Shrine to Islamist murderer reveals Pakistan’s challenges in battle against extremism

Up to 200 followers were praying and enjoying free food at the shrine on Monday, many coming and going through police-manned entry points, with more expected ahead of a conference on Wednesday where clerics will make speeches about Mumtaz Qadri’s 'sacrifice'.

A portrait of Mumtaz Qadri, who was hanged last year for the murder of a governor who criticised Pakistan's blasphemy law, near a shrine to him that was built on the outskirts of Islamabad. Aamir Qureshi/AFP
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BARA KAHU, PAKISTAN // Pakistan has renewed its vow to root out extremism after a fresh wave of attacks, but a rose-covered shrine in Islamabad built by radicals to glorify an Islamist murderer sends a different message.

Followers of Mumtaz Qadri feted him as a hero at his tomb on Monday – the start of a three-day festival marking the anniversary of his hanging on February 29, 2016.

Qadri assassinated liberal Punjab governor Salman Taseer in 2011, angered by the politician’s reformist stance on Pakistan’s controversial blasphemy laws. The state’s decision to execute him provoked uproar among conservative Muslims.

“There could be 400,000 people,” Qadri’s father Malik Bashir Awan said this month as he supervised preparations for the commemoration from his plastic chair at the shrine.

Up to 200 followers were praying and enjoying free food at the shrine on Monday, many coming and going through police-manned entry points, with more expected ahead of a conference on Wednesday where clerics will make speeches about Qadri’s “sacrifice”.

Pakistan will also host a regional economic summit in Islamabad on Wednesday that will be attended by Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan, with high security expected.

Yet authorities appear unwilling to oppose the Qadri commemorations.

While the government showed unexpected determination by executing Qadri, his family say it did not prevent them from sanctifying him with the white marble tomb, adorned with four tapered minarets and a tiled green dome.

Each day dozens visit the shrine, built on a family plot bordering Islamabad but within the capital’s territory, to seek divine intervention and leave flowers.

The gestures glorifying the fundamentalist are a perverse echo of popular South Asian traditions venerating mystical, tolerant Sufi saints, many of whom helped spread Islam through the subcontinent.

Qadri’s family do not intend to stop there. His father hopes to build a madrassa, or religious school, on the site and donations are already pouring in.

The shrine is a glaring demonstration of how, despite military success in fighting insurgents, Pakistan has made little progress in tackling the underlying causes of extremism.

A military-led crackdown supported by the government’s vaunted national action plan led to a dramatic improvement in security since 2014. But critics have long argued the initiatives do not go far enough.

Then, a wave of apparently coordinated attacks over the last fortnight killed 130 people and shredded optimism. Analysts say there are “visible signs” militants are regrouping.

“It’s turmoil again,” said Asha’ar Rehman, the Lahore editor of leading daily Dawn.

For Arif Jamal, an expert on radical Islamism, the presence of the shrine bolsters beliefs that contribute to extremism.

“Even for a peaceful Pakistani, the mere existence of such a shrine convinces people that the killing of Salmaan Taseer was actually good,” he said. “It is a first step in radicalisation.”

But cleric Hanif Qureshi, whose fiery speeches helped inspire Qadri’s actions, was dismissive.

“One year has passed, nobody has killed anyone,” he said.

Observers are divided over the government’s inaction.

Saif-ul-Mulook, one of the prosecutors at Qadri’s trials, says the government’s will is “weak”.

“Knowingly paying homage to ... [a murderer who] has been judged a terrorist by the highest court in the constitution of Pakistan – what poorer moral standard can a society show?”

However, the cost of taking action could outweigh the dangers of allowing the memorial to flourish, said Zeeshan Salahuddin of the centre for research and security studies.

“If the government takes a step, goes after this shrine, there’s a very, very good chance there’s going to be anarchy in the streets,” he said.

The sanctuary’s existence also encourages supporters of the blasphemy laws, a hugely sensitive issue in Pakistan, where even unproven allegations can result in lynchings.

Critics – including the assassinated Taseer – have said the laws, which can carry the death penalty, are routinely abused to carry out personal vendettas.

Cleric Qureshi said Qadri is venerated for his defence of the Prophet.

“There is no debate, only very few people are against Qadri,” he insisted. “All Pakistanis love him.”

There are concerns that if Qadri’s family build their madrassa, they could train a new generation of religious fanatics, like at the influential and radical Red Mosque which has long operated in the heart of Islamabad.

Muhammad Noman, a 26-year-old visiting the tomb from Karachi, said he was inspired by Qadri.

“He sacrificed his life for our faith. May God give us opportunities like him to give our lives,” he said calmly.

* Agence France-Presse