Billa was his nickname. A poor, uneducated Christian boy who cleaned sewer lines, removed garbage and, on a good day, played cricket with us on the streets of Lahore. I fondly remember how he could hit the ball out of the park and make the team proud.
But life in Pakistan was rife with contradictions. In the afternoon, the team heard sermons narrating Muslim stories of equal treatment of non-Muslims and a few hours later, despite taking a bath, Billa would dare not to shake hands with us, let alone eat on the same dinner table. But thanks to cricket, we remained a team.
Not anymore. Three decades and more than 1,000 blasphemy cases later, the poor and uneducated Christians are under constant religious persecution in Pakistan. On March 9, a mob of more than 3,000 people vandalized Joseph Colony — a dilapidated Christian neighborhood in my birthplace of Lahore, Pakistan — when a Christian man was accused of blaspheming Prophet Muhammad. More than 150 houses were ransacked; two churches and many Bibles were set ablaze.
Don’t blame me. Harassing minorities in the pretense of blasphemy accusations is not my version of Islam. Maybe that’s why Pakistan’s constitution does not consider Ahmadi Muslims to be “real” Muslims. But Scripture tells us that it’s not Prophet Muhammad’s version of Islam either. So the question becomes: whose Islam is it anyway?
I don’t know but this cannot be the Islam of Prophet Muhammad, who actually warned us to repel such mobs through the message, “If Allah did not repel some men by means of others, there would surely have been pulled down cloisters and churches and synagogues” (22:41). When the self-appointed custodians of Islam were actually burning two small churches, where were the “real” Muslims?
This cannot be the Islam of Prophet Muhammad, who offered his own mosque to a Christian convoy from the tribe of Najran when it was time for their prayers. Will these “real” Muslims, who are shameless enough to share an alcoholic drink — declared unlawful by Prophet Muhammad — with a Christian friend, also share their mosques with them?
This cannot be the Islam of Prophet Muhammad, who took a covenant from the seventh century Muslims to protect the properties and freedoms of the monks of Egypt’s Saint Catherine’s Monastery in specific, and Christians “far and near,” in general. Even today, the copy of the original letter is available in Saint Catherine’s library. How can blasphemy laws, which enable “real” Muslims to masquerade their personal vendettas as religious fervor, protect the honor of our Prophet?
The reality is inescapable. Pakistan doesn’t practice Islam; it practices pandering. By making arrests and offering compensations it panders to the West, and by keeping blasphemy laws on the books it panders to the rest.
Shouldn’t these Muslims, who burned Bibles in the above incidence, be arrested under blasphemy laws? Don’t Muslims consider the Bible to be the teaching of Jesus? I could not have lived with such brazen contradictions. Thank God, 15 years ago, I packed up all my conflicted memories and started a new life in America.
So deeply embedded was Billa in my consciousness that for the first few months after immigrating to America, I imagined every janitor in my hospital was Billa in disguise. I felt compelled to shake their hands. We broke bread and built bridges of interfaith equality. Call it my way of honoring my Prophet.
For my community, the Ahmadiyya Muslims, is tormented when the Prophet is blasphemed. But we don’t shatter street lights in protest; instead, we enlighten communities by holding interfaith seminars. More than 70 such programs, titled “Muhammad — The Messenger of Peace,” are being held across America during March 2013, reaching millions of people through rational discourse.
I doubt Billa can or will read my words; I believe he does not even need my words. He must be hoping for his team members to repel future mob attacks by repealing blasphemy laws.
So here is my call to Team Muhammad: Why not all American Muslim organizations, despite our theological differences, take an unequivocal stand to repeal blasphemy laws? Let’s not hide behind soft condemnations or hard silence.
Now it’s our turn to hit the ball out of the park. Now it’s our turn to make our Prophet proud by upholding his covenant of protection for Christians, far and near.