Earlier this month, I saw a story on the Anglican Communion News Service with this headline: “Pakistan Christian couple burned in kiln over debt, not blasphemy.” The thing is, the article doesn’t live up to the headline. I hesitate to say that the headline is false, but I do believe it is misleading. The article states that the murder of Shamma and Shehzad Bibi, which has made international news (NPR, NBC, Daily Mail, Christian Post), was investigated by the family. They discovered that a person who was owed money by the couple spread rumors that they had desecrated the Qur’an. It was these rumors which stoked the passions of the crowd that eventually beat the couple and burned them alive in a brick kiln.
Given the facts, it is technically correct to say they were burned alive because of their inability or refusal to repay a debt. Because of that, the person to whom they owed the debt spread rumors which resulted in their murders. Yet I believe it flies in the face of reality to deny that they were murdered because of blasphemy. They may never have committed blasphemy, but the crowd certainly believed that they did and acted in a way that seems unfortunately common for Pakistan and some other parts of the Muslim world. In other words, it really doesn’t make a difference one way or the other for the couple that they never actually desecrated the Qur’an, nor did it matter for the crowd. In the end, they died, not because they owed a debt and not because of anything they may or may not have done, but because the folks that killed them were stoked into a murderous frenzy. And while we might say that the holder of their debt stoked the flame, he didn’t start it. It’s a flame that is sadly, constantly, and frighteningly burning among the religiously fanatical, in a community filled with thousands of people whose souls are evidently prepared like dried kindling for it.
The reality is that the crowd who murdered this couple likely felt justified not only by religious fervor, but by the legal realities of their country. Crimes against those accused of blasphemy are rarely prosecuted, and the perpetrators even more rarely punished. Even in such an environment, however, conflict exists over Pakistan’s Blasphemy Laws. In 2011 Pakistani politician, Salmaan Taseer was assassinated by one of his own security guards because of his stance against Pakistan’s blasphemy law, which he referred to as “a black law.”
The rhetoric surrounding this case seems to have a different tone, in part because of the protests held in Lahore by many Christians against the murders (see Get Religion for a good collection of coverage). Forty or more of the perpetrators (of a reported mob of over a thousand) have been arrested, including one or more imams from local mosques who had condemned the couple.
In the face of all this, I admit that I still wonder about this headline. I and several others commented on ACNS’s Facebook page. My comment follows:
The article is a bit confusing, but it still seems as though blasphemy was the pretext for their murder, it is simply that the reported desecration never took place, and was reported out of spite in the hope that something like this may happen. I’m not sure how this makes it less repugnant, or the murderers less religiously motivated. Am I missing something?
Are they trying to point out that they did not actually desecrate the Qur’an out of fear that animosity may spill over and affect the rest of the Christian community? Either way, the folks who committed the crime seem to have been motivated by the belief that the Quran had been desecrated, not out of a desire to punish the couple for not repaying a debt.
So, given the body of the article, it seems like an accurate headline would read “Pakistan Christian couple burned in Kiln over mistaken belief that they had desecrated the Qur’an.”
Several other comments, both on ACNS’s Facebook post and at Episcopal News Service, echoed some of these concerns: that the headline and parts of the article seemed as though it was reaching for a way to absolve the murderers of guilt. My attempt at a fair reading is that there is a concern that not protesting the accusation of blasphemy could inspire other violence against the Christian community. But given that the Christian community has come out to vocally protest against the blasphemy law itself in the wake of this attack, why not emphasize a condemnation of such brutal behavior, regardless of the motivation?
The image above is of Shamma and Shehzad Bibi and is drawn from the ACNS reporting on the story.