A Country Where Selling Books Is an Act of Terrorism

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Originally Published in The Huffington Post 

Imagine a local bookseller in the United States being arrested by the federal government in his own bookstore and being charged with a federal crime. His crime: the sale of books deemed hurtful or hateful to another religious group’s beliefs. His punishment: eight years in prison.

Any American would find this unbelievable and absurd for something like this to take place in the United States. And if it did, there would have been a huge outcry from every human rights, civil liberties, racial or religious justice group out there, not to mention the public outcry that would have followed.

But you would be right to assume that something like this did not happen here. It happened in Pakistan.

It happened in a quaint but remarkably populated place called Rabwah (original name) or Chenab Nagar (name changed and given by the government of Pakistan). This is an Ahmadi Muslim majority township and also managed by the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community of Pakistan.

The person I was referring to is Abul Shukoor and he is a member of my extended family. He is about 80 years of age and has a very distinguished look about himself due to his extremely meek and humble character. It is his character that most people know him for and he is famous amongst the Ahmadi Muslims throughout the world. He is referred to as “Shakoor bhai, chashme walay” in Urdu or “Brother Shakoor, the one with glasses” referring to his other business, an eyeglass store.

Brother Shukoor also has a bookstore that sells Islamic books, mostly published by the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community. He was charged under two charges 298-c and provision 8 under the Anti-Terrorism Act of 1997 of Pakistan.

The first charge is under a set of laws that Pakistan has called the blasphemy laws, and it specifically targets Ahmadi Muslims by name. Under this specific clause (298-c) Ahmadi Muslims cannot call or refer to themselves as Muslims in any way like reciting the Muslim’s call to prayer in public, say out loud a Muslim salutation (as-Salam-u-‘Alaikum), and call their houses of worship as mosques.

There are no words to describe how wrong the blasphemy laws are in any country. And Pakistan is the only Muslim country that has used them in its constitution to persecute a specific group and promote hatred against it. It began in 1974 when the government of Pakistan in conjunction with Muslim clerics decided to castigate Ahmadi Muslims as non-Muslims. Since then thousands of Ahmadi Muslims have been persecuted where their properties have been destroyed, unnecessarily imprisoned, and, according to the “Stop the Persecution” website, a total of approximately 266 killed for their beliefs.

The second charge is part of a law that was actually initiated, according to “The Rabwah Times“, to protect groups like the Ahmadi Muslims from sectarian hatred.

The usip.org special report titled, “An Appraisal of Pakistan’s Anti-Terrorism Act” stated that the law has a very broad application. In fact, 83% of the cases were under normal criminal categories. The words “heinous offense” within the description of the law allows for the acceptance for a wide variety of cases that the anti-terrorism courts in Pakistan have to then process. According to this same report the over application of this law is a big problem too and it amounted to about 15% of the cases that went back to normal courts. Lastly, the application of the law is most often driven by political leadership or police. In both cases there is considerable bias against Ahmadi Muslims.

Uncle Shukoor, as I would lovingly call him, is a graceful human being, who is not afraid to practice his religion openly and his only crime was to have complete freedom of conscience. I had the pleasure of getting to know him personally when he came to my wedding. I sensed a quite disposition about him with great resolve. In fact, Pakistan has committed an un-Islamic thing by arresting a gentleman like Uncle Shukoor by going against the teachings of Prophet Muhammad, contrary to what its Muslim clerics are telling them.

Denying an individual the basic right to be of whichever faith he chooses and to call himself a member of that faith is against the core of Islamic teachings. In the raid ofGhalib bin Abdullah al-Kalbi there was an incident with Prophet Muhammad where he severely rebuked one of his companions Usama bin Zayd because he killed a non-Muslim who called himself a Muslim before he died. The companion did it because he thought the non-Muslim was lying. But the Prophet was extremely angry at the action of his companion and vehemently denounced him. Pakistan should follow the guidance of Prophet Muhammad not the erroneous Muslim clerics.

The United States was built on the precept of freedom of religion and that the government will never intrude in people’s personal religious affairs. Our American identity is built upon our acceptance of freedom of conscience and people are free to believe in whatever they want and they can disseminate that information to whomever they want. And Islam champions this freedom of conscience for everyone, not just Muslims.

It is because of people like Uncle Shukoor and their sacrifice that a person like me is in the United States in the first place. My family was granted asylum in 1987 because of the persecution against Ahmadi Muslims in Pakistan.

Abul Shukoor’s case of persecution did not occur in the United States but our principles of freedom and humanity are far stronger than to just sit idly by in the background and do nothing. We can begin by speaking about his case to our respected congressional representatives so that they can work with the Ahmadiyya Muslim Caucus which works on the issue of religious repression of all religious minorities.

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