Blasphemy Misunderstood: The Perilous Consequences of Religious Misinterpretation in Pakistan


Lahore: (By Hannah Chowdhry and Juliet Chowdhry) An enraged mob of Muslim zealots gathered outside a shop in Ichra, Lahore, fueled by alleged accusations of blasphemy, with the intent to harm a woman.The woman had unknowingly worn a shirt with an Arabic word she purchased in Dubai, not realizing the risk it would pose to her life in Pakistan.

In Ichra Bazar, Lahore, on February 25th, a harrowing incident unfolded when a young Muslim couple narrowly escaped a violent mob’s wrath, including threats of lynching, after being accused of blasphemy. The mob, driven by religious zealotry, threatened the couple’s lives, with intentions to carry out their heinous act. Fortunately, the intervention of a courageous Christian burger seller averted a potential tragedy.  Sky News contacted the British Asian Christian Association and asked us to coordinate an interview with Asia Bibi.  They have permitted us to share the clip from the news here:

The tumultuous events transpired around 1:30 pm, as the couple joyfully exited the bazaar after a shopping excursion. Their happiness quickly turned to dread when they were abruptly accosted by Hafiz Muhammad Nadeem, a Muslim man. Nadeem fixated on the woman’s attire, specifically a designer kameez (shirt) emblazoned with the Arabic word “Halawa,” meaning sweetness, in vibrant colors. His interrogation regarding her clothing choice led to a tense exchange, escalating into allegations of blasphemy when Nadeem erroneously insisted the shirt bore Quranic verses.

Despite the woman’s tearful attempts to clarify the misunderstanding, Nadeem remained steadfast in his belief, demanding she remove her shirt and relinquish her modesty as penance for what he perceived as an insult to Islam. As the confrontation intensified, a mod of over 100 men, mainly comprised of onlookers and customers, converged around the couple, further fueling the fervor of accusations and hostility.

In a viral video circulating on social media, the voice of someone from the mob can be distinctly heard commenting: “Wearing such shirts is akin to mocking Islam.” Meanwhile, amidst the raging crowd, another individual directed their anger towards the woman, shouting, “Don’t sit there. There’s a verse written on it [the shirt]. Don’t disrespect it! Stand up!”

Recognizing the imminent danger, the couple sought refuge near an eatery owned by a brave Christian man named Tariq Johnson. With swift determination, Johnson ushered the couple into his establishment, securing the premises and contacting the police via the emergency helpline (15). Outside, the mob’s chants grew louder, clamoring for the couple’s punishment and the shop’s destruction.

Law enforcement, led by the Assistant Superintendent (ASP) from Gulberg Circle, Syeda Shehr Banu Naqvi, arrived within 15 minutes, diffusing the volatile situation and preventing further escalation. Their timely intervention spared the couple from potential harm and preserved the integrity of justice.

Later that evening, however, a video statement went viral featuring the accused woman alongside several Muslim clerics in the ASP’s office. In her interview, she expressed remorse for wearing the shirt with Arabic text, stating, “I went to Ichra Bazar. The shirt I wore was chosen for its design. I was unaware that the text could be mistaken for Arabic, specifically a verse from the Quran. I had no such intention. This misunderstanding occurred due to my lack of knowledge, and for that, I apologize. As a Muslim, I hold deep reverence for the Quran and Sunnah. I come from a devout Sunni family, and my father-in-law is a Hafiz-e-Quran. I want to emphasize that I had no ill intent; it was a mistake born out of ignorance. I sincerely apologize and assure you that such an incident will not happen again.”

The coerced apology extracted from the victim has raised serious concerns within the country. While the majority of people may have memorized the Quran verse by verse, the incident highlights a critical question: do they truly understand its teachings? Hundreds of individuals, consumed by religious fervor, tragically failed to comprehend the simple meaning of the word “Halawa,” and instead, they were prepared to take the life of an innocent woman without reason. Pakistan’s notorious blasphemy laws are infamous for their misuse, often wielded as a tool against individuals within the country. Minorities, including Christians and Hindus, have borne the brunt of its consequences.

Syeda Shehrbanu Naqvi, ASP (Deputy Superintendent of Police), arrived at the scene with remarkable courage, swiftly rescuing the woman from the clutches of the angry mob. Her valiant act earned her widespread praise, with commendations flowing from the Chief Minister of Punjab, Mariyam Nawaz, and an invitation to the office of Army Chief, Hafiz Muhammad Asim Munir, who personally lauded her gallantry and resolve.

Meanwhile, the unsung hero of the harrowing ordeal, Tariq Johnson, a young Christian, remained in the shadows until his story surfaced through an interview with an unknown blogger, which swiftly circulated across social media platforms. In his account, Johnson revealed the gravity of the situation, recounting how he sheltered the terrified couple inside his shop and secured the shutter until the authorities arrived.

During the interview, Johnson disclosed the chilling threats made by the alleged instigator, Muhammad Nadeem, who menacingly vowed to harm the woman, while another member of the agitated mob brandished a sharp knife with intent to inflict harm. Amidst the chaos, chants of “Beheading is the rightful punishment for blasphemy against the Prophet” echoed through the tumultuous crowd.

However, the mob turned its fury towards Johnson, branding him a derogatory term, “Chuhra,” for daring to intervene and save the lives of the innocent couple from their bloodthirsty wrath. Despite facing hostility, a groundswell of support emerged from diverse segments of the Muslim community, advocating for recognition of Johnson’s courageous act.

In a heartening turn of events, Johnson was summoned to the office of the Inspector General of Police in Lahore, where Dr. Usman Sarwar personally commended his bravery and selflessness. As a mark of honor, Johnson was appointed as the chief officer of Meesaq Centres established across Punjab, tasked with safeguarding the rights of minorities and fostering interfaith harmony.

Juliet Chowdhry, Trustee for British Asian Christian Association, said:

“The distressing incident of August 2023 in Jaranwala, where alleged blasphemy accusations against two brothers triggered an enraged mob, resulting in the destruction of several Christian colonies and the vandalism of approximately 30 churches, serves as a chilling reminder of the dangers posed by religious extremism and the perceived misuse of blasphemy laws in Pakistan (click here).”

This current horrifying event underscores the urgent need for reforms to safeguard religious minorities, uphold fundamental rights, and prevent further injustices.

“While the courageous actions of individuals like Tariq Johnson demonstrate the resilience of community solidarity in the face of adversity, systemic change is imperative to prevent such atrocities from recurring.”

The British Asian Christian Association is a dedicated group that advocates for and provides vital aid to persecuted Christians. We provided legal support and finance to Asia Bibi and her family which led to her release and safe asylum (click here). Your support is crucial in enabling us to continue our important work. You can contribute to our efforts by donating (here). Together, we can make a difference in the lives of those facing persecution for their faith. Thank you for your generosity and solidarity.

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