The Joseph Colony Fire: Blasphemy Laws in Pakistan Provide Cover for All Kinds of Grudges

By Osama Motiwala

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On the morning of March 9, a mob set fire to the Joseph Colony in Badami Bagh, a Christian neighborhood in Lahore, Pakistan. Television cameras captured crowds celebrating their arson that evening amid the smoldering destruction. A total of about 174 houses, 16 shops, and two churches burned to ground.

It all started the day before. Two friends, Sawan Mahsi, a Christian sanitation worker who lived in the neighborhood, and Shahid Imran, a Muslim barber who lived in another part of Lahore but worked in Joseph Colony, had a fight. Sawan and Imran were drinking buddies.

Initially, newspapers and TV channels reported that Sawan and Imran fought over a petty issue after a few drinks. During their argument, Imran claimed that Sawan blasphemed the Prophet Muhammad. That utterance supposedly set off the chaotic violence that left Joseph Colony in ashes.

But residents of the neighborhood who I spoke to tell a different story. Blasphemy, it turns out, can be a cover for all sorts of grudges, both interpersonal and political. Here's how another version of events account for the fire.

Sawan went to Imran’s shop for a shave. Afterward, he left without paying because they were friends. After a while, Imran went to Sawan’s house to collect the money owed to him. Sawan was in the shower, so his wife opened the door. It seems that Imran acted inappropriately with Sawan's wife. Sawan got out of the shower and confronted Imran when his wife told him what just went down. That was the spark that ignited the fire.

Later, Imran after being chewed out for feeling up his friend's wife, went to a nearby Muslim neighborhood, Shaikhabad, and told a local thug that a Christian blasphemed the Prophet Muhammad. He also visited factories and a mosque in the area and told everyone he could about the blasphemy he had supposedly witnessed.

A few hours later, more than 500 people tried to march into Joseph Colony but were stopped by police. Members of the crowd told the cops that they planned to kill everyone and set fire to the neighborhood. The police, rather than attempting to disperse the crowd, told the residents of Joseph Colony to leave their houses at once because “they won’t be responsible if anything happened.”

On Friday night, Sawan Mashi was handed over to the police by his own father. But having the supposed offender in custody didn’t diffuse the situation. By 11 PM, every Christian in the neighborhood had fled because of the threat by the roiling mob and the abdication of responsibility by the police.

The next morning, at around 10:30 AM, shit finally hit the fan. About two thousand people entered Joseph Colony, looted jewelry and other expensive household appliances, and started torching houses.

Nasreen, an old woman who lived with her family in Joseph Colony told me, “My house was set on fire. They looted the jewelry my daughter wore on her wedding day. Our Bibles were peed upon by the mob. Government is not helping us lodge complaints. Imran was the person who committed blasphemy, and it wasn’t the first time! Sawan started abusing too. I believe Sawan should be taken to the court, but that doesn’t mean it’s justified to drop charges against Imran. They should be treated equally!”

But here’s where the story gets even murkier. According to Rafaqat Chamma Masih, another resident of the neighborhood, authorities didn’t let the fire brigade enter the area until evening, well after all the houses in the colony were burned. “I’m pretty sure the Mafia is also involved in this incident. A few days ago, two residents were offered 500,000 rupees for their houses, but they refused. Joseph Colony is surrounded by iron industries, and they have been trying to buy property here for ages. I’m pretty sure they are involved. I personally believe Sawan didn’t even abuse anyone!”

According to the victims, the chemical used to accelerate the house fires was provided to the mob by the factories surrounding Joseph Colony. The mob also had batons and guns. Even when the police were present during some of the worst destruction on Saturday, no one tried stopping them. Were they afraid of the mob’s size or were the police told not to intervene? No one I talked to could answer that question directly. Police chiefs were fired after the incident, but their replacements don't seem inclined to investigate. When I talked to the head policeman of Joseph Colony, his response was, “I don’t know anything. I was posted after the incident.” 

What we do know is that Pakistan has the strictest antiblasphemy laws of any Muslim country. Those who dare speak against the severity of those laws face dire reprucussions. The former governor of Punjab was murdered by his own security personnel in early 2011, and Shahbaz Bhatti, the Federal Minister for Minority Affairs, was murdered in March of that year. Both spoke against the antiblasphemy laws of Pakistan.

Between 1986 and 2007, Pakistani authorities charged 647 people with blasphemy offences. Even though no judicial executions for blasphemy have ever taken place in Pakistan, vigilantes sometimes fill the void. About 20 people charged with blasphemy were murdered last year. The number of blasphemy charges has increased dramatically in recent years. About 627 blasphemy cases were registered from 2007 to 2010.

Official blasphemy charges not withstanding, incidents like the Joseph Colony tragedy typify how all manner of motives and nefarious machinations can be lumped under the charge of blasphemy.

Since the fire, aid to people whose houses were burned has increased. The Punjab government has taken the lead and student groups from local colleges and universities as well as individual volunteers have used social media to generate attention and organize donations towards the cause. As have NGOs and other relief organizations.

While the suspicion that the iron industries will annex the abandoned land has yet to be proven true, protection of religious minorities in Pakistan from persecution, especially when there’s a legalistic framework rife for misuse, is still a huge problem.

"This country has given us nothing. They destroy our churches, burn our Bibles, yet we can’t do anything. This country doesn’t respect us," said Parveen, 53, another resident who lost everything in the fire. The restrained rage in her voice as she listed the ways the state had spurned minorities like her was unsettling.

Blasphemy laws in Pakistan have been misused a lot. Many innocent people have lost their lives because of false accusations based on personal matters. But there is some hope: the provincial Sindh Assembly passed a resolution against the misuse of the blasphemy law on March 11. Whether this type of action results in fewer houses burnt or bodies buried remains to be seen.

@Osamaamotiwala

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