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  1. The Staggers
6 March 2023

Why Britain’s blasphemy controversies are here to stay

In Wakefield, the state is confronting a problem it doesn’t know how to solve.

By Liam Duffy

One day in March 2016 Tanveer Ahmed got in his car and drove four hours from Bradford to Glasgow to stab a shopkeeper, Asad Shah, to death. When police arrived, Ahmed told them: “I respect what you do and have nothing against you.. I have broken the law.” Ahmed is sometimes described as an Islamist, but this doesn’t make much sense: Islamist extremists don’t tend to recognise man-made law, or go down without a fight.

It was an early symptom of an emerging trend that connects the murder to the Batley teacher forced into hiding for showing a cartoon of the Prophet Muhammad in a lesson, The Lady of Heaven being pulled from cinemas and, most recently, the Wakefield Quran scuffing – described as a “desecration” by some local people. These episodes are reverberations of a subculture emerging within Barelvi Islam in Pakistan, a subculture which has become increasingly animated by notions of honour and blasphemy. Blasphemy is a catch-all to describe various offences in Islam, but the one which most animates is the charge of insulting the Prophet – a charge punishable by death.

In Pakistan far-right political parties have emerged that are able to conjure huge crowds into the streets over blasphemy. Some even lionise Tanveer Ahmed, but they especially venerate Mumtaz Qadri, the bodyguard who murdered his assignment, the governor of Punjab, after he dared express support for Asia Bibi, a woman accused of blasphemy. The governor, Salman Taseer, never actually blasphemed himself, yet his death was celebrated and thousands rallied for his killer.

Ahmed, half the world away in Bradford, was a keen admirer of Qadri. Britain and Pakistan are intimately connected by TV stations, Facebook groups and forwarded WhatsApp messages that have helped to implant the blasphemy zeal in parts of the Pakistani diaspora here. This is not to mention visiting preachers, many of whom have expressed support for Qadri.

For the British state and civil society, this is tough to get a handle on. It involves languages, sectarianism and terminology most don’t understand, and it’s growing in Northern rugby league towns far from official consciousness. What’s more, the methods developed to tackle Islamist extremism do not apply here. “This is not only Islamism,” Rashad Ali, senior fellow at the Institute for Strategic Dialogue, a counterextremism think tank, told me. Indeed, British Barelvi Imams and scholars have proven invaluable partners in countering extremism over the years. But, as Ali explained, “some are indulging the blasphemy fervour emanating from Pakistan. And while a minority, it’s a more mainstream constituency than Islamist extremism.”

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Britain’s blasphemy incidents are catching authorities off guard, leaving teachers, mothers and cinema managers alone to face intimidating and disorientating campaigns. The first step in a coherent response is understanding that this is not Islamism and it is not something animating all Barelvis, much less all Muslims. It is a particular phenomenon with a fundamental supply and demand issue, making trivial and accidental “transgressions” such as the Wakefield incident more likely, especially when authorities acquiesce to complaints. This means blasphemy controversies are likely to continue, and with them the looming risk of violence and unrest.

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