Archbishop of Canterbury welcomes Islamic extremists

United Kingdom

Over many years Barnabas Aid has repeatedly raised concerns about the blasphemy laws in Pakistan, a part of shari’a that prescribes the death penalty for anyone deemed to have insulted Muhammad and is incorporated in Pakistan’s law as section 295c of the Penal Code.  Although both Muslims and Christians have suffered under this law – as claims of “insulting the prophet” are made to settle scores - Christians suffer particularly as shari’a only gives half the weight to a non-Muslim’s testimony as a Muslim’s. This makes it almost impossible for Christians to prove their innocence if a Muslim accuses them of blasphemy, which carries an automatic death penalty in Pakistan. Even if they are acquitted they will have to go into permanent hiding as Islamic vigilantes, incited by conservative clerics, seek to take the law into their own hands and carry out the penalty prescribed by shari’a, killing the person accused of blasphemy.

It is therefore deeply disturbing that some of these conservative Islamic clerics who incite this vigilante violence against Pakistani Christians and any politicians who stand up for them, have not only been granted visas for a preaching tour of UK mosques, but even been formally welcomed at Lambeth Palace by the Archbishop of Canterbury.

Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby
Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby
CC BY 2.0 by Foreign and Commonwealth Office

Two prominent Muslim clerics from Pakistan, Muhammad Naqib ur Rehman and his son Haseeb Ur Rehman, are currently undertaking a tour of UK mosques called “sacred journey” which lasts until 4th September. These are not ordinary clerics. They have a vast following in Pakistan where Muhammad Naqib is a leading supporter of Mumtaz Qadri, who was executed for assassinating Punjab governor Salman Taseer because he had stood up for Pakistan Christians in opposing the Islamic blasphemy law. Following Qadri’s execution these clerics whipped up vast crowds (see this YouTube video of Hassan Haseeb with Muhammad Naqib next to him), even describing Qadri as an “Islamic martyr”. The clerics’ influence has spread to the UK. As we reported in March, several prominent imams praised Qadri, with one Bradford imam flying to Pakistan to attend his funeral and one of the largest mosques in Birmingham, which holds 5,000 worshipers, conducting a wake in honour of Qadri.

The seriousness of the radicals’ reaction to Qadri’s execution was illustrated only too tragically when a Bradford taxi driver, inspired by the assassin’s actions, drove up to Glasgow to murder Ahmadiyya shopkeeper Asad Shah on 24th March the day on which Mr Shah posted a Facebook message saying “Good Friday and a very happy Easter to my beloved Christian country”.

Muhammad Naqib ur Rehman and Haseeb Ur Rehman arrived for their preaching tour only a week after the court case of Mr Shah’s killer had made national headlines. They appeared at a mosque in Glasgow on the very day that he was jailed. Very serious questions must therefore be asked why, in spite of this and their well-known history of stirring up violence against Christians and anyone else who opposed the blasphemy laws, they were nonetheless granted visas by the UK government and Muhammad Naqib was formally received at Lambeth Palace by the Archbishop of Canterbury.

The role of Lambeth palace and the archbishop raises particular questions, as the first duty of a bishop is to safeguard their flock.  Lambeth Palace said that the archbishop discussed with them "the narrative of extremism and terrorism" and interfaith relations. The Palace later put out a statement saying:  "The Archbishop of Canterbury was pleased to meet Shaykh Naqib ur Rehman, a leading Sufi Muslim leader from Pakistan, at Lambeth Palace yesterday. The Archbishop received a first-hand account of the situation in Pakistan, which is a highly significant country for faith relationships in the UK." 

Senior Christian leaders in Pakistan feel dismayed and betrayed. Instead of caring for his sheep, the Archbishop has instead chosen to sit down with the wolves; how could he not have been aware of the effect that his actions would have on Christians in Pakistan? This raises enormous questions. First, when the Pakistani Church has cruelly suffered under the blasphemy laws for thirty years, why did the archbishop meet to discuss “interfaith relations” with a man who is leading a crusade that is tantamount to inciting the murder of anyone who opposes the blasphemy laws? Did he, raise the case of the Christian woman Aasia Bibi, falsely accused of “blasphemy” and sentenced to death, whose appeal before Pakistan’s Supreme Court is due in October? Did he seek any assurance from Shaykh Rehman that he will not call for the death penalty she has received to be implemented? Or did he merely seek “good relations” with him? More specifically, why did the archbishop ask a prominent advocate of Christian persecution in Pakistan for “a first-hand account of the situation in Pakistan”, rather than seeking it from Pakistani Christian leaders? And did Lambeth Palace understand beforehand the prominent role these men had played in the campaign to honour as an Islamic “martyr” the murderer of Salman Taseer, one of few Muslim Pakistani politicians prepared to speak up for Christians against the blasphemy law? Such actions are a serious betrayal of Pakistani Christians who live in daily fear of their lives because of these laws.

The actions of both the government in granting visas and the archbishop in welcoming Naqib have been strongly criticised by governor Taseer’s son Shahbaz – who was recently released after being held in captivity for four years by Islamists who said:

“These people teach murder and hate. For me personally I find it sad that a country like England would allow cowards like these men in. The UK and US claim that they are leading the way in the war against terror [and] setting a standard. Why are they allowing people [in] that give fuel to the fire they are fighting against?

His brother, Shehryar added: "They supported and incited my father Salmaan Taseer's murder. The UK government should deport them and Pakistan should prosecute them for the incitement of violence under the Terrorism Act."

"I find it disrespectful that a man like this has been entertained by the Archbishop. My family has been on the front lines when it comes to inter-faith harmony and these people disrespect anyone and everyone who speaks about religious harmony."

So, why were they granted UK visas and why did the archbishop of Canterbury welcome them? The answer possibly lies in a combination of two facts. First, they did not appear on the UK government’s radar because they are leading Sufis. They are not Islamists, but conservative Muslims who follow traditional shari’a.

Secondly, and related to this, is the misguided belief that has frequently been propagated by senior public figures in the West that “violence is a perversion of Islam”. In reality throughout almost all of Islamic history there have been two broad streams of Islam, one that is primarily devotional and one that emphasises the enforcement of shari’a, if necessary by means of jihad. However, the two are not mutually exclusive. One cannot simply say that because someone is a Sufi then they follow a peaceful version of Islam. In the last two hundred years a number of jihads have been led by Sufi leaders. For example, in the early nineteenth century Syed Ahmad Shaheed Barelvi (1786–1831) a Sufi from South India toured what is now Pakistan calling for a jihad before eventually creating a theocratic Islamic state ruled by shari’a in the area around Peshawar.

Both government and Lambeth Palace need to understand clearly that the fact someone is a Sufi does not automatically mean they follow a peaceful version of Islam. Muhammad Naqib ur Rehman and Haseeb Ur Rehman have led a nationwide campaign in Pakistan praising the murderer of a Pakistani politician because he stood up for Christians such as Asia Bibi who are victims of Pakistan’s blasphemy laws. For men such as these to have even been granted visas for the UK let alone welcomed here is a serious betrayal of the UK’s heritage of supporting victims of religious persecution. Both the Home Office and Lambeth Palace need to take urgent action to ensure nothing like this ever happens again.