How Tanveer Ahmed (and others) exploit religious sentiment to justify murder

A video from an influential Pakistani hate preacher glorifying the actions of Tanveer Ahmed will likely be subject to police investigation.

In a five-minute video uploaded to YouTube, Khadim Hussain Rizvi, a Barelvi cleric, Pakistan’s largest grouping of Sunni Muslims, recounted Ahmed’s twisted account of the night he murdered Asad Shah. He confirmed that he had spoken with Ahmed from his prison cell in Glasgow’s Barlinnie Prison.

Tanveer Ahmed had tod Rizvi that: “We are not terrorists. We are the protectors of the Prophet’s honour. A terrorist kills the innocent people but a lover picks up the person who insults the prophet from the crowd and kills only him.”

His phraseology is a cause of concern. Not just for its threatening overtures. But in his unwavering belief that his actions were not in isolation. For Ahmed, he has continued the work of others who had murdered in ‘defence’ of, or out of ‘love’ for, the Prophet Muhammad. In Urdu, this terminology is known as Aashiq e Rasool.

According to Rizvi, Ahmed had told him: “I took a knife and went to his shop leaving the knife outside. Just the way Ghazi Ilm-ud-din had done. Ghazi Ilm-ud-din had kept his knife outside.” This statement had sent Rizvi’s audience into rapturous chants of “Glory to Allah”.

This statement invokes a folk hero who was hung in colonial India. Ilm-ud-din (d. 1929) was an illiterate young man who murdered Mahashay Rajpal, the Lahore-based publisher of Rangeela Rasool, a book many Muslims considered disrespectful towards the life of the Prophet Muhammad. Muhammad Ali Jinnah, who later founded the state of Pakistan, defended him. Yet he could not prevent the colonial court from passing the death sentence.

At 20-years-old, Ilm-ud-din’s actions became that of legend. Thousands attended his funeral – including Muhammad Iqbal, Pakistan’s leading poet. His eulogy to Ilm-ud-din proclaimed: “Asi wekhde reh gaye, aye Tarkhaana da munda baazi le gaya” (We kept sitting idle while this carpenter’s son took the lead). Popular culture has helped entrench his folk hero status. Even today, 87 years after his hanging, many still make the journey to his shrine. They attach the title of Ghazi to his name – a Muslim warrior who was victorious against the enemies of Islam.

The Facebook page Ghazi Ilam Din Shaheed, which has over 2,500 ‘likes’, shares videos of individuals visiting his shrine. Propaganda encourages individuals to share a picture of the ‘lover of the prophet’. It ends with the ominous threat that ‘disrespectful people will be punished’.

The murder of reformist politician Salman Taseer, by his bodyguard Mumtaz Qadri in 2011, invoked similar passions.

Khadim Hussain Rizvi had used the term ‘lover of the prophet’ when discussing Mumtaz Qadri’s conviction in 2015. He told the Guardian: “In 1929 we could not stop the execution of the lover of the prophet because the British were in power and Muslims were a minority“.

Many saw Qadri as a hero. Qadri claimed it was his religious duty to murder Taseer. Lawyers soon rushed to his defence. When asked why, one lawyer told the newspaper Dawn: “Ghazi Ilam Din, who killed a ‘blasphemer’, was represented by Quaid-i-Azam Mohammad Ali Jinnah.”

Mumtaz Qadri was hung for his crimes in February 2016. Qadri remains a folk hero to some. After the murder of Asad Shah, the BBC uncovered Tanveer Ahmed’s adoration for Qadri. Murdering Asad Shah had allowed him to mimic his idol. Propaganda from the religious right invokes the idea that Qadri and Ahmed are kindred spirits in their ‘defence’ of the prophet. Nor should it surprise anyone to learn that the Ghazi Ilam Din Shaheed Facebook page has shared images that venerate Tanveer Ahmed.

This toxic narrative predates the founding of Pakistan. It frames the despicable as something noble, granting individuals false authority over religious matters. A failure to challenge this narrative may inspire others to carry out similar crimes in the future.

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