anti-terrorism watch lists - thereby giving up its executive prerogative."

The Express Tribune also struck a critical note: "In essence the protesters got what they wanted from a government too weak to effectively confront them and terrified of the national consequences if it did," said the editorial on Friday.

The issue is of particular concern to supporters of Asia Bibi. Her case "should be settled by the courts, not by mullahs," said Joseph Francis of the Centre for Legal Aid, Assistance and Settlement, who is campaigning for Bibi's conviction to be overturned.

Progressive Pakistanis have watched events unfold in Islamabad with considerable alarm. Talat Masood, a leading political commentator and retired general, described the Barelvis' protest as "fanaticism ... and misguided thinking."

He is troubled by the hero-worship of Mumtaz Qadri: "Instead of condemning him as a murderer and a militant, he has been turned into a semi-prophet, and his grave is like a monument."

Yet open discussion of the blasphemy laws will remain extremely difficult in Pakistan because of the deadly response it can draw from religious extremists.

"People are scared," said Masood. "They don't want to get into this. They think that it is for the state to take responsibility. But the state, for the same reason as individuals, tries to avoid it. I think the state, civil society, the media, the judiciary - everyone - has to play a role in order to try to reverse this."

Masood believes that means debating this issue "absolutely without fear." He adds: "The state must provide protection to those who speak openly, and who try to clarify what Islam stands for."

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