Blasphemy row behind attempted murder of minister in Punjab
by Kamran Chaudhry

Ahsan Iqbal was operated twice and now his life is no longer in danger. The attacker is affiliated with Tehreek-i-Labaik Ya Rasool Allah, a radical Islamist party. For a Catholic professor, "Our own politicians have engaged in hate speech and now they are becoming its victims”.

Lahore (AsiaNews) – Pakistan's Christian leaders are calling for a reform of the political system after the attempted assassination of Interior Minister Ahsan Iqbal during an election rally in Narowal, Punjab.

The minister, who remains in critical but stable conditions, had just attended a meeting organised by the city’s Christian community, which celebrated Christmas together with the minister last year.

His attacker, Abid Hussain (picture 4), is a 21-year-old Islamic activist affiliated with the Tehreek-i-Labaik Ya Rasool Allah (TLYR), an extremist party. Last year, its members blocked the capital Islamabad over the issue of the lawmakers’ oath office to Muhammad.

The would-be assassin reportedly said that he shot the minister because the latter was in favour of dropping the profession of faith to the prophet of Islam. For radicals, such a change is blasphemous.

Mr Iqbal was transferred by helicopter to the Services Institute hospital in Lahore where he underwent two operations to his arm. His condition is said to be improving. However, doctors have not removed the bullet that entered Iqbal's abdomen

All of Pakistan’s political factions have condemned the attack. Punjab Chief Minister Shahbaz Sharif said that those involved “in this heinous act will be brought to justice".

Anjum James Paul, a Catholic professor, fears that other similar incidents may occur as the general elections on 15 July approaches. "Our own politicians have engaged in hate speech and now they are becoming its victims,” he told AsiaNews.

“No channel is saying anything about the attacker’s confession,” but “We desperately need tolerance, both in politics and in society. [A simple] Allegation of blasphemy justifies all [sorts of] wrongdoings. Nobody is safe."

Christians remember that last year violent pressure by Islamic demonstrators on the government of Nawaz Sharif led to the withdrawal of an amendment to the lawmakers’ oath of office. In March, the former prime minister himself was targeted by a radical who tried to hit him with his shoes who then jumped on the stage to pay tribute to Mumtaz Qadri, the murderer of Punjab governor Salman Taseer, who was killed because he had criticised the blasphemy law and defended Asia Bibi.

Samson Salamat, president of the Rwadari Tehreek (Movement for tolerance), has called on the government to take action against the TLYR party. "We demand the government reveal the real reasons behind the attempted murder of the minister,” he said.

“Sermons of hate and prejudice have reached the streets and communities. A society that hails people like Mumtaz Qadri as a hero is bound to be stained with blood. Such a situation was to be expected, since the authorities dropped all the proceedings against TLYR extremists.”

For Aamir Kakkazai, a writer and researcher, the "main culprits are the mullahs, to whom the government has given a free hand to incite ordinary Muslims. It is the responsibility of the government to control the religious clerics. Unfortunately, every time there are elections, attacks against politicians begin, and the latter cannot conduct their election campaign."

Hamza Arshad, a n educator and political analyst, believes that "there is a widespread sense of insecurity in the air. It has now been established that the attacker acted on a well-orchestrated blasphemy hype against members of the PLM-N [Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz)]. It is not about political issues.”

"Some parties use the religious card against their rivals. Religious leaders influence the public debate in the villages and towns of Punjab, where most of the inhabitants are young, semi-illiterate between the ages of 15 and 25, seething with religious rage."

(Shafique Khokhar contributed to this article)