(RNS) — Mashal Naseem thought she knew pain two years ago, the day she received the news her father had been imprisoned on blasphemy charges after being lured to Pakistan, where such crimes of conscience have landed people on death row.
But late last month, she understood what true agony felt like. On July 29, her father, 57-year-old Tahir Ahmad Naseem, was killed in cold blood — in the very courtroom where he was being tried for claiming to be a prophet.
“I want people to know he had a family,” said his daughter, a 20-year-old student. She and her mother, sister and brother all live in the suburbs of Chicago. “He was somebody’s father, somebody’s uncle, somebody’s husband. He had the biggest heart I’ve ever seen. He was the kind of person I’ll probably never see again.”
These days, she finds herself dissociating, getting lost in memories of walking with her father in nature reserves until her feet gave out, discussing philosophy and God. She writes letters to him, plans for the funeral service her family hopes to hold soon — and prays no family faces this torment again.
“What’s frustrating is that this happened to an American citizen, someone who was supposed to be protected by America,” she told Religion News Service. Since her family’s ordeal began, she said, it has felt like they’ve been pushing for justice alone.
Now, she is fighting for the U.S. government to deliver justice for her father, whether by extraditing his confessed killer to the U.S for trial or issuing a forceful call for Pakistan to undo its blasphemy laws.
Crimes of conscience
On July 29, Tahir Ahmad Naseem was shot multiple times at close range in front of the judge hearing his case in a high-security district court in the northwest city of Peshawar. He died before he could be taken to the hospital.
The teenage gunman proclaimed he killed Naseem in defense of Islam, later saying that the Prophet Muhammad told him in a dream to “finish” Naseem.
Naseem, a Muslim and a former member of the deeply persecuted Ahmadi sect, had claimed that God appointed him Islam’s final prophet.
In the Peshawar village where he once lived, Naseem’s beliefs made him a pariah. After moving to the U.S. in 1978, he eventually began opening up about his beliefs on Facebook with a few teenage students at Jamiat-e-Muhammadia, a hard-line Pakistani madrassa institution.
The students then asked him to return to Pakistan in 2018, offering to hold an open religious debate. But it had been a trap, U.S. officials said in statements denouncing the killing.
One of the students immediately filed a police report against Naseem for insulting the Prophet Muhammad by claiming to be his successor.
“They lied,” Naseem’s daughter said. “They staged it, it was a whole set-up. They already made police calls beforehand and they were just looking to get him arrested.”
The Pakistani penal code’s recommended penalty for blaspheming against the prophet? Death, or life imprisonment — with preference given to the former.
Naseem was behind bars for two years before his trial began. His lawyers had recently told his family that he would likely win his case due to a lack of evidence, according to his daughter.
“He could claim to be God himself, and he still had the right to say what he wanted,” his daughter told RNS. “Does that mean that I’m going to agree with him? No, of course not. But still, I am going to support his freedom of speech and freedom of religion, just as I’ll support anybody.”
Contrary to media reports, his daughter said, Naseem was not schizophrenic and had not been diagnosed with any mental illness. After his mother died when he was a teen, he had been hospitalized several times due to severe depressive episodes.
In the decades since, he began turning to God. Eventually he told his daughter he was receiving messages directly from God. He told her he had been appointed a prophet, just like the founder of the Ahmadi sect he had left nearly two decades ago.
For many mainstream Muslims, believing in any prophet after the Prophet Muhammad is an insult to the khatm-e-nabuwwat, or finality of the prophethood. Mainstream Muslims, Sunni and Shiite alike, see Ahmadis as outside the fold of Islam. Some have even declared them wajib al-qatl, or mandatory to kill.
In virtually every segment of Pakistani society, Ahmadis are seen as blaspheming by their mere existence, said Farahnaz Ispahani, a former member of Pakistan’s Parliament now living in Washington.
The same goes for anyone else who, like Naseem, accepted the sect’s founder as a prophet.
Pakistan’s blasphemy laws are among the world’s harshest and disproportionately target religious minorities, experts say.
According to Pakistan’s Center for Social Justice, at least 1,472 people were charged under these provisions between 1987 and 2016.
In the Sunni-majority country, mere allegations of blasphemy have subjected people to death sentences or life in prison, particularly religious minorities such as Christians or minority Muslims such as Ahmadis and Shiites.
The laws have also ignited a vigilante fervor among many citizens, said Ispahani, author of “Purifying the Land of the Pure: Pakistan’s Religious Minorities.”
“The existence of these laws now has sunk deep into the consciousness of Pakistan’s citizens to the point where they feel they have the right to take action against anybody they feel may be blaspheming — that God will reward them for taking matters into their own hands,” Ispahani said.
The result has been deadly violence and extrajudicial killings, sometimes led by massive mobs.
Take Asia Bibi, a Christian woman sentenced to be hanged for allegedly insulting the Prophet Muhammad. Her family was forced into hiding due to death threats. Two high-level government officials, Minorities Minister Shahbaz Bhatti and Punjab Gov. Salman Taseer, were assassinated in 2011 for supporting her. Their killers were celebrated openly.
After Naseem’s killing, too, hashtags trended across the country in support of his confessed killer. Thousands rallied in Pakistan for the gunman’s release, saying he only did what the government was too slow to do. Every day, Naseem’s daughter fields dozens of death threats online, including many who hail her father’s killer as a hero.
“Pakistani blasphemy laws are draconian, but it’s no longer just the laws,” Ispahani said. “From the school curriculum to political and media discussions, religious intolerance has seeped into the very fabric of society in Pakistan today.”
The biggest target of this state-led discrimination and extrajudicial violence has been Pakistan’s beleaguered Ahmadi community.
In Pakistan, a constitutional amendment declares Ahmadis as legally non-Muslim. To “pose as Muslims” by referring to their mosques as mosques, voting as Muslims or referencing Islam on their gravestones is illegal; mobs, if not police themselves, often destroy gravestones with any Islamic prayers.
Since Naseem’s killing, at least three Ahmadi men across the country have been attacked, including a 61-year-old man who was shot dead last week in Peshawar.
“Ahmadis have not just been thrown out of the religion that they consider their own, but also thrown out of society, made complete pariahs and therefore targets of the most violent perpetrations of mob anger and vigilante action,” Ispahani said.
In 2014, a mob of up to 600 people killed an Ahmadi grandmother and two children and set fire to homes and shops belonging to Ahmadis, infuriated by an allegedly “blasphemous” Facebook post.
That same year, an Ahmadi cardiologist from Ohio who was volunteering in Pakistan was shot to death while visiting an Ahmadi cemetery.
A daughter’s fight
Now especially with their own countrymen being killed due to state-sanctioned religious intolerance in Pakistan, Americans can’t avoid action on Pakistan’s blasphemy laws, Mashal Naseem said.
About 47,000 people have signed a petition she created calling on the U.S. State Department and the United Nations to take action to imprison her father’s killer for life and reform Pakistan’s blasphemy laws.
The State Department and the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom have both called on Pakistan to reform its blasphemy laws in the wake of Naseem’s killing.
“Pakistan’s blasphemy laws are indefensible to begin with but it is outrageous beyond belief that the Pakistani government was incapable of keeping an individual from being murdered within a court of law for his faith, and a U.S. citizen, nonetheless,” said USCIRF Commissioner Johnnie Moore. The bipartisan organization urged the State Department to enact a binding agreement with the Pakistani government to repeal those laws.
“I want his killer to get the maximum punishment of life in prison for committing this act,” Mashal Naseem said. “And I want these laws to be completely eradicated. These laws are completely imaginary and subjective, and they’re just being used to persecute and hurt people.”
If those laws didn’t exist, she said, Pakistan could have more open debates and critical arguments — and she could have had countless years to continue walking through forests with her father, talking about God.